Putting the wicked to rest: Creating teal steeples beyond Sexual Violence Awareness Month

Baptist News Global [Jacksonville FL]

April 25, 2024

By Mallory Challis

I turned on the TV / And flipped it over to the news / And what I saw I almost couldn’t comprehend. I saw a preacher man in cuffs / He’d taken money from the church / He’d stuffed his bank account with righteous dollar bills … You know there ain’t no rest for the wicked.

The American rock band Cage the Elephant clocked preachers with this line in their 2008 song, Ain’t No Rest for the Wicked.

While the band does not make Christian music, these lyrics imagine the not-so-outlandish possibility of a preacher stealing church funds, effectively calling out the ease with which Christian leaders abuse their power to steal from, lie to and take advantage of those who trust them most.

And during Sexual Violence Awareness Month, let’s remember it is often not just our money church leaders take advantage of. It’s our bodies too.

The state of our church today

Week after week, stories of scandal, abuse and misconduct in Christian organizations are published on news sites like BNG. And whether we are reporting the news, reading it on someone else’s headline or hearing the stories told from survivors themselves, it’s devastating every time.

But not so shocking anymore.

You see, the singer here proclaims he only “almost” couldn’t comprehend the sight of a preacher abusing his authority. It was an unruly sight, but certainly not a shocking one.

Stories of church leaders laundering money, ministers abusing congregation members or camp counselors grooming children are never ending, while Christian organizations engage in valiant efforts to cover up what happened, make excuses for abusers and convince congregations to forgive the people who took advantage of them.

I recall sitting in the Wake Forest library one afternoon a few months ago with a seminarian friend while writing an article covering an Arizona judge’s decision to side with clergy who fail to report abuse. Frustrated, and having just finished another piece detailing the devastating cases of child sex abuse at the Lord’s Ranch, I paused writing out of frustration, wondering when the church would take this seriously.

Although she was equally devastated at what had taken place, the problem was too big to solve in a whispered library conversation.

As seminarians, the overwhelmingly constant flow of abuse stories is not just clickable news to read on our lunch breaks. They are the real-life stories of those in our congregations, organizations, nonprofits and other parachurch ministries who have been failed by ministry leaders. These stories reflect the state of our church today, and the major issues we, as ministry leaders, should be responding to.

What to know

According to the CDC’s 2015 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, one-third of women and one-fourth of men in the U.S. experienced completed or attempted rape between ages 11 and 17. Just less than half of women (nearly 52.2 million) and a quarter of men (27.6 million) in the U.S. experienced “contact sexual violence” at some point in their lives.

“One-third of women and one-fourth of men in the U.S. experienced completed or attempted rape between ages 11 and 17.”

“Contact sexual violence” is defined by the survey as “a combined measure that includes rape, being made to penetrate someone else, sexual coercion, and/or unwanted sexual contact.” This differs from “sexual violence” in general because not all instances of sexual violence include instances of physical touch (such as forced pornography or grooming).

According to the 2016/2017 survey, nearly half of all women (59.4 million) and about one-fourth of all men (27.5 million) in the U.S. experience unwanted sexual context at some point during their lives.

“Unwanted sexual contact” is “unwanted sexual experiences involving touch but not sexual penetration,” such as being groped, fondled, grabbed or kissed.

Studies across the board have consistently shown that survivors of sexual abuse, especially child sex abuse survivors, often knew their abusers prior to the incident. Abusers often are family members, friends, acquaintances or authority figures.

This means Christians have a higher chance of being sexually abused by a minister, deacon or fellow congregant than a stranger. And churches, in particular, have a reputation for covering up instances of abuse.

In 2019, for example, the SBC was exposed for a string of sexual abuse cases involving 380 abusers and 700 alleged survivors, with incidents spanning 20 years. All abusers were Southern Baptist leaders or volunteers. Investigations found many survivors were coerced into forgiving their abusers rather than seeking help from law enforcement, and a number of female survivors who became pregnant after being attacked were urged to have abortions.

Today, sex abuse scandals remain alive and well in the Baptist — and in the overall Protestant — world, with abuses reported at local churches, Christian summer camps and across various other Christian institutions all the time.

Three kinds of offenders

Andrew S. Denney, a criminology and justice professor at Loyola University, found in a 2023 study three types of sex offenders in Protestant settings: On-site offenders, off-site offenders and serial offenders. Of the offenders studied, most were pastors or youth ministers.

On-site offenders are individuals who abuse one victim, and who abuse that victim explicitly “at the church campus or during a church-sponsored activity,” often while fulfilling a leadership or volunteer role. On-site offenders are most likely to engage in grooming behaviors, utilizing their position of authority and the opportunity it provides to abuse. These offenders:

  • Represent about one-third of offenders
  • 45% were pastors, 33% were youth ministers
  • 74% of offense locations were at church or during a church-sponsored activity, while 26% were at church and at a related location.

