Researcher on What Churches Get Wrong With Sexual Abuse

sexual abuse in the church

During this week’s Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas, pastors overwhelmingly passed a resolution declaring their opposition to sexual abuse in any form, and the responsibility of pastors to involve authorities in criminal matters. It was an important, if largely symbolic, moment following the recent scandal and subsequent firing of Paige Patterson.

The problem, however, is that most pastors would have in theory already agreed with these points. In reality, when church leadership is faced with a sexual abuse crisis in its own midst, the responses often range from well-intentioned but misguided to spiritually abusive. There is a gap, in other words, between what most churches would say they affirm, and the reality of how they respond. To understand why this happens, I turned to Wade Mullen, the director of the M.Div. program at Capital Seminary & Graduate School. Mullen studied how churches respond to crises in their midst—usually sexual abuse—and wrote his dissertation on the myriad ways churches respond poorly to crisis.

The following is a portion of a phone interview I did with Mullen last week.

The Danger of Overconfidence

CL: Why do so many churches get it wrong when dealing with a crisis within their walls? What goes wrong?

Mullen: There are two polar opposite, but equally common and dangerous, responses churches take. The first is overconfidence. Leaders think they know everything they need to know in a crisis and take dangerous action. They decide the credibility of the allegations on their own or put the abuse survivor in a situation that creates secondary trauma.

CL: OK I’ve heard a lot about this, and could use your help in understanding. What do you mean by secondary trauma?

Mullen: So let’s say the victim is a minor and a girl, and she’s been abused by an older male. To sit in a room with older males and be asked to share the story with them opens up wounds, and forces her to be vulnerable with a group of men that she likely doesn’t trust due to recently being abused by what is often a male of a similar age. Then, if they disbelieve her and act against her best interests, the trauma is only compounded. Many abuse survivors say the betrayal of those they turned to for help was more harmful than the abuse itself.

CL: How do pastors fall into this trap? Let’s assume the pastor is more or less well-intentioned. How does it go wrong?

Mullen: Usually it’s because they shun the help of experts. They don’t turn to them for advice or hand the entire crisis over to someone more qualified. Many think that they are the ones best equipped to decide what is abuse, or what isn’t. What’s a crime and what isn’t. What justice looks like. They have an over-inflated view of their own abilities, and it’s dangerous.

The Danger of Over-Cautiousness

CL: You said there were two common failings. What’s the other one?

Mullen: The other is when churches choose to ignore the allegations altogether. In some cases, I know pastors who have said “it’s none of our business” when they’re informed a church member is an abuser. Often someone else is concerned by something they’ve seen, but aren’t sure how to respond, so they take it to their church leaders who ignore the report out of fear of bringing disgrace to church. Maybe the accused is a long-standing member of the church. They don’t want a disruption.

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Joshua Pease
Josh Pease is a writer & speaker living in Colorado with his wife and two kids. His e-book, The God Who Wasn't There , is available for purchase on Amazon.