Sex abuse happens across denominations. Here’s how one Protestant minister is helping people heal


Kaya Oakes
September 20, 2017

A young girl sits in her room as the sounds of physical violence echo down the hall. Her father regularly erupts, a volcano whose rage is fed by the notion that he is the head of a “good Christian family” and that his wife and children must submit to his will. The girl also knows that their church pastor is a pedophile who preys on her sister, but her church has turned inward to protect the pastor instead of reaching out to help her sister. The girl is terrified for her mother, her sister, herself. So she prays, and this offers her peace in the midst of the violence. That peace will sustain her for years to come.

This snapshot from the tumultuous childhood of the Rev. Carol Howard Merritt often leads people to question why she entered ordained ministry. The Southern Baptist Church of her childhood colluded in the violence that surrounded her growing up. In her book Healing Spiritual Wounds, she writes that religion was “complicit in the violence” of her home and church, but she still found hope. Misguided interpretations of Christian teaching, she writes, were “part of the problem,” but the teachings of Christ were also her “cure, solace, and center.” Over time, she came to understand that abusive patterns in religion “did not really represent God,” and after attending Moody Bible Institute, she left the Southern Baptist Church to join the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where she was ordained and where she began a ministry that focuses on the wounds that can be caused by organized religion and on the spiritual healing that must follow.

For Catholics, the topic of abuse remains a painful one. The recent charges of “sexual offenses” faced by Cardinal George Pell have once again stirred up the debate about the church’s failure to rectify its abusive history, which has caused harm not only to the people abused and their families but to the church as a whole and has resulted in the attrition of many Catholics. A survey by the Public Religion Research Institute in 2015 revealed that half of former Catholics point to the abuse crisis as a primary reason they left the church. Informal conversations with still practicing Catholics often reveal unresolved feelings of betrayal and anger about the abuse crisis. More significantly, abuse has also left a trail of traumatized victims, many of whom are still suffering from physical, psychological and spiritual damage. Spiritual damage, which often means damage to a person’s religious faith or relationship with God, is probably the least discussed and least well understood of these issues, but as Rev. Merritt points out, it can have dramatic effects, especially on deeply religious victims like herself. Yet this damage to one’s faith also offers a unique opportunity for healing.

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