When Kay was molested by the son of the church janitor, she didn’t tell anyone. She was 5 years old and while she didn’t have the language to describe what happened, she knew it was something bad and probably her fault.
Growing up as a pastor’s kid, Kay was devoted to living a perfect, spotless life that wouldn’t embarrass her dad or disappoint Jesus. She knew the right answers to the Bible trivia questions. She wanted to be a missionary. But when she discovered pornography at a house where she was babysitting Kay found herself both repulsed by and attracted to it. After looking at it for the first time, Kay resolved she would never do it again. She kept making this resolution every time she would babysit. Every time she still looked. She kept making this resolution as she developed an addiction that carried the added shame of being a “man’s problem.”
Kay got married early to a driven young youth pastor she barely knew, and the pressures of being a pastor’s wife kept her in the familiar pattern of sexual shame and hiding. When she first told her husband she was raped as a child, she was so emotionless about it he brushed it off. It wasn’t until their marriage nearly collapsed that Kay Warren realized if her marriage to Rick Warren had a chance of surviving, she would have to find healing from the shame of her past.
Around 10 years ago, Kay started sharing her story of sexual abuse, but her story has resurfaced recently as a chorus of prominent evangelical women have come forward announcing “me too.” Following accusations of predatory sexual behavior from influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the hashtag #metoo has flooded Twitter, as women recount their stories of being sexually harassed and abused.
Recent Events in Culture Re-Open a Wound Many in the Church Have Sustained
Beth Moore, who has spoken out previously about sexual abuse and the church, posted the following on October 15:
A well meaning mentor told me at 25 that people couldn’t handle hearing about sexual abuse and it would sink my ministry. It didn’t. #MeToo
— Beth Moore (@BethMooreLPM) October 16, 2017
In discussing her history of abuse, Moore has been private about the details, but transparent regarding her journey toward healing. In an interview with crossmap.com, Moore shares how in her early 30s she could no longer repress the memories of abuse from her past.
“I’d never before looked straight at my victimisation, never allowed my mind to replay the images” Moore said. “Every single time they began to erupt, I pressed them down. But I no longer had the energy to do that. The victim in me took over. I felt like I was jumping off the highest cliff and descending into the bottom of a canyon. While [my children] Amanda and Melissa knew I was sad, they didn’t have an idea how severe it was. I was good at hiding it; you don’t have my kind of background and not develop a way to do that.”
The Church Is Not Immune to Sexual Abuse
Both Moore and Warren mention their impulse to hide, and how that impulse was cultivated in the church cultures they grew up in. This trend is documented in a scathing, soul-crushing article from The New Republic that questions whether the Protestant Church at large has just as much a sexual abuse scandal as the Catholic Church. According to three insurance companies that represent the majority of Protestant institutions, there are 260 reports of sexual abuse from these non-profits a year … and that’s just the children.
“Protestants have responded much worse than the Catholics to this issue,” Boz Tchividjian told The New Republic. Tchividjian is a former child sex-abuse prosecutor, founder of the non-profit organization GRACE, which investigates child sex abuse scandals in churches, and the grandson of legendary evangelist Billy Graham. “One of the reasons is that, like it or not, the Catholics have been forced, through three decades of lawsuits, to address this issue. We’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”
A quick scroll through the replies to Beth Moore on Twitter back up Tchividjian’s point. One woman says she was told in regards to her experience that “we don’t air our dirty laundry.” Others said they were told as Beth Moore was that people couldn’t handle hearing their stories.
Shooting Our Wounded
In 2014, Bill Gothard, the highly influential founder of Institute of Basic Life Principles, was accused of sexual harassment by 34 women, including four who claimed to be sexually molested, one at the age of 16. After examining the accusations, IBLP’s board decided that while Gothard had “acted inappropriately,” he hadn’t broken any laws. At least 10 women disagree and are jointly suing Gothard and IBLP.
Again in 2014, an independent investigation of Bob Jones University found 56 percent of respondents believed BJU created a “blaming and disparaging attitude” toward sexual abuse victims with almost 60 respondents saying they’d been discouraged by the school from going to the police to report current or past abuses. In the report, one anonymous student said “I was abused from the ages of 6 to 14 by my grandfather. When I went for counseling I was told: ‘Did you repent for your part of the abuse? Did your body respond favorably?’” To add insult to injury, when the student spoke to a BJU official, the student was told his or her reporting to the police “tore your family apart, and that’s your fault,” and “you love yourself more than you love God.”
These stories stack on top of anecdotal stories from individual churches, the kind Tchividjian’s GRACE has made a mission of handling. While the statistics are hard to find, the circumstantial evidence leads to a disturbing, heart-wrenching conclusion: women and children in churches are being victimized by sexual abuse, and in many cases either staying silent or being silenced. While there may be many reasons for this—including authoritarian leadership models or a mangled theological belief that victims are in any way at fault for being violated—one of the key ones is simply ignorance. Many churches are full of well-meaning, passionate followers of Jesus being led by God-fearing leaders who simply aren’t aware of what’s going on.
Unfortunately, it is the insulated nature of some Christians and churches that can cultivate naivete or denial. Sometimes it takes gruesome news stories for us used to the protective walls of the church to wake up to the dangers lurking outside those walls. Sometimes these troubling events even expose the dangers present inside our walls as well.
In her book entitled Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, And Other Sex Offenders, Anna Salter quotes a convicted molester saying “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians. They tend to be better folks all around and seem to want to believe in the good that exists in people.”
What’s a Church to Do?
While the answer isn’t for churches to live in constant fear, it’s vital evangelical churches begin to have gruelingly honest conversations on how they can create a safe culture for all victims of sexual abuse, both in and out of the church, to know that both God and the church is for them, and that the community of believers is a safe place. If your church doesn’t have procedures in place to prevent sexual abuse, help sexual abuse victims, or respond to a sexual abuse claim involving a staff member, it’s imperative that you begin establishing these procedures.
Otherwise, we risk more people sharing the story of one of the Bob Jones survey respondents who said “The university made God out to be someone who turns his back when children are harmed and then mocks and shames the child further. By the time I left BJU, I didn’t think God loved me at all.”