Protecting Victims of Sexual Abuse in Evangelical Churches

Sexual abuse is a growing Protestant problem, as institutional assumptions and procedures tend to protect predators and harm victims.

(Photo: Rashod)
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The list of high-profile men accused of sexual misconduct appears to grow exponentially as the days go by. In the latest developments to follow allegations against Harvey Weinstein and Roy Moore, eight women have come forward with sexual harassment claims against CBS “This Morning” and PBS show host Charlie Rose and at least two women have accused Democratic Sen. Al Franken of sexual harassment.

While some pastors and influential Christian leaders have defended or denounced Moore, a confessing Evangelical, others have remained silent on allegations that the twice-removed state justice running for the U.S. Senate preyed on teen girls.

This may be due to sexual misconduct in Christian contexts being viewed as primarily a problem in the Roman Catholic Church—where child rape and molestation allegations have been rampant for decades—and not a matter of urgency in Protestant spaces.

This “myth” has been dispelled by Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian, grandson of evangelist Billy Graham. Tchividjian is the founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), an organization staffed by volunteer lawyers, psychologists and theologians that investigates sexual abuse in Christian institutions.

In a recent interview with Vice, Tchivdjian cites several studies that “tell us that more children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church. One aspect of that is that there are way more Protestants and Protestant churches than there are Catholics. But for me, it’s important to share that statistic when speaking with Protestant audiences so that they stop pointing their fingers at the Catholic Church and engage more with their own church.”

Me Too hashtag about sexual abuse and harassment
(Photo: Mihai Surdu via Unsplash)

Tchividjian’s assessment is especially poignant as the viral hashtag #MeToo has empowered women, and some men, to speak publicly about their own sexual abuse. Within the past week, a former youth pastor from Kentucky pleaded guilty to child sexual abuse, a pastor in Oregon was charged with nine counts of sexual abuse against a minor, and three pastors in Ohio were indicted on sex trafficking charges.

While the number of incidents of sexual abuse in Evangelical churches is disturbingly high, Tchividjian’s work at GRACE has shown that many churches have willingly or unwillingly created environments that protect predators and silence victims. According to Tchividjian: “…most of our churches aren’t creating safe spaces. Too often victims are afraid to say anything because they’re afraid of how people will respond.”

Although some church leaders respond appropriately to sexual abuse allegations within their walls, “we, unfortunately, do have a lot of pastors who don’t think it happens, and prefer to embrace a false narrative that makes them more comfortable. It’s common to see a desire to protect the institution at the expense of the individual,” he told Vice.

Tchividjian mentioned that a great deal of education needs to be done so that victims of abuse are not blamed, forced to forgive their abusers or made to feel ashamed for what happened to them.

mike pence photo
(Photo: markn3tel )

Amid these discussions about sexual misconduct and assault, several Christian leaders have called for a recovery of the “Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule.” The measure asserts that a Christian male leader should not meet alone with a woman who isn’t his wife in order to avoid accusations of sexual impropriety. The Billy Graham/Mike Pence rule may be employed with the best of intentions, but writers such as Katelyn Beaty have shown that such rules actually do more to hurt than help.

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According to Beaty:

The Pence rule arises from a broken view of the sexes: Men are lustful beasts that must be contained, while women are objects of desire that must be hidden away. Offering the Pence rule as a solution to male predation is like saying, “I can’t meet with you one on one, otherwise I might eventually assault you.” If that’s the case, we have far deeper problems around men and power than any personal conduct rule can solve…. The answer is not to ask women to leave the room. It’s to hold all men in the room accountable, and kick out those who long ago lost their right to be there.

Beaty’s key point is significant—the answer should be to “hold all men in the room accountable, and kick out those who long ago lost their right to be there,” rather than place women in a place of discomfort and silence. But institutional assumptions and procedures, as observed by Tchividjian, make this particularly difficult. In too many cases, fault and blame is often placed on the victim rather than the abuser, and the reputation of the church and its leaders are upheld at the expense of the abused.

An example of this institutional problem can be seen in a recent article from The Gospel Coalition by Erik Raymond titled “Is There a Different Process of Church Discipline for Elders?” In the article, Raymond seeks to provide guidelines for a biblical process of bringing charges of sin against leaders in the church. While Raymond can be applauded for bringing the topic of church discipline for elders in sin into the forefront of discussion, he nevertheless argues for a principle lacking important nuance. While reflecting on the Bible’s prohibition of admitting “a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses” (1 Timothy 5:19), Raymond quotes the influential 20th century Anglican leader, John Stott:

In short, when elders are accused the apostle builds in an exhortation to remind the church ‘two or three witnesses are required not only before an accusation is sustained, but before it is entertained at all.’

While it is important to give utmost consideration to faithful Christian leaders, Raymond’s application of 1 Timothy 5:19 is clearly unhelpful—if not detrimental—to instances of secret sexual abuse, where the victim is the only witness. As is, such a monolithically applied principle provides no readily available courses of action for a victim of sexual abuse to bring a charge—or even have their accusations considered—against a leader in the church. Rather, it even perpetuates the systemic problems of assuming blame and shame on someone who brings up accusations rather than going through the due process of examining the accusation.

The principle of St. Paul’s command may not be intended to be wholly exhaustive, and it may require wisdom to nuance its application in different contexts. Clearly, capricious allegations are not on the same level as accusations of rape and abuse. Especially in the current hyper-sexualized climate, where influential figures both inside and outside of the church have been charged with rape and sexual assault, it would serve the church and the most vulnerable within its walls to not give such unrestrained protection of leaders.

Faithfully Magazine encourages victims of sexual assault and those aware of such allegations to report these cases to the police.

For more information, visit the resources page from GRACE.


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