Another week of revelations about abuse and cover-up in the Church. Pope Francis visits Ireland last week and the topic on everyone’s lips was unfortunately sexual abuse. Everyone who admired Willow Creek Church in Chicago, which has influenced thinking about effective church growth for a generation of evangelicals, has been stunned by allegations of sexual harassment
I try to be deliberate and positive in my blogs because there is so much vitriol online. However, it makes me angry and very sad that Christian leaders – overwhelmingly men – are willing to compromise the character of God whom they say they serve, to satisfy their own desires for power and then lie to protect their jobs, their colleagues or their power.
The stories are so frequent and so widespread – an investigation into sex abuse by the Church in Australia said that 7% of all Australian RC priests were involved in sex abuse in the last 60 years – that the worldwide church should be contrite, and sorrowful, and determined to change poisonous practices.
But there are still excuses and still a tendency by male pastors and some of their followers (both male and female) to blame the victims. It happens across denominations and across nations.
Here are some ‘excuses’ we might hear that need to be exposed as lies.
EXCUSE: The victims are too pretty, too needy or too easy to seduce and therefore somehow it is not the man’s fault.
I have heard this argument from a number of men. Women who come to pastors for counsel or prayer may be needy and vulnerable but ‘pastoral’ care means discerning wise action and taking steps as a shepherd and leader to be both caring and careful.
Men, especially leaders in the church should be strong enough to walk away or call for female back-up if they feel tempted. It’s a good reason for having male and female leadership of all ages so that there can be accountability and support.
EXCUSE: Women and children who have suffered abuse should stay quiet to protect the church from scandal.
A number of women who have come forward about historical abuse have said they felt explicit or implicit pressure to be silent about what happened.
In the case of Willow Creek, Hybel’s assistant, who has accused her former pastor of fondling, inappropriate touching and more, says she felt enormous loyalty to the church ad the leadership and did not want to wreck reputations. (The church leadership initially backed Hybels when he denied allegations but has since apologised for its initial inaction.)
Since when is it the role of a victim to protect the powerful? It is the job of those with authority in the Church to protect their flock and anyone who has been exploited by a church leader or in a Christian institution.
If there has been criminal activity, the police should be involved. The Church cannot think it can quietly push aside serious allegations of any sort – financial, sexual or violent misconduct.
Churches, especially those with powerful and charismatic leaders, need to examine their governance and accountability.
EXCUSE: Women should quietly forgive – their submissive attitude will lead the perpetrator back to God.
This argument is especially used when the abuse is within marriage. If there is no sign of repentance, no genuine change, can a woman stay in a destructive situation that threatens her wellbeing and that of her children?
If it was your daughter being abused, would you ever say, “You just need to submit more, forgive more?” In some cultures there may seem to be no way out, but the Church exists to transform cultural practices to reflect more of God’s values.
That means releasing men to be loving and servant hearted and releasing women to be the same.
EXCUSE: Some women are dangerous – they have a ‘Jezebel spirit’.
Women are not always innocent and some do tell lies about abuse or deliberately try to provoke a man. Their wrong behaviour should be called out just as much as bad behaviour by men. Jezebel is the archetype of the wicked woman – the wife of King Ahab who encouraged the worship of Baal and clashed with Elijah and Elisha. She was cruel and unjust.
She was definitely a bad woman.
But is there a Jezebel spirit? Surely a number of Judah and Israel’s kings were just as cruel, vicious and ungodly. Why do we hear so much about Jezebel’s evil?
Maybe because Bible commentators (overwhelmingly male) want to believe in the purity and goodness of women and anyone outside that model must be totally evil, evil that is very often seen in sexual terms. Whereas Biblical men are allowed to be imperfect – indeed we celebrate the humanity of heroes like King David, Abraham and Peter, the church (and the Jewish leadership in Jesus’ day) is less forgiving of weakness in women.
Recently in the US, a pastor who admitted to his church that he had strayed as a youth pastor twenty years before, was given a standing ovation for being open and honest. I understand the need to forgive but his action was criminal (the girl was only 17) and it seems there has been no justice for her (she was told to stay quiet by two pastors at the church).
So I plead for women to speak out about abuse, and for male leaders to champion truth and justice rather than shuffling their feet or thinking that the whole issue has got a bit out of control (another excuse!)
Pray for wisdom and humility for church leaders who must respond to abuse allegations. We do not want people to be wrongly accused but we do not want victims to be ignored.
Pray for the Church to be truly repentant. The Pope talked in Dublin this weekend of ongoing abuse being an “open wound”. He went on, “I beg the Lord’s forgiveness for these sins and for the scandal and betrayal felt by so many others in God’s family.”