As evangelicalism grapples with sexual abuse within it ranks, it’s worth seeing the Chilean Catholic scandal as a warning. The way the Catholic Church’s leadership failed to respond well to its victims shares common themes with how many different organizations respond to abuse, including the evangelical church. To think God-fearing pastors are incapable of the same tragic errors is misguided.
Nearly all the infamous sexual abusers were enabled by a “good” leader. Former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky was enabled by widely revered head coach Joe Paterno. Larry Nassar, the physician who molested literally hundreds of young women, was enabled by administrators who didn’t want to hear the reports that landed on their desks. The board of directors for Gothard’s Institute for Basic Life Principles continue to deny Gothard’s decades of predatory behavior toward vulnerable young women.
One reason for this is “institutional protection,” where a leader is more concerned with how an allegation will harm the organization than they are with whether a victim is due justice. A common anecdotal feature of sexual abuse within the church is to minimize what was done, or avoid contacting authorities, because “it will harm the church.” In this scenario, God’s church is too important to actually care about God’s justice.
Often though a leader simply can’t believe a person they know would commit such a crime. This seems to have been the case with Pope Francis, who through his own relationship with Barros, along with misinformation he was receiving, led him to a blind defense of the indefensible. This is particularly true in smaller church communities, where there’s a sense of family among the congregants. It can often be impossible for people to reconcile the view of their community with the reality of something so monstrous. It also leads to a misguided view of restoration, where an abuser’s crimes are minimized, justice is never given, and after a time of penance the person is “restored.” This is at the heart of the charges leveled at Sovereign Grace Churches—that bad theology led to abusers receiving more “restoration” than their victims.
What the Catholic Church belatedly realized is that sexual abuse cannot be minimized, but must be exorcised. It’s unclear whether Pope Francis will accept the resignations of the 34 Chilean bishops, but at the very least it shows the church is finally realizing how systemic their failure has been. If the evangelical church is going to do better, it will require leaders willing to sacrifice their pride and their church’s reputations to care for the most vulnerable in their own ranks.