Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them. So be on your guard!
-Acts 20:28-31 (NIV)
A longtime church youth leader, a man who had mentored, taught, and traveled with generations of teenagers and children in Bible classes, youth group activities, Bible Bowls, and camp sessions, was convicted of the sexual abuse of children. He admitted to abusing at least four of the children whose faith and spiritual health he was responsible for — and there are almost certainly many more.
The abuser was sentenced to up to five years in prison but was out on electronic monitoring pending an appeal of his sentence. He continued attending the church where some of his victims and their parents still attend. When concern about his continued presence was expressed to leaders of that church, the leaders pointed out that the abuser had “come forward” and repented of his sins — twice. One leader — the abuser’s brother-in-law — said that he can’t judge because he can’t see what’s in the abuser’s heart. Leaders emphasized that the abuser was watched carefully, and wasn’t allowed contact with children. The mother of at least one of the victims was told when she objected to the abuser’s presence at church that she had hatred in her heart and needed to forgive. She said it was almost like the abuser was more important than the victims.
Church leaders say that they were very supportive of the victims, but that none of them had asked for help.
In this case, a judge finally issued an order that the abuser is not to attend the church anymore unless church leaders sign a waiver of the prohibition.
The leaders are, apparently, still weighing that decision.
First, an obvious and probably unnecessary statement: being a church leader can sometimes be hard. The stakes, if we take our faith seriously, are high. Sometimes you have to say things to people that they don’t want to hear, or take courses of action that aren’t popular. With prayer and good counsel, you hope that you can properly separate good motives from bad, that your actions and decisions are driven by a desire to help the church to grow in faith and godliness — but you can’t always be absolutely sure, I guess. Taking the responsibility of a leadership position in a church means that there will be hard decisions to be made.
The decisions surrounding cases like this one, though, should not be hard. Unpleasant? Definitely. Distasteful? No doubt. Upsetting? Heartbreaking? Yes. Yes.
Hard? Not at all.
Why, then, do churches so regularly seem to make the wrong decisions about whether to protect abusers or their victims?
Sometimes it happens at the level of national and international church leadership, as we’ve seen in some of the high-profile stories of rampant abuse overlooked and ignored, of victims doubted and silenced, of abusers hidden and protected. Billboards all over Chicago right now urge Catholics, for instance, that it’s time to leave the church over this culture. Southern Baptists are increasingly hearing about their own problems with the sweeping of abuse under the rug that go all the way up to the national level.
So it’s easy for those of us in churches that are locally autonomous to look down our noses a little, to imagine that it’s corruption inherent in those denominational structures that is to blame.
The case above, though, happened in one of those locally autonomous churches. The abuse went on for decades, and even after it was uncovered leaders still couldn’t make the fairly obvious decision that the abuser needed to spend his Sunday mornings somewhere other than in the pews with his victims and their families.
Churches want to be places of grace, and we should be. But grace doesn’t only have to do with being magnanimous to those who have sinned. What about grace for those who have been hurt? What does being a place of grace to victims require of us? Showing grace to sinners doesn’t preclude showing grace to those hurt by their sin. It shouldn’t require victims to share communion and sing hymns with those who have made them victims. The wolves, Paul warned, will not spare the flock if they’re allowed free rein. And sometimes, Jesus pointed out, those wolves even wear sheep’s clothing.
Church leaders want to spend their time teaching, ministering, serving those in need, and sharing the gospel. They prefer to make decisions about building expansions, or what mission efforts to support, or what ministries will help the church grow. But Paul points out that church leaders also have to be a watchful and even suspicious lot when it comes to those who might do harm to the church. Church leaders tend to see clearly and quickly the spiritual damage that can be done by false teaching, but they can overlook how a person can be devastated by abuse — and by being victimized again by those who should have offered help.
Churches and their leaders should listen when abuse is alleged. We should hear those allegations, even though we don’t want to. We should resist our natural inclinations toward “Surely not” or “Not him.”
Churches and their leaders need to recognize that “repentance” isn’t enough, and that we can’t forgive an abuser on behalf of his or her victims. None of us are able to judge a penitent abuser’s position before the Lord. But that’s beside the point in this case. Many types of abuse seem almost impossible to unlearn, and never without many years of hard work and therapy. Coming forward on a Sunday morning doesn’t square an abuser with his victims. Nor should it.
Churches and their leaders must always run in the other direction from the dreaded “internal investigation.” Don’t ask an accused abuser if they’re guilty — they’ll lie anyway. Don’t put them in a room with their victim to “talk it out.” Don’t go into defensive posture. Call the police. If you want to be there for the abuser, offer to drive him or her to the police station. In child abuse cases, most church leaders are mandated reporters. Most Christians should consider ourselves under the mandate of Christ to report a disclosure of abuse.
Once abuse has been disclosed, the church’s primary responsibility shifts to ministering to the victims of that abuse. We should grieve with them. They need to be able to talk about what was done to them. They need our prayers, and they need us to walk with them through what they have to face. They need to see through us that God has not abandoned them. Their abusers will be dealing with the consequences of their actions. Their victims asked for and deserve none of it.
Jesus seems to have been willing to take a side when he said, “It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Let’s be willing to stand where he does.
And let’s work to protect those who are most vulnerable from the wolves.