Speaking Out on Church-related Sexual Abuse
I’ve wanted to write this article for the past few weeks, but am prompted to follow through when I realize I have three conversations going tonight—one on Facebook, two on text—that involve clergy sexual misconduct (CSM). Cindy . . . Chelsea . . . Kirsten . . . I’m so sorry. These women are hurt, frustrated, angry, and lost, and they feel they have nowhere to turn but me.
Probably because of a mix of my job as a Christian counselor and my history as a survivor of CSM, my name has gotten out as someone who helps victims in Seventh-day Adventist circles. When I refer to victims of CSM, I mean anyone who has been sexually preyed upon by a spiritual leader. Even if that individual is an adult, the power advantage of the leader makes it constitute abuse. Unfortunately, such things happen in the Seventh-day Adventist church. Trying to right these wrongs is a volunteer job with a mix of sweet emotional rewards and hefty price tags to my reputation and inner peace.
I’ve spoken out on this issue many times before and hope to continue. Cindy, Chelsea, Kirsten, this one’s for you.
The Compassion/Justice Link
Helping victims of CSM involves two basic functions: compassion and justice. The two connect like links in the chain of God’s character. We pour out compassion on the victim and seek justice for the wrong they suffered. Don’t think of this as split personality, because justice brims with compassion, even to the wrongdoer. Why let them go on in their wayward path unhindered, when it leads to hell? Sometimes we must do what we can to stop them in their tracks. Sometimes, with careful consideration, counsel and prayer, we must follow in the footsteps of the prophets and blow the whistle.
The whistleblower Isaiah said, “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter; which justify the wicked for reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him,” (5:20, 23). Notice this passage begins with “woe.” Isaiah is not in “comfort my people” mode here; he’s issuing a rebuke, essentially pointing his finger at our flawed dealings with wickedness among us. By extension, he’s telling us that in our silence on CSM we wordlessly call evil good, and passively justify the wicked for the reward of being spared the consequences of speaking up. Is it not so? In our fear of the messiness of such situations, we often “pray about it” when we should speak up about it. But the sin of silence and passivity in the face of evil will find us out. Unless something changes, woe unto us.
Could We Bear the Spotlight?
Even the world is disgusted by abuse enabling. The 2016 film Spotlight chronicles the work of the Boston Globe investigative journalism team as they methodically uncovered the 2002 scandal of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in Massachusetts and the even more reprehensible cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese. By the time the Archdiocese resigned under a cloud of shame, thousands of cases of molestation and rape by Catholic priests had been exposed. More shocking than the actual abuse were the actions of Catholic bishops to keep the crimes secret and reassign the accused to other parishes where they had continued unsupervised contact with youth.
The apostle said of such things, “Let it not once be named among you,” (Ephesians 5:3). I wish I could say that our own Seventh-day Adventist Church was flawless in this regard; but at times CSM, with its attendant authoritarianism, careerism, and sensuality under a garb of sanctity, raises its beastly head in our ranks. I feel a little squeamish admitting this. My inner people-pleaser cringes in fear of being blackballed as a troublemaker and disloyal to the organization. My inner evangelist wants to put forth the best impression of our church. But upon reflection, I realize that by admitting the truth, and doing something about it, I actually witness to the world.
Whistleblowers Can Be Witnesses
I witness to the world because I show that Adventism is truly a religion based on the priesthood of believers. Most of our heroes, including Ellen White and William Miller, weren’t ordained clergy. In Adventist thinking, laity can hold clergy accountable for their actions. Our confidence in doing so reveals that our church organization, while allowing for biblical authority, doesn’t cross the line into ungodly authoritarianism. Leaders do not control the consciences of the people they lead. More than this, we bare the Adventist soul that, even pressured by corrupt and coercive power, would engage in civil disobedience. Just as we claim to be true Protestants in regard to rejecting the unbiblical Sabbath, we protest any moral compromise, especially within our own church. In addressing clergy sexual misconduct as an Adventist lay person, I shouldn’t fear being discounted due to my status. In theory at least, Adventists respect the voice of the loyal but challenging member.
I witness to the world because I show Adventism’s fundamental opposition to the abuse of power. The metanarrative of our faith entails an unprecedented, mass-scale oppression mobilized by a league of religious and political entities conglomerating into “the beast.” Over and over, Adventist evangelists show the persecutions historically perpetrated by this beast, pointing forward to its prophesied resurgence. We decry the gradual capitulation of Protestantism to Rome and count ourselves as unique in our continued protest because we do not bow the knee to one who “thinks to change” God’s “times and laws.” At the core of our true-blue Protestantism lies an aversion to human authority gone out of bounds. In theory at least, Adventism should be extra-scrupulous in its efforts to keep clergy accountable, knowing how threatening apostate clergy will eventually become.
