Saturday, June 02, 2018

Epidemic of Denial About Sexual Abuse in Evangelical Churches

Even as the Catholic Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis has agreed to pay a $210 million in settlement of to victims of clergy sex abuse, one of the largest payments in a never ending saga, there is another sex abuse epidemic that continues to go under reported: sex abuse in the evangelical churches (the Freedom From Religion Foundation puts out a monthly report of clerical crimes that takes up two newspaper sized pages).  Part of the explanation is the lack of a tight hierarchical structure in such denominations unlike in the Catholic Church, which makes tracking crimes more difficult.  The other phenomenon, is the tendency of parishioners to blame the victims and rally to the support of the abusers.  The victim, rather than the abuser often is the one who becomes the outcast - or at least until the abuse becomes too widespread. The result is that victims all too often blame themselves and/or remain silent.  The ultimate irony, of course, is that it seems to be denominations most obsessed with and repressive towards sex are the very ones that have the most wide spread abuse problems.  A long piece in the Washington Post looks at the denial that still remains the norm in the evangelical church.  The takeaway, to me, is that until evangelicals clean up their own churches, they have no moral authority to lecture others on issues of sexuality.  Here are excerpts:

Moxon was furious that her church community hadn’t listened. But she never told anyone what had happened to Rachael. “We had already tried once and weren’t believed,” Moxon says. “What was the point?”

Today, Denhollander can see how her church, which has since shut down, failed to protect her. But as a child, all she knew from her parents was that her abuse had made their church mad and that she wasn’t able to play with some of her friends. She blamed herself — and resolved that, if anyone else ever abused her, she wouldn’t mention it.

And so when Larry Nassar used his prestige as a doctor for the USA Gymnastics program to sexually assault Denhollander, she held to her vow. She wouldn’t put her family through something like that again. Her church had made it clear: No one believes victims. 

Across the United States, evangelical churches are failing to protect victims of sexual abuse among their members. As the #MeToo movement has swept into communities of faith, several high-profile leaders have fallen: Paige Patterson, the president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, was forced into early retirement this month after reports that he’d told a rape victim to forgive her assailant rather than call the police. Illinois megachurch pastor Bill Hybels similarly retired early after several women said he’d dispensed lewd comments, unwanted kisses and invitations to hotel rooms. 

[I]n any community of faith, there is also sin — often silenced, ignored and denied — and it is much more common than many want to believe. It has often led to failures by evangelicals to report sexual abuse, respond appropriately to victims and change the institutional cultures that enabled the abuse in the first place. 

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates — especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. “Sexual abuse is the most underreported thing — both in and outside the church — that exists,” says Boz Tchividjian, a grandson of Billy Graham and a former Florida assistant state attorney.
As a prosecutor, Tchividjian saw dozens of sexual abuse victims harmed by a church’s response to them. (In one case, a pastor did not report a sexual offender in his church because the man had repented. The offender was arrested only after he had abused five more children.)  

[T]he three largest insurers of churches and Christian nonprofits said they received about 260 claims of sexual abuse against a minor each year. Those figures, though, exclude groups covered by other insurers, victims older than 18, people whose cases weren’t disclosed to insurance companies and the many who, like Denhollander, never came forward. In other words, the research doesn’t include what is certainly the vast majority of sexual abuse. The sex advice columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, tired of what he called the hypocrisy of conservatives who believe that gays molest children, compiled his own list that documents more than 100 instances of youth pastors around the country who, between 2008 and 2016, were accused of, arrested for or convicted of sexually abusing minors in a religious setting. 

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

This means researchers attempting to study this issue have to comb through publicly available documents. That’s what Wade Mullen, the director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary & Graduate School, did as a part of his PhD dissertation. . . . . Over 2016 and 2017, Mullen found 192 instances of a leader from an influential church or evangelical institution being publicly charged with sexual crimes involving a minor, including rape, molestation, battery and child pornography. (This data did not include sexual crimes against an adult or crimes committed by someone other than a leader.) 

Of the 166 people who said they had been victims of sexual abuse before or during their time at BJU [Bob Jones University], half said school officials had actively discouraged them from going to the police. . . . BJU officials declined to comment for this article. 

Sovereign Grace Churches (SGC), an influential chain of congregations, many located on the East Coast, allegedly failed to report sexual abuse claims during the ’80s and ’90s to the authorities and caused secondary trauma to victims through pastoral counseling, according to an extensive investigation by Washingtonian magazine. In one instance, an SGC pastor allegedly told a wife whose husband sexually abused their daughter to remain with him. When she asked how she could possibly stay married to a man attracted to children, she was told that her husband “was not attracted to his 11-year-old daughter but rather to the ‘woman’ she ‘was becoming.’ ” Two years into the husband’s prison sentence, SGC pastor Gary Ricucci wrote in support of his parole using church letterhead, and the church welcomed him back to the community after his release. . . . The wife no longer attends.  

The evangelical defense of God-fearing offenders extends to the political realm. Franklin Graham, CEO of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, said President Trump’s “grab them by the p—y” comments and other crude language didn’t matter because “all of us are sinners.”  Roger Canaff, a former New York state prosecutor who specialized in child sexual abuse, tells me that many worshipers he encountered felt persecuted by the secular culture around them — and disinclined to reach out to their persecutors for help in solving problems. This is the same dynamic that drove a cover-up culture among ultra-Orthodox communities in New York, where rabbis insisted on dealing with child abusers internally, according to several analysts. 

But among evangelicals, there is an added eschatological component: According to a 2010 survey by the Pew Research Center, 41 percent of Americans believe that the end times will occur before 2050. In some evangelical teachings, a severe moral decay among unbelievers precedes the rapture of the faithful. 

This attitude could explain the 2017 case of an assistant pastor at Agape Bible Church in Thornton, Colo., who was convicted and sentenced to 13 years in prison for repeatedly sexually assaulting an adolescent girl. The police investigation revealed that church leaders and the girl’s father agreed not to contact the police because the “biblical counseling” received within the church was sufficient to handle the case. According to an officer who interviewed the father, “His interest was in protecting the church and its reputation more than protecting his daughter.” 

Partly, church leaders tend to circle the wagons out of arrogance. “I’ve worked with churches across the theological spectrum, from fundamentalist to progressive,” Tchividjian says. “They say: ‘I’m the man God’s placed in charge. I have the Bible. I know how to handle this.’ ” But another, less visible problem is the overall attitude toward sex. Sexual sin is talked about constantly, and extramarital sex is considered a heinous moral lapse. (A student at Patterson’s seminary who told him she’d been date-raped was disciplined for being in the man’s room) It stands to reason that churches don’t want to air an epidemic of wickedness among their flocks. 

At an untold number of Christian churches and institutions, the silence on sexual abuse is deafening. Statistically, evangelical pastors rarely mention the issue from the pulpit. According to research from the evangelical publishing company LifeWay, 64 percent of pastors said they talk about sexual violence once a year, or even less than that. Pastors drastically underestimate the number of victims in their congregations; a majority of them guessed in the survey that 10 percent or less might be victims. But in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 women (women make up approximately 55 percent of evangelicals) and 1 in 9 men have been sexually abused. There is no evidence suggesting those numbers are lower inside the church.

Immanuel Baptist Church faced a choice, the same one before many American churches today: Face the sin in their midst and make the church a place that follows the biblical command to care for the powerless and victimized — or avoid the disruption and churn out another generation of silenced victims who learn, like Denhollander did, that the church isn’t safe.

No comments: