Why can’t churches get handling abuse right?

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

October 10, 2022

By Susan M. Shaw

Yet another evangelical megachurch is repenting for mishandling clergy sex abuse.

Every few days, it seems, we’re hearing about a different instance of a pastor or church leader who has abused women and/or children and a church (or denomination) that has completely mucked up its response. Why is that? Why can’t churches get handling abuse right?

The reasons are myriad, complicated and intersecting, and I’ll try to unpack some of that here and offer suggestions for what churches can do to prevent sexual abuse and address it appropriately.

Devaluing girls and women

Many churches don’t take abuse seriously because in belief and in practice they devalue women and girls, particularly women’s and girls’ bodies, their right to bodily autonomy and their full selfhood. On the whole, our culture does not take sexual violation that seriously because it sees girls/women as primarily of value for their sexual availability to men.

“Many churches don’t take abuse seriously because in belief and in practice they devalue women and girls.”

Within many evangelical churches, purity culture has exacerbated this misogynistic viewpoint by making sexuality the responsibility of girls/women. Within purity culture, girls/women are responsible for men’s sexuality. If men are tempted, it’s because girls/women have tempted them.

Anthropologist Karen McCarthy Brown argued that one characteristic of religious fundamentalisms is control of women. Women are, she explained, the “other” within. Most of the time, the “other” is external to our group. They are different from us, and they have their own groups, and we can usually manage to have little to do with one another. For example, churches can easily manage to segregate themselves racially; they can move away from impoverished neighborhoods and kick out LGBTQ people. But the social structure of the church means that men and women can’t easily segregate from one another on a long-term basis. Women are always inside the group and therefore the “other within” who must be controlled to maintain the social system of male dominance or patriarchy.

Within patriarchy, women are identified with the body, while men are identified with the mind/spirit. Women’s bodies, therefore, must be especially controlled to keep patriarchy in place. Women’s bodies (and girls’ as well) are conceived by patriarchy as wild and ungovernable, a threat when left to their own devices, and therefore needful of control by men who exercise God-ordained power over them.

Sexual abuse is about power-over. That sexuality is weaponized against women and children is an especially significant form of male dominance because it so effectively keeps patriarchal power in place. Sexual abuse is power-over in the most intimate part of one’s being. Because the body is demeaned within patriarchal Christianity, however, what happens to bodies, especially the bodies of women and children, is not that important.

“Boy children are in many ways feminized within patriarchy.”

Within patriarchal Christianity, women and children often are treated as male property. In child sexual abuse, men exert the right to own children’s bodies, both girls’ and boys’.

Boy children are in many ways feminized within patriarchy — they are identified more with women until they reach puberty and become “men.” That’s why women can teach boys in Sunday school. Boys aren’t yet considered men. Yet this feminizing of boys plays a role in their vulnerability to sexual abuse because they are associated more with women, girls and femininity. Boys, like girls and women, therefore can be devalued, exploited and abused as an exercise in patriarchal power-over.

Seeing the problem as individual rather than systemic

Many evangelical churches also tend to see the problem of sexual abuse as one of individuals rather than systems, and so they keep trying to deal with individual men who abuse rather than the system of patriarchy that maintains and is maintained by abuse.

For example, Southern Baptists have proposed background checks for clergy as a centerpiece of abuse prevention. But we know background checks don’t work. Most abuse isn’t reported and, often when it is, it is not entered into formal systems.

Why isn’t abuse reported, you may wonder. It’s not because survivors don’t want to report; it’s because the system is set up to discourage, disbelieve and dissuade them. Just look at what Paige Patterson did at Southwestern Seminary.

“It’s easier for people to believe girls/women lie than to believe men perpetrate.”

The system is stacked against survivors. People — including church leaders, ministers, family members and police — don’t believe them. Particularly in the church, it seems it’s easier for people to believe girls/women lie than to believe men perpetrate, especially if the men are leaders and perceived as “godly.” We see this clearly in many churches’ refusal to understand sexual relationships between pastors and parishioners as abusive; rather they frame these relationships as “consensual.”

We know from the research that false accusations are a very small percentage of allegations (2% to 10%), and we know innocent men rarely face criminal charges; even fewer are ever convicted or serve prison time.

Most false allegations come from teenage girls who’ve been caught with a boy or become pregnant and want to stay out of trouble with their parents. These girls rarely make formal complaints. Their parents do, but the complaints usually go nowhere.

Most women who make false complaints have a history of lying, making false claims and engaging in fraud. Their lives are already troubled, and they use false allegations to try to get something they need.  Other false accusers need medical help, and they use the allegation to get it.

In other words, the vast majority of accusers are telling the truth.

