In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein abuse fallout, as with many public scandals, I’ve seen posts, articles, and satire all pointing out the flaws of 'immoral' Hollywood. Which is quite startling if you take a minute to consider recent church history. Sexual abuse is not neatly fenced out by morality, nor are holy places somehow immune to it. In fact, sexual abuse is just as rampant within the walls of the church, or under its nose, as it is in some pagan or morally sick world.
To grasp just how accurate this is, it may be helpful for you to understand the environment wherein abuse is most capable of occurring. Abuse, particularly rampant or ongoing abuse, occurs in systems which allow for it, you might even say support it. Typically, these systems have three commonalities; they are authoritarian, avoidant and demand loyalty. Let me explain each in turn.
Authoritarian systems are rigid in their rules and cold in their relationships. The rules are not always implicit or spoken however. In fact, they are most commonly unspoken or implied, such as ‘Never disagree with the Pastor’ or ‘Don’t upset dad’. In authoritarian systems there is no healthy vulnerability in relationships, but a coldness that allows for people to be used as objects rather than dignified as image bearers.
Avoidant systems tend to value the absence of conflict above all else, meaning that if you bring up an issue as particularly horrific as sexual abuse, the system rushes to silence you. This silencing comes in way of; denying ‘He could have never done that’, minimizing ‘I’m sure it wasn’t that bad’, justifying the abuser ‘We shouldn’t be so hard on him, he’s been under so much stress lately’, or blaming the victim ‘Well, if she hadn’t been wearing that short skirt.’
Demanding loyalty is a trademark of systems that are particularly susceptible to fostering abuse. When your loyalty is aimed at keeping a system intact, you will go to great lengths to hand wounded people over to silence and shame in favor of the ‘greater good’ of the organization. If your loyalty is to an institution, you will always find persons sacrificed at the altar of preserving the mission.
Any system that upholds these values is prone to supporting an abuser, regardless of their values and morality. In fact, churches wherein you find these attributes tend to be the most focused on a rigid morality. When there is abuse within the system of a local church or denomination, as well as in any other ministry, it is as if the body of Christ has accepted its own self-mutilation and cannibalism. As Paul says, when one part of the body hurts, all parts hurt, which is why you must always speak up against an abuser, regardless of their status, position or power, or at what expense you may have to pay for speaking up. To allow abuse within your church or ministry is to allow for the suicide of the body of Christ. If one person is hurting, the rest of the body is hurting, whether you recognize it or not. Diane Langberg said that the church ought to be like ‘salt, an antiseptic. We are to be the immune system in the world.’
Let me encourage you to focus within your own walls when you hear stories of abuse ‘out there’. Statistically, someone in your congregation is being or has recently been sexually abused. Be alert. Don’t be so naïve as to think that just because your church uses the right words or holds the up the right values, that it is above abuse. It is not. Sin is deceptive. Our enemy is a prowling lion looking to kill, steal and destroy, often within the very midst of the sheep.
I understand that as a counselor trained in working with trauma and abuse, I’m more likely to be privy to this information than most. I also understand that this may sound a little over the top, or possibly a bit skewed or cynical. For those who still feel a little reluctant in accepting that sexual abuse (as well as physical, verbal or spiritual abuse) may very well be occurring within the walls of your church, I offer you these statistics, which hold up with my experience as a counselor in and outside of the church.
Most churches in the United States have an average church attendance of around 500 adults, 125 children. Most congregations are dominated by married adults, so in this “average church,” there are 200 married couples, 275 women and 225 men, 64 girls and 61 boys.
This means that in this church:
At least 40 marriages are abusive. Studies show that anywhere from 20%-35% of all intimate relationships are abusive, and many are physically violent. Physical abuse is not the only form abuse can take, and other types of abuse are just as damaging.
As many as 20 women are being consistently raped by their husbands. Studies performed by Susan Estrech and Diana Russel indicate that 10% of married women describe most of their sexual encounters with their husbands as non-consensual.
At least 38 of the men were sexually abused as children.
At least 68 of the women were sexually abused as children.
At least another 55 women have been raped, probably in college.
7 men have been raped as adults, although if you are near a military base that number is probablyhigher.
16 of the girls will experience sexual abuse.
10 of the boys will experience sexual abuse.
1 or 2 of these children are being physically abused by their parents.
It is possible that there are 9 child sexual abuse perpetrators in this church, since 30% of all child sexual abuse perpetrators are close family relatives– usually male relatives, although in 9%-14% of cases the pedophile is a woman. Another 30% of the time the perpetrator is another, older, minor.
*The above statistics come from this article.