I witness to the world because I show Adventism’s fundamental regard for the vulnerable. Out of respect for our heritage as a small, obscure faith often misrepresented as a cult, we have empathy for the marginalized and misunderstood. Because of both our history and our theology, the spirit of biblical social justice cannot be excised from the SDA soul. Just as our beliefs instill caution toward the abuse of power, they nurture a tender regard for the little guy. Of all the people on earth who should put truth above expedience, Adventists should. Theoretically at least, we dispense with even the most resourceful and popular leaders if they use their power to harm the vulnerable. By the same token, we should be willing to believe and vindicate the poorest and weakest of God’s children. We should love truth above convenience, principle above policy, and people above politics.
The Lingering Impression
“We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to human beings,” (1 Corinthians 4:9). The world is watching, the angels are watching, and God is watching. Will we talk big about our theological differences with Rome and apostate Protestantism, but show no actual differences in our way of handling CSM? No, because “we are His witnesses” (Acts 5:32). When we take the issue of church-related sexual abuse seriously, following the lead of the Holy Spirit, the world will forget about the clergy who act out, and remember the individuals who spoke out. The lingering impression, and ultimately our witness, will be that we are a people who speak the truth regardless of the cost.
So, now what? Blow whistles indiscriminately, assume there’s a perpetrating pastor behind every bush, and call fire and brimstone down upon the guilty? Clearly we want to approach this delicate situation . . . delicately, as if dancing through a fire. Imbalanced and wicked individuals sometimes make false allegations. How do we walk with the Spirit through these mazes? To address that question comprehensively is beyond the scope of this article, but I propose the following action steps as a beginning of the process:
- Pray. “The physicians in our sanitariums, the ministers of the gospel, those in charge of our publishing houses and schools, need your prayers. They are tempted and tried. As you plead with God to bless them, your own hearts will be subdued and softened by His grace. We are living amid the perils of the last days, and we are to cleanse ourselves from all defilement and put on the robe of Christ’s righteousness” (Review and Herald, December 31, 1901). We should pray for our leaders! God has promised that, “He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the LORD an offering in righteousness,” (Malachi 3:3). Because of our leaders’ privileges and power, they become Satan’s special targets. How essential that we hold them up before the God of all grace!
- Educate. I’m convinced that the Seventh-day Adventist Church needs reform in the area of clergy sexual misconduct allegation handling (Did you notice?). Too many times I’ve seen perpetrators passed from conference to conference while those aware of their crimes remain silent under gag orders, fear of lawsuit, or a desire to be “good Christians.” Situations in which spiritual leaders clearly use their power edge to take advantage of congregants, some of whom are minors, are construed as “affairs” rather than abuse. But to try to change a whole system by authoritarian fiat would fail and even add to the problem. What will tip the scales in the right direct is education. Particularly those who wrestle with these problems day after day, counseling and helping victims, should be given opportunity to present their experience and wisdom. “We must educate, educate, educate, pleasantly and intelligently” (Evangelism, p. 528). Rather than bury this problem under a cover of shame, let’s admit it exists among us, begin to make an effort to eradicate it, and show the world our commitment to integrity.
- Advocate. Often, out of a desire to conform to the letter of the Matthew 18 counsel, well-meaning church members advise alleged victims to talk directly to alleged abusers. This approach resembles advising a chicken with all its feathers plucked out: “Go back to Mr. Fox and confront him about what he did!” Many don’t understand the nuances of Jesus’ teaching. Notice first of all that Jesus prefaces his teaching of “if your brother sins . . .go and tell him,” (Matthew 18:15) with a treatise on “little ones,” (Matthew 18:3-6). He bluntly informs us that one who offends “little ones” is worthy of capital punishment by drowning. “Little ones,” from the Greek micros, means someone smaller. Summarizing, before Jesus ever advises confrontation of conflict between equals, He establishes that in some cases sin occurs in a power-imbalanced relationship, implying that “little ones” need an advocate to mediate between them and the perpetrator.
When an advocate becomes aware of an allegation, the road to justice can seem risky. That’s because it is. But take it anyway. Some excellent resources to guide the process are listed below.
The Hope of Survivors- thehopeofsurvivors.com, ministers to victims of clergy sexual misconduct of all denominations, but is run by a Seventh-day Adventist couple with their own survival story. Their website offers a wealth of reading material, including testimonies, Bible studies, and spirit of prophecy quotations. They distribute excellent educational videos and will take speaking appointments.
G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment)- netgrace.org offers educational resources, including written material and videos. They also do legal consulting and in large cases will conduct investigations.
Addendum: I began this article over a month ago, and am just finishing it now. This week I received a threatening email from the lawyer of a perpetrator. Apparently, for the first time in my life, I’m being threatened with a lawsuit. I admit my blood pressure went up as I read this aggressive, hateful letter. But I cried out to God and His Spirit comforted me. I prayed with my fellow advocates and their supportive words calmed my frayed nerves. Then I received an email from one of the victims of this man. After detailing the devastation she’d experienced, she said, “Thank you for championing this issue and making sure to protect others.” So in this moment, as I wait for a call from my lawyer, I’m thankful to be a whistleblower. Will you join me?