A few years ago, Leadership Journal published an enlightening article on the survey “Sex Offenders in the Church” about pastoral responses to known sex offenders. One church, when faced with the choice to accept or reject a former sex offender (who had spent 17 years in prison for raping his eight-year-old daughter), welcomed him. The church felt responsible to accept him because they were a recovery-focused congregation.
In time, the congregation began to dwindle. Families left with no explanation. Despite their good intentions, Pastor Bryant realized the church did not have the resources to care for the offender. Pastor Bryant explains the many practical concerns when supporting an ex-convict, such as helping with housing, employment, and establishing friendships. But in his case, there was the added complexity of this man’s specific crimes. Ultimately, the pastor believes his congregation just “couldn’t tolerate it.”
So, why would a recovery-focused congregation that was committed to helping a sex offender re-integrate into society and into a church community begin to bail from their church? The pastor had some theories: about comfort zones, strong emotional responses, and “diminished energy.”
While writing this article, I explained Pastor Bryant’s dilemma to my 23-year-old daughter and her friend. Then I asked them, “Why do you think those families left?”
They responded quickly and confidently, with the same answer. The families that left probably had victims and survivors of sexual abuse or rape among them.
I had considered that as well.
For the record, the three of us probably came to the same conclusion because we are all survivors. We are attuned to the difficulty victims have in sharing a pew with an offender. The empathy that we so readily feel comes by way of a pain that is not shared by all (thankfully). Pastor Bryant tried to show empathy to an offender, but it seems that his congregation was ill-equipped to handle this very tough territory.
The Terrible Statistics
Dr. Paul Conway, Professor of Biblical Studies and Ministry at Northpoint Bible College, told me, “I find that those who have not been a victim of abuse are often naïve of its presence or danger.” Relevant studies support Conway’s opinion. For example, the results of a survey from June 2014 titled “Broken Silence” concerning Protestant pastors’ knowledge—or ignorance—of sexual and domestic violence indicates that “an overwhelming majority of the faith leaders surveyed (74%) underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations.”
In light of this report, Pastor Bryant would likely be surprised to learn the statistical likelihood of the potential number of victims/survivors and their loved ones who were members of his congregation. Here’s a little math: Pastor Bryant’s congregation totaled approximately 76 adult members, including him. If that church is an example of the average gender break down of an evangelical church, then that makes it 53% female and 47% male, or 43.3 females and 35.7 males. Given the average number of victims/survivors, then within that congregation we can presume about 13 females and 5 males survived childhood sexual abuse, while around 6 females and at least 1 male have survived a rape or attempted rape. Therefore, Pastor Bryant’s church likely had around 26 sexual assault survivors. This is one-third of his congregation.
But wait. If you consider the degree childhood sexual abuse is under-reported, those numbers increase dramatically, between three to eight times as much. As for rape statistics, 60% are under-reported. One-third of the congregation is now on the low side.
I offer these statistics to show that in our culture, within our churches—not just “out there” or “way back when”—sexual abuse and assault are serious issues that have been ignored for far too long.
The numbers are frightening. Even more frightening are the experiences I have heard from victims disclosing what has been done to them, by whom, and for how long. Plus, most sex offenders have multiple victims, which means that while there may be numerous offenders, there are far more victims/survivors.
Offenders, known and unknown, may be taking up spots in our churches, but we are the ones that are filling the pews. Or perhaps in the case of Pastor Bryant’s congregation, victims are the ones fleeing the pews.
The Focus on Offenders
In more than a decade of research, almost every article I’ve come across addressing sex offenders in church communities reveals pastors and leaders focusing exclusively on the sex offenders—the theological grounds for their presence, the church’s obligation to care for them, how to support them, how to monitor them, how to protect ministries from potential lawsuits due to their presence, and so on—at the expense of the victims/survivors and those who love them.
This focus on rallying support to minister to sex offenders may be due to the natural feelings of disgust many experience in response to knowing their history. Meaning, because people have such visceral negative emotional responses, the complicated theological job of justifying the welcoming and integrating sex offenders into our midst falls to our pastors and leaders. And these discussions have been necessary. After all, as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, we must not forget that sexual offenders are not monsters but human beings created in God’s image.
But offenders are not the only ones in need of a welcome in our churches. Too often when victims/survivors are considered, it is offender focused. Survivors are told they are required to forgive or reconcile with offenders. They are subject to shaming, silencing, and the policing of their emotions and tones by those who feel entitled to advise or rebuke them. Such pressure toward reconciliation is often shortsighted and lacking in compassion.
It is time to move toward balance by shifting focus to the victims/survivors. The reality of sexual abuse dynamics means that if we want safe communities for victims/survivors and healthy communities for recovering sex offenders then we must find true empathy for victims/survivors and how sexual abuse has affected them.
Finding True Empathy for the Victim
Interacting with victims (those who are being abused currently) and survivors (those who have been abused in the past) is inevitable. Unless they tell us of their abuse directly, we cannot know for sure who they are. While there are specific symptoms and effects from abuse, individuals will experience survival differently. Plus, there are different levels of awareness. Many people aren’t even aware that they have been victimized, and the realization of their abuse or assault can take years, even decades to fully acknowledge. Since this is such a complex issue for victims/survivors and the whole church community, there is a great need for sensitivity combined with intentional education concerning abuse dynamics.
