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