CL: I get the idea of institutional protection, that leaders want to guard their church’s reputation, but it seems like there’s more to it than that. There’s this bizarre impulse I’ve seen for people to minimize what sexual abuse is, like it’s not that big a deal.
Mullen: Definitely. Some church leaders just shut down the moment the word sex is even mentioned. There’s this sense of shame associated with sex, and the details of sexual abuse bring that shame to the surface. They want to avoid the shame it brings, the shame it makes them feel, the shame from their community.
What happens often, sadly, is churches don’t want to bear that shame so they put it on the shoulders of the victim. If the police are involved and someone is arrested or fired, then over time the victim begins to feel—or be directly told!—they were wrong to come forward. They are asked to carry the shame the church isn’t willing to bear.
When the Church Gets It Right
CL: So one of the things I’ve felt lately—and I’d imagine many pastors are feeling—is the crushing weight of so many stories of how the church failed. Have you seen moments when the church gets it right?
Mullen: A recent example is how Rachael Denhollander’s former church responded to her. There was an apology to her and her family that had no excuses and no justifications. Often when a church comes out with a statement it’s full of defenses for what they did. When I see a church issue a statement where they express concern for the victim, a willingness to cooperate with police, and an apology, that’s when I know they get it. At the very least, if abuse happens within the church walls, the church should own its lack of discernment.
What churches need to get is there are only two options: You can protect your own reputation or you can protect the victims. Putting a victim’s needs first puts a church’s reputation and even existence at risk, but at least they can stand before God and say “we did the right thing.”
Pastors have to make this decision now, not in the moment: Are allegations in their church a threat? If so, he’ll probably try to shut down that threat. But if a church’s instinct is immediate protection for someone who suffered abuse, if they make it about children and the vulnerable and keeping them safe, then they’ll respond well.