One recent Sunday at church, the liturgy included a public prayer of repentance for our thoughts, words, and deeds. I found in these categories a framework for discussing how we can be more sensitive toward victims/survivors and move toward empathy for them.
1. Our Thoughts
Our thoughts or assumptions are powerful. What we think or assume about victims, survivors, abuse, reporting, and the like will shade everything else. This can either help or hinder the safety and healing of victims/survivors in our communities.
When my former husband was exposed as an abusive sex offender a number of people responded excellently. They assumed the best about his victim and me, and they treated us with empathy. Unfortunately, others didn’t respond so well.
My ex-husband seemed great on the surface and in public; I suffered trauma from the emotional fallout of his betrayals and secret life. In comparison, I appeared a mess. Lundy Bancroft, a specialist in domestic abuse, explains this is common. Victims and survivors often display the damage done to them spiritually, physiologically, psychologically, and emotionally, while abusers are excellent at appearing healthier than their victims. In my situation, Christians with little information assumed I was broken, damaged, angry, bitter, and unforgiving for years.
My recommendation is to assume the best of victims/survivors. They need much grace born of empathy, not judgments born of ignorance. As Dr. Conway states, “Know that abuse victims are some of the most amazing survivors. I find, although some retreat inward, many of the most admirable and funny personalities are the result of their rebellion and retaliation from the hurt experienced. These people are survivors.”
2. Our Words
In order to create a church environment that is welcoming and safe for victims/survivors, we must examine what we say and write. We must intentionally choose to say and write words that are godly and healthy, words that push back against the messages communicated through an abuser’s grooming.
Here are some examples of what never to say to an abuse victim/survivor, offered directly from those who have know sexual abuse and/or assault.
Melissa Gallego—a thoughtful, lovely, resilient 23-year-old and survivor of sexual abuse and rape—explains that the simple question, “Why didn’t you tell me?” shifts blame of the abuse to the victim. It insinuates that the continuing and escalating abuse is the victim’s fault for being secretive, rather than it being the abuser’s responsibility for choosing to abuse. This question ignores the reality of grooming and of abusers’ tendency to purposefully shame, silence, and isolate victims to keep them from disclosing their abuse.
Another victim, a cynical and multi-talented student who chooses to remain anonymous states, “No one has the right to tell a survivor that they have to forgive the people who hurt them at the first moment the survivor has expressed what happened. And they shouldn’t assume the survivor wants prayer from them right there.” Our ministry to victims/survivors should be modeled after Jesus, who was always gentle with the brokenhearted.
Another common response to survivors is to police their healing time, saying something like, “That happened a long time ago. Why aren’t you over it yet?” My daughter Deirdre and her friend Melissa recently pointed out my own boneheaded failure in this regard. Apparently when they were teenagers, I insensitively communicated to Deirdre that she needed to get over a traumatic event. My heart broke for her when she told me how my words had caused more pain to her already painful wound.
Learn from my mistake. Never tell a survivor that they need to heal according to your timeline. Healing is a very individual process involving every aspect of our humanity. Abuse is a holistic act that affects us spiritually, emotionally, and physically. Trauma alters our brain chemistry and structure, our neurology, and our bodies. Healing is not a simple process and can take many years.
Our words can keep victims/survivors trapped in their isolation by communicating that their disclosures of abuse will not be believed. Consider the many recent Christian articles that express opinions on Cosby’s accusations such as Mary Rose Somarriba’s “Bill Cosby’s Rape Allegations Force Us to Rethink Our Attitude on Sexual Assualt”, Sarah Galo’s “Why Aren’t More Christians Talking About Bill Cosby?”, and Laura Leonard’s “The Cosby Show Dilemma.” The comments sections were filled with defenses of Bill Cosby. These included attacks on the writers’ writing and logic but without any engagement in their actual ideas and opinions. Plus many commenters referred to standard rape myths and rape apologetics to make their points.
Here’s the simple truth: When we assume the automatic innocence of accused sex offenders we are simultaneously asserting the accusers are lying. There is no neutral when it comes to sexual abuse and assault.
All disclosures of abuse need to be thoroughly investigated. However, there is great ignorance concerning how abusers’ groom and abuse. The majority of people will not recognize behaviors that are suspicious or that support the victim’s accusations. Unfortunately, most people will choose to believe the accused at the expense of the victims. And even worse, as Boz Tchividjian notes, “All too often, this results in the alleged offender being treated like the victim while the victim is ignored, marginalized, and sometimes even rebuked.”
Imagine you are in a congregation that speaks about the Cosby situation in a manner similar to the commenters mentioned above. Imagine you have been abused for years and have been considering confiding in your pastor or youth leader. Would you be willing to disclose your abuse knowing the majority would turn on you and defend your abuser? For a vivid, moving illustration of how difficult it is for victims to disclose their abuse, read Amy Jo Burns’s poignant Cinderland: A Memoir.
