Choose the Harder Path

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In 2014, a conflict at Christianity Today highlighted how unprepared most churches are to respond appropriately to abuse. CT’s Leadership Journal chose to publish an ex-pastor’s story titled “My Easy Trip from Youth Minister to Felon,” written in the style of a confessional about how easy it can be for a pastor to “fall” into sin. There was one problem—the piece eventually revealed the pastor was in prison for behavior the legal system determined was a crime (a further indicator of the severity of the behavior, since the vast majority of those accused of sexual assault do not face prison time.) Instead of acknowledging he committed a crime against a child, the piece referred to the abuse as a “relationship,” spoke of the victim as if she was guilty of sin, and spent most of the piece grieving his own personal losses, such as his ministry and his prison sentence, with little concern for the damage done to the victim and church community.

And yet Leadership Journal initially saw no fled flags with the piece and published it tagged under “adultery” and “temptation” (not abuse or sexual assault).

Victims of sexual abuse or pastoral abuse in particular read the pastor’s account very differently than the editors at Leadership Journal. They recognized the tone of self-justification, the victim-blaming, the way what happened was twisted into a story in which somehow the abuser was the victim for being denied grace for “stumbling” into a “sin” which could happen to anyone (an “easy trip”). They heard the way in which the victim’s personhood was reduced to that of a “temptation” to a vulnerable pastor in a frustrated marriage. In short, they heard the voice of a sexual predator, skillfully manipulating the Christian worldview of sin and grace to describe his predatory behavior as something more like a mistake, a stumbling into temptation, than a conscious decision to abuse his authority to harm a vulnerable minority for his own desires. They recognized the arrogant tone that assumed he would be given grace from a forgiving community for his “mistake.” They heard the voice of a typical narcissistic pastor who abuses and then manipulates the emotions of others through a rapid and superficial "repentance"—likely in a conscious attempt to pave his way back into ministry, since the piece was written shortly after his sentence. Victims of pastoral abuse or rape recognized this pattern, because of their own stories of pastors horrendously abusing them and finding their way back into ministry through a “forgiving” congregation who accepted the pastor’s skillful reshaping of the narrative of their abuse.

After some time of overwhelming outrage at the Leadership Journal publication choice, Leadership Journal finally realized their serious error of judgment. Now the piece is prefaced with a disclaimer in which the editors admit they should never have published the piece, and point out the troubling tone of self-justification throughout. Christianity Today also published several follow-up pieces which highlighted the voices of abuse victims and the dynamics of predatory behavior, including “To Publish a Predator,” an excellent piece at CT Women by Halee Gray Scott, a survivor of rape by a pastor—who also described the rape as him stumbling into “temptation.” Her response, along with many other excellent responses to the article, highlighted the deep danger of giving abusers a platform for their distorted versions of their abusive behavior.    

I often think of this controversy as a telling example of how far the church still has to go before it understands the dynamics of abuse and the profile of an abuser. The editors of Leadership Journal are highly educated and represent a centrist evangelical tradition, and yet even after their error was pointed out, it took the editors some time to realize the depth of their mistake (two milder disclaimers / “clarifications” of the intent of the piece were initially published which still prioritized the pastor’s version of events.)

The controversy reminds me of how easy it is to condemn abuse in the abstract, but how difficult it can be to believe in the severity of abusive behavior when the abuser is charming, intelligent, and manipulative.

It reminds me of the danger of assuming we understand abuse and could never be conned by an abuser’s version of events.

When we are confronted with an allegation of abuse, there are almost always two paths we can take and two very different stories we can choose from. One story will always be easier to believe. It will reinforce our innate desire to believe the best of others and will strengthen our beliefs that we are safe from harm by assuring us that the victim was not really a victim, but someone who willfully chose to “sin.” This story, the abuser’s version of events, is one we are conditioned to believe in a society where victim-blaming (as well as misogyny in the case of abuse against women) is rampant. Going down the path of blindly accepting this story will allow us to believe a person we may have trusted, who may be charming and likeable, is basically the same nice person we thought they were, but who perhaps just happened to make a terrible “mistake.” Believing this story allows us to sigh and shrug, “There but for the grace of God go I.”

