In 2014, a controversy 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.