Another problem that falls under this category of our words is how we defend and justify male sexual violations of females within the pages of Scripture. Commentaries and theologians speak about biblical narratives in frightening ways.
For example, Gordon Wenham, whose work I usually enjoy, makes some wild statements about the story of Lot and his daughters in Genesis 19:30–38. Basically Lot’s daughters, believing themselves to be the only survivors after the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, decide they need to get pregnant and to do so they get Lot drunk in order to commit incest. Wenham suggests, “We are left to pity Lot in his last and most painful loss of honor at the hands of those who should have loved him most.” And, of course Lot is to be pitied in this scenario.
Yet, Wenham doesn’t use such loaded language when describing how Lot offers his daughters to the violent raping crowd of townsmen at his door in Genesis 19:1–29. There is no suggestion from Wenham that Lot’s choice is reprehensible, nor is there any suggestion that we should pity the daughters. Instead he suggests this is merely to show how noble Lot is to value hospitality and the protection of his guests above all else.
Now, neither the behavior of Lot nor that of his daughters is justified. But why is it that only Lot’s behavior is explained away as some sort of culturally acceptable ethic? What does this type of exegesis communicate to females of all ages about their value? What does it communicate to them about males? It concretely suggests that God cares more about hospitality for males than about the violent sexual abuse of females.
3. Our Deeds
Our actions communicate powerfully whether or not victims/survivors will feel safe in our communities. Sarah Kaufmann, who has never experienced abuse, exhibited great empathy when she told me of her difficulty with a greeter at her church.
Sarah says, “I love my church…but there is one person in particular who serves as a greeter who, even when I send every polite nonverbal clue that I do not wish to hug him, hugs me anyway in this horribly awkward way. Every time I do not make eye contact with him, I step farther away, I hold my purse, diaper bag, coat close… to make it clear that I do not wish to be hugged. At best, this situation is irritating because he totally ignores me and I’m worried that if I tell him directly ‘I really do not want to hug you.’ I will be seen as rude.”
His inability to keep from breaking Sarah’s implied boundary signals he has some issues of entitlement that need to be addressed by those in authority over him. He may not be aware of how his actions are received. Or he may be intentionally grooming his community to perceive him as touchy feely and gregarious in order to create an image that would be difficult to reconcile with him being a sex offender and that would provide “reasonable” explanations for how a victim/survivor could be mistaken about his touching and intentions.
Sarah continues, “At worst, I keep thinking that someone who has experienced abuse could walk through the door and be greeted by him and have their abuse triggered. … I think churches must address this issue sensitively, especially with those who will be serving as greeters or leaders because they are the face of the church. Someone with a history of abuse may walk away saying, ‘That was exactly like my abusive situation in that my signals and wishes were completely ignored.’ Churches need to be sensitive to the fact that a significant portion of women have been abused and may not feel loved by being given a hug. In fact, it may have the opposite effect.”
Churches need to communicate clearly that respect for others’ boundaries is a nonnegotiable manifestation of Christian love. We need to create a culture of consent and understand that boundaries are necessary for health. Do not ever suggest that boundaries are a problem. Those who refuse to respect boundaries are the ones with the problem.
So, What Is Our Problem?
For victims/survivors, life is filled with potential triggers and harsh judgment. A church community that is ignorant of abuse dynamics and unwittingly echoes and reinforces abusive grooming will further harm victims/survivors.
Being sensitive to victims/survivors and creating a safe healing environment is as simple as listening to them, educating ourselves on abuse dynamics, practicing empathy, and considering how our thoughts, words, and deeds impact others. Being part of a healthy church community can help us feel valued, heard, and protected.
My daughter Deirdre illustrates how victims/survivors can easily and creatively express their experiences when given a chance. When I asked her how she would explain to someone who had never experienced abuse what it would be like to be present in a church community like Pastor Bryant’s with a known sex offender, she answered, “That’s easy. Show them the sharks from Finding Nemo.”
There is a scene in Finding Nemo where a few fish are taken by sharks to a 12 Step recovery meeting. The sharks are in a program like Alcoholics Anonymous but for eating fish instead of drinking alcohol. Their motto is “Fish are friends, not food!” Two of the fish are terrified. The other fish, Dory, is clueless and excited about her new friends. She doesn’t see any danger, even when one shark accidently reveals a fish skeleton in his teeth, proving that his recovery has been short-lived.
To clarify her point, Deirdre says, “I’m not saying that sex offenders are incapable of recovery and that you shouldn’t be compassionate toward them. But it is incredibly insensitive to the ‘fish’—the victims—to ask them to be supportive of the ‘shark’ in their community.”
As for Pastor Bryant, I commend his desire to create a recovery-focused and restorative community. Regardless of his sincere intentions, the methods failed. The first step in creating a healthy atmosphere for victims/survivors and recovering offenders is to focus our empathy on the victims/survivors. In doing so, dangerous sex offenders will not feel welcome for long and the authentically repentant and recovering will have a safe community too. Or as Deirdre might say, focus first on the fish instead of on the sharks.
Maureen Farrell Garcia drinks large cups of tea while reading pretty much anything she can get her hands on. She also teaches writing at Nyack College’s NYC campus.