The other path will be more complicated and difficult, and will require hearing a different, more troubling and painful story. It will likely involve entering the complicated web of an abuser's process of grooming a vulnerable target for abuse through gaining trust, before gradually introducing and escalating abusive behavior before the victim realizes the danger they are in and the ways they are being used. (For more information about the typical stages of grooming and abusing a victim, see “Stages of Grooming” at Safe Church’s abuse awareness resource page). When we hear such a story, everything in us will want to use any positive actions initiated by the victim toward their abuser as an excuse to see the abuse as an “affair” or "consensual" instead of the horror it is. But this choice comes at a high cost. It empowers abusers to continue a pattern of targeting and abusing vulnerable persons, all the while knowing that their victim-blaming version of events is likely to be believed. It creates a worldview where sexual abuse is normalized as if it is a normal temptation we all can relate to, instead of a serious crime. It allows the gospel to be distorted into a caricature that is a platform for abusive behavior.  

When it comes to abuse, we can’t assume our “gut” will guide us naturally to the truth and the right course of action. It might, if our instincts are trained to recognize dynamics of abuse, the typical justifications offered by those who abuse, and the strict consequences and accountability necessary for any abuses of authority. But for most of us, our natural bias will be to want to believe the abuser's story and by implication silence and blame the victim, instead of going through an objective and rigorous process with the helped of trained and qualified professionals to discern whether abuse took place and then take the necessary actions in response.

If we want to create safe churches and communities, we need to stop assuming our churches and communities are mostly safe, and start assuming we need regular training and retraining to help us on the path towards creating a safe and healing community. We need to choose to take the more difficult path of hearing the hard stories we’d rather not believe.

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Community Builder

For training in abuse awareness, I've adapted many items from my predecessor, Beth Swagman. One of her presentations was entitled, "The Short Course on Abuse". In that presentation, the very first point is: Expect denial from everyone, including you! We simply don't want to believe that abuse really happens, especially when the one who perpetrates it is someone we know, love, and respect. We have to work, to choose the harder path, to overcome our tendency toward denial. We also need to understand the devastating effects and deep impacts of abuse on those who have been victimized by it. Their experience must not be minimized. Instead we honor them by listening carefully, by giving them a voice, by not being afraid to enter in, with them, to a dark place. The Lord can only bring healing when we have acknowledged what has happened and the harm that has been done. This is not an easy path, but the rewards are well worth it. It's been said that the truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. A long term perspective is needed. The first step is overcoming our own strong tendency to deny and to minimize. We do so much harm, re-victimizing those who have already been hurt, when we fail to take this first critical step. 

Participant

Monica. I would very much agree that this abusive pastor was and may well still be a highly skilled, manipulative predator.  Most lawyers, not just prosecutors, would recognize the profile.

What I have long wondered is whether there is some connection between the church's rather fashionable inclination toward "restorative justice" and a particular vulnerability to being manipulated, as this publication was, by these kinds of predators.

Don't get me wrong.  I love "restorative justice."  But I also believe that "restorative justice" is pretty hard to come by in the real world, and usually because the perpetrator wants to be excused, not restored.  It takes two to have true restorative justice, a truth that restorative justice advocates would sometimes like to not be the case.  That may be a harsh thing to say but I think it is true.

In other words, I think there is a tension here for the church: it so wants the perpetrator and victim to be restored, but it needs to hold perpetrators accountable.  The former "want" can overwhelm the latter responsibility, especially when the perpetrator is skilled, and sexual predators are often quite skilled.

This is just difficult in a way, especially for kind hearted, merciful and gracious "church people."  Not sure of the solution to this but I quite believe this tension exists and can be a serious problem, as evidenced by this article.

Guide

Wow, thanks Doug. Such insightful comments. I agree completely with your concerns about restorative justice. It seems similar to forgiveness in that it can be powerful and freeing if the situation is appropriate for it but has similar real dangers for misuse and distortions when forgiveness is extended to someone who is unrepentant (by any standard more rigid other than a superficial "I'm so sorry.") I have read some stories upheld as models of restorative justice that made me really cringe. A danger of restorative justice can be that victims and their families in a Christian context have internalized deep pressure to forgive and forget great harm, and may not have the appropriate skills and training to assess whether or not the culprit should be extended grace or remains a danger to society. 