In many evangelical churches we see an almost cult-like status accorded powerful Christian men, especially pastors. These powerful men are incredibly attractive to both men and women who become invested in their success and status. Notice, for example, all the concern expressed in many evangelical circles for accused men and the damage to their lives and careers and the absence of expressions of concern for survivors and the damage to their lives.

This attraction to powerful men, for other men, has to do with the possibility that, because some men can attain such high status, all men can likewise accrue power through their identification with manhood. In other words, if some men can be this powerful, all men attain more power because power is associated with the maleness. Women become complicit because they can attain (limited) power by their association with powerful men.

“For many men and women, then, too much is at stake to believe victims.”

For many men and women, then, too much is at stake to believe victims. Especially because abuse is most often committed by someone known to the victim, acknowledging the reality of abuse would threaten both personal relationships and relationships of power.

What would it mean to recognize that fathers, uncles, grandfathers, brothers, teachers, coaches, pastors are dangerous to girls and women? We already know that the most dangerous place for a woman in the United States is her own home. What might it mean to speak the extent of the threat the men closest to women and girls pose to them?

Poet Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”

The system is set up, however, to prevent women and girls from telling the truth. Even if a survivor speaks out, the path to any kind of accountability for a perpetrator is difficult at best and likely unsuccessful.

Certainly, we’ve seen that in the ways that churches have simply passed on abusive ministers to other unsuspecting congregations. We’ve seen churches refuse to address problems when survivors have come forward. We also see the system of disadvantage especially clearly in the justice system where few of the reported instances of abuse actually result in a conviction. We see it in the high price to reputation, career and relationships that women and girls pay when they do speak out, and those examples work to silence other women/girls who want to avoid a similar public shaming.

Ignoring the role of theology

Many evangelical churches completely disregard the role of theology in perpetuating abuse and making churches unable to deal with it effectively. Research suggests a strong correlation between perpetrator beliefs about gender, social context and sexual abuse.

That means when churches teach men they are ordained by God as leaders to whom women must submit, the step to using that to justify abuse isn’t a long one. If churches teach men that women are temptresses and are responsible for men’s sexual urges, then blaming women when men act on those urges is easy. Theologies that subordinate women, devalue the body and narrowly circumscribe sexuality create a theological framework for abuse.

I’ve written about evangelicalism and the culture of abuse elsewhere, but I’ll summarize a few key points here.

Evangelical churches often teach that women are to submit to men and that only men are qualified to serve as leaders. This submission reinforces women’s secondary status and gives men more credibility than their accusers.

“Because Eve was a temptress, all women are sexual temptresses.”

Many evangelicals believe Eve was responsible for the Fall and therefore all women still bear the consequences of Eve’s decision. Her story also has become intertwined with ideas of sexual sin, and so, because Eve was a temptress, all women are sexual temptresses.

Purity culture has amplified this belief into a central tenet of much of evangelical culture that sees girls’ and women’s sexuality as dangerous and a potential stumbling block for boys and men if not controlled.

Evangelical ideas about forgiveness also are problematic. Forgiveness comes with a simple prayer. No restitution is needed. In fact, forgiveness for the perpetrator comes from God without any need to engage the survivor at all. Even more troubling, churches often pressure women to forgive their abusers without any expectation of accountability from the perpetrators, and they go so far as to tell women they themselves are sinning if they refuse to forgive.

An evangelical woman once told me she counseled a woman to return to her abusive husband. She explained to me that if he killed her, while sad, it would be OK because she was saved and would go to heaven, and her witness might lead her husband to be saved.

“She explained to me that if he killed her, while sad, it would be OK because she was saved and would go to heaven, and her witness might lead her husband to be saved.”

In much of evangelical thinking, salvation is all that matters, and it comes with saying a prayer. With that, all is made new, and there is no need for accountability for past wrongs, no need to make things right, no need for restitution. This means a church may well believe that if a perpetrator says he’s asked God for forgiveness it’s OK to keep him on or hire him and expect his victim to let the matter go.

Many evangelical churches’ exclusion of women from ministry means most church staff members, especially pastors, are men. These men have incredible authority over women as their spiritual leaders, and perpetrators use this trusting relationship to groom victims and ensure their silence. As the story about Denton Bible Church notes, the absence of women from the process of dealing with abuse was part of the problem.

A men-only pastorate is part of the problem of the church’s inability to deal with sexual abuse. It reinforces men’s power over women; it forces women into dependence on men and men’s leadership, including spiritual leadership; it means women have to go to men pastors to talk about even the most intimate of issues if they are seeking pastoral care; it assumes men can make decisions about and for women without the benefit of women’s experiences or input; it reproduces “bro” culture in which men engage in a baptized version of locker room talk — a bonding talk that excludes women, minimizes women and reaffirms men’s superiority — and support each other in the face of accusations of abuse.

