Abuse Happens in Progressive Churches, Too: the Duggar Scandal and the Failure of Self-critical Reflection

David R. Henson
May 28, 2015

Creative Commons Copyright by Michael Caven (Flickr) photo cropped

Now is the time to talk about abuse in the church.

Now, when you are tired of talking about it. Now, when youíve moved on to the next social media buzz. Now, when you think youíve exhausted every possible angle of it.

Thatís because now is the time where we get to decide whether we will change or whether this was just another distraction, another voyeuristic foray of using tragedy to score political or cultural points.

Now is the time to stop pointing fingers at the far away.

One of the most frustrating elements of the progressive response to the horrendous Duggar scandal is the unspoken insinuation that this kind of abuse only occurs or is much more likely to occur in fundamentalist, conservative, or patriarchal churches.

It been a way for liberals and progressives to tut-tut in the wake of tragedy rather than engage in critical self-reflection of our own institutions. While some social and theological elements certainly can exacerbate in terrible ways abuse, the sobering truth is that any institution ó religious or secular, conservative or liberal ó that includes or ministers to children can find itself in the midst of an abuse scandal. Institutions and their leaders must remain vigilant at all times and must not succumb to the self-satisfied notion that this kind of scandal is something more likely to happen in those churches over there, among those conservatives, or with those homeschoolers. With a one in four women and one in six men were sexually abused, itís clear that abuse isnít just happening in conservative spaces.

For example, read this story about an Episcopal school and the similarities of admission without repercussion that allowed for more victims.

Look around your parish. Regardless of how progressive it is, that statistic is true for the people in your pews and for the people leading. There is a pastoral responsibility, as a result, to know the warning signs of abuse, to understand the effects of abuse, and to be aware of the ways in which abusers exploit systems to gain trust and access to potential victims.

Thatís why the single most hospitable thing any church can do for young families is to get their workers, leadership, and clergy trained in the prevention of child abuse so that churches can become the safe spaces they truly should be. This is especially true as we enter into summer, the season of Vacation Bible School and youth camps.

And after spending several hours renewing my training this past week, Iíve become convinced that progressive Christians, by and large, have fumbled an opportunity to truly lead in the aftermath of the Duggar scandal.

1. Get educated. No, reading about it on the internet isnít enough. Itís a start, but you need real training and, if itís been awhile, you might need a refresher. Many, if not all, mainline churches require these types of programs. But if you attend a nondenominational church or one that has no firm policies on this, find a training and get educated. Call a local mainline church and ask to join one of their trainings.

2. Train others. Here is where I think many churches, especially among the mainline, have failed. We have a unique opportunity to educate and to lead in order to make more churches safe, not just our own. With consciousness high about the prevalence of child abuse, we might do better than tsk-tsking others. Reach out to the local church community, the ministerial association, or interfaith groups in order to offer city- or county-wide trainings. Work hand-in-hand with local government agencies and nonprofits to create trainings for all churches. Advocate for legislation that requires proof of training for any organization that wants to rent public property for events or camps. Many mainline churches have the benefit of a centralized hierarchy that requires these types of trainings. Letís put that to use in our communities and be leaders. (I know some may be already doing this)

3. Take action. During a training course, you will learn how institutions and systems are exploited and manipulated. Youíll learn to spot warning signs and red flags of potential abusers. Youíll learn how to structure events involving children and youth better. Youíll learn how to respond to victims appropriately and in a way that doesnít do additional harm. And if youíre training doesnít teach these things, then by all means, find another one and talk to your ecclesiastical superiors about improving the training.

4. Revisit your own policies. Perhaps youíve already been trained. Now is a good time to refresh your memory and the memories of your church governing board about these policies. Create or revisit the action plan and steps if abuse is reported or suspected. Update your policies. Check to see whose training might have lapsed and might need to renew it. And remind each other to follow the policies. Even if they seem cumbersome. Even if they are inconvenient.

5. Talk about it in your church. Remember those statistics? Someone in your church has experienced abuse or is being abused. Consider bringing in trained experts to lead a support group. Talk about abuse, its consequences, and how it is NEVER okay. Push back against notions of redemptive suffering that can silence victims or encourage them to see their abuse as part of Godís will or teaching. Post signs at Sunday school and nursery doors notifying that visitors that all workers, paid or volunteer, have been trained in the prevention of abuse. Silence can an abuserís accomplice.

These are not all-inclusive, but a starting point to suggest how churches might do better to protect the children in their care and communities.








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