This: "It so wants the perpetrator and victim to be restored, but it needs to hold perpetrators accountable.  The former "want" can overwhelm the latter responsibility, especially when the perpetrator is skilled, and sexual predators are often quite skilled" -- seems exactly the problem. Christians are deeply deeply conditioned to see grace and restoration as the desired outcome for sin, any sin, so there's a tendency towards idealism in many churches, this optimism that the gospel can fix anything and anyone if we just try hard enough. But sometimes it can't, sometimes abusive patterns are deep rooted and possibly even incurable in this lifetime. The church needs to learn to love without having this ingrained triumphalism/naivety that assumes all problems can be fixed by our own willpower and good intentions. We can genuinely love an abuser while refusing to compromise on the care and safety of both the victim and other potential victims. But, as the CT missteps illustrates, I think very few churches are prepared for how to handle a charismatic abuser such as this who knows exactly how to manipulate the Christian worldview to their own ends.  

 

Community Builder

While I agree that Restorative Justice may be misused; and perhaps your comments reveal that it is often misunderstood. I have to note that a true restorative practice is not an easy fix or a simple process. Rather, in its true form, it's a process that allows space for the voice of the one victimized, a voice that so often gets lost in other forms of justice. It allows him or her to tell the story and, just as important, it allows others to listen and to hear, to enter in to that dark space, to get up close an personal with some of the devastation and serious impacts caused by the abuse. It gives attention to the harm done and also gives the one victimized a voice in determining what happens next, or what is needed to make things right. It is a process recommended in the Abuse Victim's Task Force Report approved by Synod 2010. 

Perhaps its name betrays the process a bit. Restorative justice is about restoring relationship - we are called to be one in Christ. It does not mean that a situation will be restored to a former state, or that a church leader will be restored to a former position. In cases of abuse that is not possible. Nothing may ever the same again after an experience of abuse, the damage cannot be undone. Yet our God is an amazing God who can transform, who can create beauty from ashes, redeem brokenness into something strong. He can use Restorative Practices to transform a community, as well as the individuals in it. I think Restorative Justice or Restorative Practices fit the title of this article perfectly; because it's a harder path. On a Restorative path, I believe there is more opportunity for healing, redeeming, and transformation - relationships not the same, but deeper. This path will also require more pain, commitment, and engagement. Choose the harder path.

Guide

Thanks Bonnie, that's really helpful and an important clarification. I wasn't aware that restorative justice was a part of the CRC's recommended process, and definitely was not intending to cast a negative light on its use in the CRC or in general. I agree completely that what is powerful about restorative justice is that it can be a way to prioritize a victim's needs and the real damage and impact on a community. I heard Doug's comment more in light of stories I have read in the past where in the case of grave crimes it can easily be misused if a community is not prepared or adequately trained in the process and able to skillfully see through distorted versions of an event from the perspective of the culprit, like this article from the Guardian discusses. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jan/12/restorative-justic...  The problem may not be the model of restorative justice at all, but like any issue with abuse response, missteps highlight the need for extensive training and awareness because the potential for human error is always so great. 

 

Participant

I want to be clear that I am not trying to badmouth "restorative justice," or a "restorative justice process."  I have practiced both in my 37 year long practice of law, starting decades before the CRCNA ever said a word about it (it was a big thing for the Friends community out here and I just thought it made sense).

But, it is a difficult thing.  It is the harder way.  And sometimes, those who just know of the phrase (it is fashionable these days, which in a way is not helpful) but don't understand the complexity, nor the nuance involved, nor that sometimes, maybe often, it can't be done, at least not in the immediate timeframe or when in the context of certain kinds of firmly held perspectives by one or both parties.

And the fashionable popularity of "restorative justice" and "restorative justice processes," as good as those concepts may be, will likely be cause for mistakes like this to be made.

Things in life are sometimes complicated.  I just wanted suggest why and how I thought this situation was complicated.  Understanding complication helps us "do better" with it.

Community Builder

I agree. Thank you.

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