The church needs to do some serious rethinking of the ways these theological notions are harmful to women and a betrayal of the good news of Jesus who announced liberation for all people. Theology is the product of social processes, and those processes historically have worked to ensure the maintenance of patriarchy. Faithful theologies must be open to God’s ongoing revelation that moves us always toward love and justice.

Suggestions for churches to do better

If the church’s track record in dealing with sexual abuse has been this abysmal, what’s to be done? We actually know a lot that can help prevent sexual abuse and can help support survivors and hold perpetrators accountable when abuse does happen.

“This is not a case of a proverbial few bad apples. The entire system is rotten.”

Central to becoming more effective in addressing abuse is the recognition that change must be systemic. It cannot focus simply on trying to change individual men. This is not a case of a proverbial few bad apples. The entire system is rotten. So here are a few suggestions for systemic change.

  1. Make sexual justice central in the teaching of the church. Teach children and women to value their bodies and their boundaries. Talk openly and honestly about sex. Reject purity culture, and in its place develop a theology of sexuality that values consent, pleasure and mutuality.
  2. Rethink the language of the church. How does language perpetuate a culture of abuse? The church needs to reconsider language that focuses on sacrifice, submission and surrender. For a perpetrator, this language creates space to exploit women’s faithfulness as a means to groom them for abuse. Even the language of our hymns can reinforce a culture of abuse. How many of us have sung, “Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me. Break me (ital. mine), melt me, mold me, fill me,” without thinking about what it means to ask to be broken? How much violent imagery shows up in the language we use in church that then normalizes violence against other people?
  3. Reimagine church itself with sexual justice at its center. As an institution, the church seems to have become more interested in simply reproducing itself than in living the gospel. The church’s investment in its own continuance seems to lie at the heart of many of the things it does wrong in handling abuse. What would God’s community look like in this moment if it constructed itself with sexual justice at the center as a manifestation of God’s love?
  4. Have processes in place that go into action the minute abuse is reported — from initiating an investigation to removing the accused person from leadership during the investigation to bringing in CPS immediately when children report abuse. Have safe ways for people to report, and make those ways widely known. Be sure children know how to report something.
  5. Create policies with justice at the center. Listen to survivors. Listen to experts on sexual abuse — not biblical counselors. The Bible is of great value for comfort and guidance in matters of faith, but it is not a book of expertise on sexual abuse prevention, trauma, and victim support. For those things, turn to valid, reliable, peer-reviewed research and experts in those areas.
  6. Require ongoing training of all church employees and volunteers (including Sunday school teachers, nursery workers, women’s ministry leaders). Make sure the training approaches issues from evidence-based perspectives rooted in social and medical sciences.
  7. Have support systems for survivors in place. Be able to refer them to services they need that the church may not be able to provide, especially if they need medical care, counseling, housing or other essential services.
  8. Be transparent in dealing with cases of abuse in the church. Don’t try to hide it or manage public perception or minimize damage to the church. Speak the truth, and at the same time be sure to protect the survivor. Don’t make survivors’ identities public unless they want the church to name them. Keep people aware of steps being taken to address the problem.
  9. Demand accountability from perpetrators. Create processes to prevent abusers simply from moving on to the next church. Offer pathways to redemption but not at survivors’ expense. Find out what survivors need or want in terms of accountability. Perhaps perpetrators need to pay for survivors’ therapy. If any behaviors have been criminal, report them to the authorities. Help get perpetrators into programs that will help them confront their abusive behavior and change themselves. Again, make sure these are programs rooted in social and medical scientific research about perpetrators.
  10. Account for churches’ role in the abuse and make restitution. Perhaps the church needs to pay for survivors’ therapy or set up a fund to support survivors.
  11. Engage in community prevention and support efforts. Work with local domestic violence and sexual assault centers and shelters. Become part of community organizations and coalitions that work on abuse.
  12. Work to dismantle patriarchy. Support feminist organizations and efforts to make social change that will enhance equality across gender as well as race, sexuality, ability, age and other forms of social difference. Recognize that the church is one institution that is part of a much larger web of interlocking institutions that keeps patriarchy in place and that the church should work with people of good will in other institutions to challenge patriarchy.

So far, the church has been really bad at addressing sexual abuse. It has amplified the harm done to survivors and protected perpetrators. It has continued to fail to make worthwhile change even as it has issued half-hearted apologies and enacted weak and ineffective policies.

The reasons for this failure are deep-rooted and at the core of understandings about what it means to be the church. Addressing the problem won’t be a quick fix, but churches must begin to take bold steps to recreate themselves with sexual justice at the center of their mission to embody God’s love and justice in the world.

Susan M. Shaw is professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Ore. She also is an ordained Baptist minister and holds master’s and doctoral degrees from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. Her most recent book is Intersectional Theology: An Introductory Guide, co-authored with Grace Ji-Sun Kim.