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I recently reviewed Spotlight, a film on the Boston Globe’s expose of the coverup of abusive Catholic priests in Boston, arguing the film should be watched, not primarily as a documentary of period of the Catholic church’s history, but to open our eyes to the reality of pandemic abuse within the church and the devastation caused by incompetent or abusive church authorities who do not respond appropriately to abuse. It’s worth revisiting this question at this point: how serious of a problem is abuse by spiritual authority figures in the CRC?

In 2001, Karen DeVries wrote a highly significant set of articles for The Banner entitled “When CRC Pastors Abuse.” (Part One can be read here and Part Two here). DeVries’ piece combined objective data about abuse in the CRC with appalling firsthand accounts of both egregious abuse and indifference to it by congregations. The data: in 2001, just 7 years after the opening of the Office of Abuse Prevention (now Safe Church), about 150 total reports of clergy abuse had been reported to the Office of Abuse Prevention since its opening, with only one report proven false.  Most involved repeat offenders, but about 10 new perpetrators surfaced each year. Beth Swagman, then the director of the Office of Abuse Prevention, emphasized that the reports that come in are only the “tip of the iceberg.” As for the gravity of such offenses, the stories Karen (anonymously) reports speak for themselves.  DeVries’ article also emphasized a theme that victims feel their stories are unheard and their abuser faced little to no consequences in the church. Some victims sought and found justice through legal action.

Although the data in these articles is dated, it is safe to say DeVries’ general assessment of both a serious problem and an ongoing problem of nonexistent or malfunctioning safe church teams to adequately respond to (much less prevent) abuse continues to describe our present reality. Today, while Safe Church does not have a specific number of clergy related incidents reported, Bonnie Nicholas emphasizes that Safe Church Ministry continues to respond to many incidents of abuse by church leaders in the CRC every year.  Like Beth Swagman, Bonnie states her confidence that there are also many cases of abuse handled outside of Safe Church Ministry that most are unaware of. If you broaden the scope of abuse by spiritual authorities to include non-ordained leaders (youth ministry leaders, etc.) the pervasiveness of the problem becomes even clearer.

As a lifelong Christian within the conservative Reformed tradition, I’m aware that the typical attitudes of avoidance, denial, indifference, or outright victim blaming are not unique to the CRC or to the Christian world. What is unique to Christianity is our high calling to Christ-likeness, to be as appalled by such injustice as our God would be, and to do everything in our power to protect the least of these. If the natural human reaction to the unspeakable is to deny its existence, then we need to continue to read and re-read articles like Karen DeVries’, we need to continue to hear stories of betrayal by those entrusted with their congregations’ souls. We need to remain shocked to move forward. Fully confronting abuse by spiritual leaders in the CRC is a necessary first step: if we cannot hold accountable even those entrusted with the souls of the church, how can we effectively address other forms of abuse?

Synod 2016 may be taking some crucial first steps to more adequately confront abuse by CRC church leaders. Synod 2016 will hear an important report including recommendations to revise Church Order articles 83 and 84 and their Supplements regarding reinstatement of office after sexual misconduct. The committee working on the report has been mandated to, among other things: clarify the imbalance of power and how it affects the issue of sexual misconduct and sexual abuse, provide guidelines for how gradations in severity and victim impact would affect decisions regarding reinstatement, consult with other denominations and agencies, and report to Synod 2016 with proposals and potential polity changes to Church Order Articles 82-84 and their Supplements.

We pray and hope that the report and these issues will be taken seriously at Synod, and that this report could become one vital step in the CRC’s journey towards confronting the atrocity of abuse by a church leader and curbing the potential for further abuse. Pray that recommendations from the committee are adopted smoothly, and that victims of abuse by a spiritual leader find compassion, support, and justice in our denomination.

A great resource on abuse by a spiritual leader is Hope of Survivors


Monica, thanks for keeping this topic in view. One correction: the articles were written in 2001 -- 15 years ago already, though I'm glad to see Synod is now taking some important steps. 

