In the last days of 2017, riding the wave of the #MeToo movement, a group of 140 evangelical women released a petition on “Breaking the Silence on Violence against Women and Girls.” Under the hashtag #SilenceIsNotSpiritual, it invited “the community of faith” to “join this historic moment . . . sparking genuine change in the very place we call our home – the local church.” The petition has quickly garnered more than 5000 additional signatures.
More specifically, the petition issues a two-fold call to action for evangelical churches. First, it urges the creation of “protected spaces” so that survivors of sexual abuse who offer their stories will be received “with empathy, love, and care.” Second, it calls on faith leaders to cease their “silent assent” to harmful “systems, structures, and practices” and “to fight both systemic and individual injustices.”
This is the kind of talk that makes me want to pump my fist in enthusiastic support.
Those of us who advocate for women and girls are still getting over the disturbing fact that, late last year, 80% of white evangelicals lent their support to US Senate candidate Roy Moore. So it’s good to now hear some evangelical voices speaking out against sexual abuse.
Nevertheless, with a moment’s pause, I still have questions about the petition. For example, how do the petition’s signers propose to actually address the systemic injustices of sexual abuse cover-ups within evangelicalism itself? How would they go about creating “protected spaces” in evangelical churches for those who have been abused by evangelical pastors? And how exactly do they expect to fix the “systems, structures, and practices” of evangelicalism that have enabled abusive clergy?
In other words, I’m eager to know . . . What’s the plan, especially when you consider the enormous obstacles?
Evangelicalism has a long way to go
Currently, the largest evangelical group, the Southern Baptist Convention, doesn’t even have a denominational system for receiving and assessing reports of clergy sex abuse. Nor does it have a system for recordkeeping on abuse allegations. These fundamental safety gaps allow accused pastors to church-hop with relative ease, just as pedophile priests were allowed to do in the Catholic Church. The organizational structures may differ, but still, it’s the abusive pastors who are given “protected spaces.” Many churches will even assist them in finding new positions.
Without the kind of clergy oversight now present in many other Protestant groups, those abused by clergy in evangelical communities are typically told to take their grievances to the local church. This is akin to telling bloody sheep that they should go to the den of the wolf who savaged them. The courageous Rachael Denhollander, the first person to publicly accuse former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, summed it up quite simply: “The church is one of the worst places to go for help.”
Compounding the problem, most evangelical faith groups hold to patriarchy as the purportedly God-ordered “right” way. With its emphasis on female submissiveness and male headship, such a theology carries inherent risks for fostering abuse, and in combination with evangelicalism’s lack of accountability structures, it becomes downright toxic, rendering the faith’s institutions complicit in enabling the widespread concealment of sexual abuse.
A plan for change is needed
As the #MeToo movement surges forward toward greater accountability, evangelicals who don’t want to be left behind must build a plan for change – one that systematically overhauls the process by which every sexual abuse case gets handled. Such a plan would affect not only the local churches but also the larger networked institutions, such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the National Association of Evangelicals. As Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg recently said, “If our concern is to care for victims of sexual misconduct and to prevent new victims, we must create and expand the systems and structures that allow us to do so.”
The single most important change evangelicals need to implement is this: They must cooperatively empower one or more organizations, independent of the local churches, to receive and assess reports about sexual abuse committed by clergy, deacons, elders, and other church officials.
Here’s how such an independent body would dramatically improve evangelicals’ handling of sexual abuse cases:
- It would provide the much needed “protected space” for those abused by clergy and would spare survivors the re-traumatization of the “wolf den.” This is critical if evangelicals hope to hear the voices of the women, girls and boys who have been abused in their churches.
- For survivors whose claims are not subject to criminal prosecution – which is most – it would offer clarity about the first step for reporting institutionally and would lift the burden of trying to track church-hopping preachers on their own.
- It would furnish local churches (most of which have less than 100 people) with the resource of an outside organization with an established process for assessing clergy abuse allegations responsibly, fairly and consistently, and for making recommendations to churches about an accused pastor’s continuing fitness for office. Outsiders are essential to any system of accountability.
- It would afford the broader faith group a solid basis for imposing consequences on churches that harbor pastors who are unfit for ministerial office. Consequences are needed to begin changing the culture. And while most evangelical faith groups profess a belief in “local church autonomy,” that belief would not preclude denominational bodies from ousting such churches so as to preclude them from carrying the imprimatur of the “brand.”
- It would equip the faith group as a whole with a centralized resource for recordkeeping and information sharing. This would allow churches to readily ascertain whether a pastor may have accrued multiple accusations and weed them out of the system.
Christa Brown has written extensively on the topic of clergy sex abuse and cover-ups in the Southern Baptist Convention. She is the author of “This Little Light: Beyond a Baptist Preacher Predator and His Gang.”
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