the silent epidemic: sexual abuse & assault in evangelicalism

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2011 at 7:45 pm

Submitted By: Gentry

on friday night abc’s 20/20 featured an expose on sexual and physical abuse within independent fundamentalist baptist (ifb) churches. my friend crystal, who i worshipped with at manchester christian church in the early aughts and at home church in the middle aughts, grew up attending the church in concord, new  where the first heinous allegations of abuse took place, so i watched the show with great interest.

the show spoke about how, in two hierarchy obsessed, masochistically patriarchal ifb churches, high school aged women were raped by older men. the women were then blamed for the sex crimes, in one case forced to repent in front of the entire congregation, and commanded to “forgive” their male perpetrators. the perpetrators were then allowed to remain in fellowship with the church and maintain close associations with the congregation’s youth, while the victims were isolated and left to live in shame.

i kept an eye on the independent fundamental baptist cult survivors facebook page throughout the program and i was a little surprised by one thread of the conversations. namely, as many christians expressed their concern and support for the ifb victims, their comments appeared to indicate a belief that this type of abuse was limited to ifb or similar fundamentalist churches. if that assumption is correct, the commenters could not be further from the truth.

the fact is evangelical protestant churches of every stripe have been stained by sexual abuse. sadly, my experience suggests that most evangelical churches and organizations are just  as quick to cover up this abuse as their ifb cousins.

find that assertion questionable? let me briefly outline my experiences with sexual abusers in the church.

when i attended bible camp in third grade, we had a popular, funny counselor in our dorms. after the second night of our three night camp, the counselor disappeared. none of the leaders were willing to talk about why this man who slept in the immediate proximity of 30 boys was removed from camp, but one of my fellow campers said that the counselor, “tried to touch him.” i do not know if a sexual assault actually occurred, and i am almost certain that our parents and the local police were not notified of these allegations.

as a freshman in a parochial high school, i had a j.v. baseball coach who was winsome, compassionate and absolutely beloved by the student body. he also had a beautiful wife and was a respected deacon in a southern baptist church. one night, after giving me a ride home after a basketball game and right in front of my home, the coach grabbed the back of my pants, pulled out my boxers and said, “i see you’re a boxer man.” if memory serves, i told him to “get his fucking hands off of me,” but that retort may be a memory colored by bravado. nevertheless, i said something and he never touched me again. unfortunately, he did touch 6 or 7 other students and, as a result, is currently serving over 70 years in prison.

i can’t speak in great detail about another incident at my home church because i do not want to cause additional pain. however, i can say that a young man in authority broke sexual boundaries with a middle school girl and a pregnancy resulted. although the young man faced severe ecclesial condemnation following the incident, the authorities were never consulted or involved. this incident hit very close to home.

another young man that i went to bible college with who sang the praises of joshua harris and bragged about not kissing a girl until he was married, was convicted shortly after graduation for getting his high school youth group involved in a fantasy sex ring.

on another occasion during bible college, i was notified that a youth minister of a nearby church who i had greatly respected as a teen, was forced to resign for having sex with one of the underage girls in his youth group. when i spoke with an elder of my home church about the incident, he notified that it was horrible that the minister committed the offense, but you couldn’t blame him alone since the underage girl was sexually aggressive and “threw herself” at the minister.

a respected administrator at my seminary left to become the president of an evangelical college in north carolina. shortly after accepting his new post, he was forced to resign due to allegations concerning improper relations with an underage youth that were conducted via computer.

that’s just my experience. sadly my experience suggests that the sexual abuse featured in the 20/20 story is far from unique. whether in christian church, church of christ congregations, respected evangelical seminaries, or other educational institutions staffed or led by conservative christians, sexual abuse is common.

unfortunately, in many instances, these organizations that are so quick to quote 1 peter 2:13-14 – “Therefore submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake, whether to the king as supreme, or to governors” – refuse to notify authorities of instances of sexual abuse or rape. as a result, the individuals involved often have clean records and a virtual license to go forth and offend elsewhere. moreover, when abuse is spoken of, it is almost universally spoken of in reference to the abusers, usually male pastors or other church leaders, and the victims are rarely mentioned. it is common to hear about ministers who have fallen into sexual sin or been unfaithful to their wives, but one rarely hears concern for their victims or concern that earlier and/or additional perpetration might have occurred.

in most instances, the church and organizations seem more interested in protecting their reputation and avoiding shame than ensuring that perpetrators are brought to justice and victims receive adequate support and treatment.

as a christian, i believe that perpetrators can turn from their sexual sin and eventually experience healing. i believe that victims can identify their trauma, move towards healing, and in some miraculous instances, even forgive their perpetrators. i believe that light is more powerful than darkness – even the profound darkness of sexual assault and abuse – and i believe that Christ can make all things – even repentant perpetrators who abused their authority to victimize innocent people – new.

however, until the church is willing to clearly identify that abuse is a problem, consistently teach the members of the church about healthy sexuality, prioritize the care of victims over reputation of their churches/organizations, and refuse to shield abusers from the profound legal and social consequences that result from their sin, we will continue to have a silent epidemic of sexual abuse and assault raging within the body of Christ.

the ifb is not alone. there is an epidemic of sexual abuse raging within our congregations, denominations, colleges, and seminaries that has to be addressed. i am going to do my best to advocate, educate, work and pray for the health and relationships within christian communities. i hope that you will join me on the journey.

  1. Very well written. For some reason the Church as a whole often times deals with sexual sin merely from a repentance/healing standpoint while shielding herself from the consequences that the rest of society faces for the same transgressions.

    This reminds me of a church that decided to change their stance on pornography being found on staff computers. They told the staff that from that point forward, if porn was found on their computer, they would be immediately fired no questions asked. There was some surprise from the staff at such a “harsh” consequence until they realized that at most secular companies this is exactly how they deal with it.

    Shouldn’t the Church have a higher standard on such issues especially concerning sexual abuse where there are such deep wounds to victims and their families? If so, I would think that authorities should be contacted immediately with any and all acts of abuse that takes place. The actions of perpetrators must be addressed and not harbored by the Church.

  2. A very good response to what happens in our American Churches.

    I am sincerely glad that women are Priests, Bishops and Deacons in my tradition. I think if women were in decision making roles, and part of the process, this kind of stuff would be less likely to turn out that the girls would be ‘left to live in shame’.

    I would think it would be MUCH harder to sweep it under the carpet in a mixed gender governance situation.

  3. Hey Brother Patrick, welcome! Hope to see you around here often. By the way, what tradition are you a part of?

  4. I am a Gregorian Friar, and a friend of Slowmo. We are a community in the Episcopal (Anglican) Church.

    Looks like a great blog.

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