Off-site offenders also only abused one victim, but did so away from the church campus, and never during church-sponsored activities. While on-site offenders “capitalize on perceived opportunities” to sexually abuse in designated roles at church, off-site offenders “create opportunities to offend” on their own. This type of offender is more likely to repeat their crimes with the same or another victim if not caught. These offenders:

  • Represent about one-fifth of offenders
  • 45% were pastors, 33% were youth ministers
  • 67 % of offense locations were in the offender’s home, while 16% were in the victim’s home

Finally, serial offenders have multiple known victims at the time of their arrest, often in a diversity of locations (both at and away from church). Some serial offenders were discovered to be offenders at one church but were asked to leave the church to “avoid the media attention that would follow” rather than being reported to the authorities. While not all serial offenders are church leaders, they often are, and often seek out positions of authority with the express intention of using their power to sexually abuse church members. These offenders:

  • Represent nearly half of offenders
  • 38% were pastors, 28% were youth ministers
  • Offense locations varied, including church, during church activities, “off-site,” the offender’s home and the victim’s home

Why churches aren’t doing anything

According to religious scholars Hilary Jerome Scarsella and Stephanie Krehbiel, there are both theological and ecclesial reasons preventing churches from doing anything about sexual abuse in our communities. Christianity, they say in their 2019 study, is “complicit.”

“There are both theological and ecclesial reasons preventing churches from doing anything about sexual abuse in our communities.”

Theologically, frameworks like atonement theology that glorify suffering, promote sentiments of sinfulness and shame and emphasize practices of forgiveness contribute to a Christian culture that discourages abuse survivors from discussing or seeking justice for what was done to them. In these frameworks, violence and abuse (modeled by Jesus on the Cross) is caused by human sin and failure, so submission to this violence is necessary for spiritual renewal. This justifies and maintains abusive environments by glorifying the practice of submitting to an abusive authority as punishment for a wrongdoing.

Ecclesiastically, while sexual misconduct may be reported to and known about by church leaders, it is often ignored or “covered-up” by ecclesial bodies seeking to uphold a spotless reputation. In dealing with accusations of abuse, these institutions encourage survivors to deal with their trauma as quietly and fuss-free as possible, as to minimize the reputational threat a survivor’s story might pose to the integrity of the institution. This allows churches to continue collecting donations and tithes, conducting business as usual and appearing like a morally upright institution in their community even though abuse has occurred.

Overall, it seems the preservation of the institution itself is considered more worthy than the well-being of our congregations. But is it worth it?

The cost out of our pockets

Ethics aside, from a financial perspective, it is not.

2017 economic study calculated the average lifetime expenses incurred after rape in the United States per survivor. While survivors themselves take on many expenses, some costs are paid for through tax dollars. And rape is an expensive crime.

The cost adds up to $122,461 tax dollars per survivor in the United States, a price calculated assuming each survivor was attacked after they turned 18. These expenses include but are not limited to:

  • Medical costs for both survivors and perpetrators
  • Lost ability to work/lost productivity at work for both survivors and perpetrators
  • Property damage and other damages incurred by the survivor due to the attack
  • Damages suffered by the survivor after the attack and/or lifelong due to the attack
  • Legal expenses, including the investigation, arrest, trial and incarceration of the perpetrator

Across the entire U.S. population, of which more than 25 million adults had reportedly been raped at the time of this study, the cost is estimated to be $3.1 trillion.

So, each time we let someone in our community procure more victims of sexual violence, they are not only committing egregious and traumatizing crimes. They are contributing to a multi-trillion dollar expense in the national budget for medical expenses, incarceration, work-force costs and other financial burdens on our communities.

“If you are paying taxes, you are paying for the aftermath of these crimes.”

If you are paying taxes, you are paying for the aftermath of these crimes. Everyone in the U.S. is involved in this.

And this figure doesn’t even include survivors of child sexual abuse, which according to the National Children’s Alliance totaled more than 600,000 in the U.S. in 2021 alone. Nor does it include the multitude of other sex crimes a person can be charged with in the U.S.

The cost for survivors

Beyond financial burdens, survivors take on the heavy weight of grieving, recovering from and living with the reality of what was done to them. This journey of healing lasts their entire lives and encompasses a wide range of struggles.

Many survivors of sexual abuse experience mental health issues such as depression and suicidality, anxiety and PTSD. For childhood survivors, while children may express delayed outward signs of mental health issues, this trauma can ultimately be harmful to brain and social development, potentially causing further side effects that manifest later in life.

There are also behavioral effects of sexual abuse, such as a correlation between child sexual abuse and alcohol abuse (especially if the survivor comes from a family where alcohol abuse is prevalent). And there are correlations between child sexual abuse and eating disorders, especially ones that function as mechanisms to gain a sense of control over the body.

These psychological and behavioral impacts can contribute to difficulties in a survivor’s interpersonal relationships, especially in establishing and maintaining safe relationships with close others.

In terms of their medical health, survivors of abuse, especially child sexual abuse, are at a higher risk of developing certain health conditions such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, STIs and teen pregnancy due to the aforementioned poor health, psychological and behavioral conditions they are predisposed to. If a survivor has an eating disorder or struggles with substance abuse, they are at additional risk for further, related conditions.

Finally, risk of self-injury is prevalent among survivors, especially those who struggle with depression, anxiety or who lack community.

What now?

Although my whispered library conversation with my seminarian friend was not enough to solve the epidemic of sexual abuse in our churches, I do think about the issues mentioned in this article every day I walk the hallways of Wake Forest Divinity School.

The already teal steeple of Wait Chapel, which is connected to our school, has been lit up with blueish-teal lights each night of the month as a symbol to our community that April is sexual violence awareness month.

But beyond the month of April, I hope Christian institutions can continue to have teal steeples. I hope the awareness this month leads to more teal steeples, and puts them atop churches that listen, act and put the wickedness of sexual violence to rest. Because I’m tired of seeing the preacher get arrested on the news and no longer being surprised about abuse taking place in our churches.