By David Jones
Sexual abuse in the churches isn’t on the rise—it’s finally being revealed just as promised.
“For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.” (Luke 8:17)
Recent news articles have splashed cold water in the faces of people who sleepily assumed such things only happened to others. Not in our church. Not in our faith. Not in the Body of Christ. It’s curious to hear the theories behind all the abuse.
“It’s porn that’s doing this.”
“It’s because of a failed policy of clerical celibacy.”
“It’s society’s obsession with sex.” On and on.
Oddly, the churches focus on the sexual aspect, like sex is the problem. No, sex is one manifestation of the problem; how the real toxin reveals itself. It’s not just Catholic priests and young boys either, something well circulated. It’s Catholic priests and nuns. It’s Southern Baptist preachers and members of their flock.
That’s another telling factor: how reluctant these churches are to change. Admitting awareness of the problem is hard enough, but then calls for change are heavily resisted. Sitting in judgment of the unclean, wicked world, declaring yourself to be righteous and saved, it just doesn’t look good when your misconduct requires you to make changes. It could make people walk away.
As recorded at John 3:19, “And the judgment is based on this fact: God’s light came into the world, but people loved the darkness more than the light, for their actions were evil.”
It’s not even just a Christian church thing. Recent reports of Buddhist teachers sexually abusing students have caused some adherents of the Path to face the pain of victimization.
Look beyond religion, teachers and students, Scout leaders and their troop members; at my job we have annual briefings about sexual harassment, partly focused on managers and employees.
The problem is the culture of power where control of those below you is inherently considered a perk. Power corrupts, they say, and it doesn’t just corrupt leaders. Sheep-like victims are abused by the same culture of power long before they suffer at the hands of their shepherds. It’s the danger of encouraging blind faith in or obedience to a person or body, putting them on a pedestal where we have to look up at them.
Victims within the abusive system are conditioned parallel to their abusers. It’s rude to say “No.” It’s disrespectful for sheep to resist the direction of shepherds who only want what’s best for them.
A congregation was anciently admonished, “Be obedient to those who are taking the lead among you and be submissive, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will render an account.” (Hebrews 13:17) To oppose the will of your preacher is the same as opposing the will of God and Christ, which surely endangers your soul.
Likewise Tibetan Buddhist Lama Tsultrim Allione described the problem: “One is told that one must see the lama as the Buddha and that anything the lama does is perfect and that whatever might seem wrong with it, that is your impure vision.”
The veil of secrecy is a strong weapon in the power abuser’s arsenal, and it’s used time and again. Every time a church or body demands that these accusations of abuse be handled privately, in-house without involving outside authorities, we hear the smoking gun’s firing pin striking the primer.
Indeed, a quote by a Buddhist volunteer said of the Shambhala scandal, “I don’t want it to be exposed, but it has to be exposed.”
It’s not that victims brought it upon themselves, like they were complicit in their abuse—as many in power like to pretend. It’s how the culture conditions everyone. We’re taught that it’s rude or disrespectful to speak out against our “elders,” especially publicly. It’s bad form to air dirty laundry.
Most of the underlying reasons given for wanting to keep bad behavior and such from becoming known relate to a worry about image. It isn’t that these preachers were harmful hypocrites, but “What would people think of me, of us, of the church, of our ministry, of Jesus, of God Himself if this got out?” (Romans 2:17-24)
This isn’t new, though. Romans chapter 2 asks a rhetorical question of those who felt themselves superior due to knowing the Law, focusing on those who “… are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of little children, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth….”
The question is: if you teach against immoral and sinful things, do you then end up practicing those same things? Because this writer knows they do, so he declares “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:24) His name is blasphemed because the teachers were hypocrites, not because people “found out about it.”
So if you’ve experienced or witnessed sexual abuse in your church, congregation, mosque, synagogue, sangha or temple, what should you do? Well, that’s up to you. I can’t decide for you or make you do anything. I can, however, love you, shower you with understanding and compassion and maybe offer advice if you ask for it.
Not that speaking out always works; abusers may get shuttled off to a new location and resume their crimes. But that’s changing as people wake up to see what has usually been hidden from them. True change will come from within, not from without.
If you find yourself conditioned to expect adoration or submissiveness, to feel you deserve it or are entitled to it, I advise you to consider Jesus’s words to his disciples at Matthew 20:25-27: the more you want to rule others, the more you really need to lovingly serve them instead.
Editor: Alicia Wozniak