Congregation members are also often too close to a pastor to be able to properly deal with the misconduct. The pastor is the person they hear preach every Sunday, who visits them in the hospital, and who marries and buries them. So, it becomes difficult, said Stone, for church members to believe their pastor has been abusive.
Churches can also be overconfident in their abilities to deal with abuse while also rejecting the idea that they should look to outsiders and experts for help. They often believe the Bible gives them everything they need to know to deal with abuse and misconduct. That combination of overconfidence and a lack of knowledge often leads churches to mishandle abuse and neglect abuse survivors.
This dynamic has played out in the Southern Baptist Convention, where the response to abuse allegations has often been to say dealing with abuse is up to the local church. Complicating matters is the fact that most congregations are very small — the median congregation size in the United States is 65 people, according to the recent Faith Communities Today study — and run by volunteers.
Those volunteers, said Stone, often want to find a way to salvage their pastor.
She said that in the Indiana case, if the woman’s account is accurate, then abuse took place. “Sexually abusing a minor is not an affair,” Stone said. “If she was 16 and he was the pastor, then it’s sexual abuse.”
According to news reports, the Kosciusko County Prosecutor’s Office is looking into the allegations of abuse at New Life church.
Vanderbilt Divinity School professor Ellen Armour, who teaches about religion, gender and sexuality, said independent churches often lack the infrastructure needed to deal with abuse. More hierarchical churches, she said, have procedures in place to help churches when pastoral abuse or misconduct is alleged.
“It doesn’t mean that sexual misconduct by clergy doesn’t happen in those denominations. I’m sure that it does,” she said. “But they have the infrastructure to handle it.”
When dealing with abuse or misconduct, independent or autonomous churches could easily turn to resources from other denominations or outside groups for help, Armour said. But they rarely do, which can often lead to mishandling allegations.
“The reason these more conservative churches don’t have the resources to adequately address clergy sexual abuse isn’t that those resources don’t exist,” she said. “It’s because they’ve not sought them out — apparently preferring to sweep the problem under the rug, which only amplifies the harm to the survivors.”
Armour also sees theology at play in cases like the one at New Life Church in Indiana. People in more conservative churches, especially those that stress so-called purity culture, can often blame abuse survivors for somehow leading pastors astray. “They often blame the women, as if they were dressing inappropriately or acted inappropriately,” she said.