The #churchtoo posts on Twitter are accurate accounts of how sexual abuse gets perpetrated and then ignored at church. I believe them. I have been confronting abuse for decades — as have many pastors.
I am not impressed with the expressions of shock on Twitter and elsewhere. No evangelical should be shocked. To be sure, the outpouring of anger and the pervasiveness of abuses make for difficult reading. But these things have been known. That’s the whole problem.
Here’s what to expect when you confront sexual abuse as a male pastor.
You are confronting your own darkness.
Every young pastor struggles with how his behavior affects the people in his ministry. I struggled, and it was good for me. I cannot behave in a dismissive way toward women. I cannot stare at women. I cannot foster an ego-feeding emotional attachment that betrays a woman’s trust when she confides in me. I cannot impose a hug when it is not wanted and I cannot withhold a hug when it is needed. I am their pastor. I have obligations to them.
Early on, I was confronted for a movie that I rented. Gently confronted. It was a foreign film, of a kind that my wife and I often watched. The older man who confronted me understood that. I could have protested that our “artistic tastes” were misunderstood, or that church people watched worse stuff on network sitcoms, or whatever. But I realized that I had become a pastor. I no longer had the right to watch whatever I wanted. The lines of propriety are there for good reasons. My behavior affects people.
Every man has to decide many times in his ministry whether he will use his position to bluff his way past the rules, or to openly prey on women (or men). To refuse to confront such darkness is to become a predator.
The predator will target you.
One night a man called me in a panic. His mentally and physically disabled son had described sex acts that a Christian support group leader had done to him. The leader was the usual well-known and admired man, with the additional camouflage that he was disabled himself. I reported it to the police, against the father’s initial wishes. I supported the family through the whole process of working with law enforcement, going to trial, and finding themselves abandoned by all the other parents whose kids had been abused.
Then I found out that the perpetrator knew I had turned him in and was threatening to sue me. A whole community of his supporters hated my guts. He was convicted, and nothing ever came of it. But it’s a strange feeling as a 26-year-old (as I then was) to be in the cross-hairs of a lawless man.
People will hate you for confronting abuse. That’s the way it goes. You have to get over yourself.
Leaders will betray you.
Later in my ministry, I dealt with another case of sexual abuse. The perpetrator was in my church. After the abuse was reported to the authorities, I gave the elders a detailed report. One of those elders then went to the family of the abuser, and their friends, saying that I was out to get them. The same elder also went to the victim’s family and said I was trying to cover the abuse up.
Another church leader, when I informed him of the steps we were taking, replied dismissively, “Ah, they did that stuff to me when I was a kid.”
Sometimes your leaders are cowards who have to be liked by everybody. Other times, you are dealing with radically different versions of “normal” — one in which abuse is criminal and another in which abuse is a rite of passage.
When you confront abuse, key people will abandon you for bizarre reasons of their own. That’s life.
You will be somebody’s Hitler.
Hitler-status comes in many forms.
Sometimes, when people are in the process of being victimized, they are in a sort of cult. Their reality is set by the abuser. When you warn them that they are being abused, they’re ready. You care more about your petty rules than my happiness. You’re the real abuser. My lover cares more for me than you ever will.
This kind of thinking is ultimately the abuser’s fault. Abusers groom people, seeming to give what people need. Then abusers trap them. Abusers in churches spiritualize all their relationships, with themselves at the center. The victim cannot escape without seeming to defy God himself.
So for you to warn the victim is to step into the stock Hitler role for which the abuser has cast you. You have to do it anyway. It’s a marker, an intrusion of reality into the abuser’s Wonderland. I have seen victims break the spell.
Other times, there is a “forgiveness brigade.” They want grace for the abuser from the victim. If you insist that there are consequences for the abuse, then you’re another kind of Hitler. Again, you have to insist anyway. Crime is about more than interpersonal harm. A crime is an offense against the whole community, and the community needs to make a just reply, even when real interpersonal forgiveness is granted.
Just be somebody’s Hitler for a little while. Can’t be helped.
You will mobilize your church.
Though one or two leaders will stumble, the rest will stand with you if they have a place to stand. Your leaders have been through this stuff before. They have insight about how to confront abuse correctly. You have social workers and counselors in your church. They know legal requirements, they can handle confidentiality, and they can interview people discretely to gather facts. You have law enforcement officers in your church. This really is their wheelhouse.
If you confront abuse wisely, you will lay this matter before discerning people and they will help you. On the other side of these experiences you will have an important bond with them. So lead. This can only be done from the top.
Much of what I have said is negative. That’s because you need to hear it. You can get a retweet for applauding #churchtoo. But back here in real life, action is costly. You may lose friends. No one will thank you. You will not “win.” Your only trophy may be the sick dread that I am feeling as I revisit these memories.
But you have to confront abuse anyway. My feelings are nothing compared to what victims of abuse feel. Nothing at all. For the sake of your own soul, you have to decide whether you actually believe Jesus is the Shepherd of the sheep. If he is, then you have nothing to fear. He will defend you while you defend his sheep.
Many pastors like me have seen it.