We need to get a better understanding of all forms of abuse... not just when there is a tangible, physical/sexual abuse/adultery that can be "proven".  Spiritual/emotional abuse is a much more subtle, but also very damaging type of abuse, and is often abuse of power.  these all can trigger PTSD symptoms.

I have mentioned in a christian group, something about spiritual abuse, and one of the responses was "well what is spiritual abuse?"  or "is that really abuse"?   I think all of my research has been from sources outside the CRC (but am aware of a number of situations in it)... it seems we don't like to discuss spiritual abuse much, if at all...  and it seems we are on the high risk end...  quote from article BOQ Today, many American churches and denominations are susceptible to it (spiritual abuse), particularly “reformed” Calvinistic churches or those with a highly disciplined authority structure. EOQ

it seems abuse has far too often been minimized and dismissed in the Church... exposing this is a threat to leaders.   I'm thankful these patterns of control, intimidation, manipulation and other "subtle" forms of silencing a person are coming into the light.

Recently, the practice of a technique that was called a "softer discipline" came to my attention in the CRC... this is a misnomer, because it is a manipulative passive aggressive practice of leadership to shut certain people from being in leadership positions, instead of talking to the person directly if there is an issue, and it is so stinking subtle, so very difficult to prove...  it includes not being recommended for positions or committees.  Not getting this job or nomination.  Being overlooked and ignored.  its subtle and quiet.  How often is this practiced on someone who is a threat to the leader, because the person would not be loyal to protect the leader from being exposed for the leader's manipulative/abusive practices, and would instead call the leader out on that sort of behavior.  So, the leader surrounds themself with "yes" people who are loyal to the leader and will not challenge the leader on the manipulative behavior, because the "yes" people possibly benefited from the manipulation at some point, in some way.  ie. favoritism, flattery, cronyism/good old boys club, etc. 

I hope and pray safe church and synod addresses the different ways there is abuse of power.  Keeping the process secret (lack of transparency) is one of them.  The executive session has been far over-used to protect those who abused at the expense of those harmed, because God's way is to bring things into the light, and it is generally those who fear their abusive behavior being exposed that resist that light!  Non-disclosure agreements are another one that I think have been far over used in the CRC to silence people.  forcing/intimidating/manipulating the person who was hurt to forgive and move on, when there has been far less than honest repentance, very little justice, and/or for leadership to avoid dealing with the abusive person, yet calling the person who was hurt unforgiving and telling them their soul is in danger if they don't forgive and let it go, is spiritually abusive.  finding a technicality to dismiss the appeal instead of addressing it, is abuse of power.  Using (intentionally) misleading language at council, classis and synod levels to manipulate the outcome of a decision is abuse of power.

Come on Church, come on CRC!  It's time to do the right thing!  expose and address the many ways abuse is happening in the Church, validate the hurt of those harmed, so they can heal, and discipline those who caused the harm with their abusive/controlling behavior, this is what we, the Church are called to do...  and no longer allow further harm to be brought to the one abused, and no longer protect the one who abused from consequences, because far too often, what the Church has allowed when it comes to abuse is the exact opposite of what His Church is called to do...

this is justice...

this is the right thing to do!

I believe the Hosts of Heaven rejoice and celebrate, when His Church does the right thing!

Thank you for your comments Bev. My ongoing, fervent prayer is that the CRC will do the right thing in responding to abuse, especially abuse that involves church leaders. In addition to our work to prevent abuse and create safe environments, we must also respond appropriately when abuse occurs - that's part of what it means to be a safe church. Our vision states, "...and where abuse has occurred, the response is compassion and justice that foster healing." We are called to be light and salt in a world that needs Jesus. Emotional and spiritual abuse must be addressed and challenged if our congregations hope to reflect rightly our Lord and Savior.

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