When the scandal surrounding influential Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein broke, the societal response was largely one of shock. How could this have gone on for so long? Why did so many victims stay silent? As more details emerge, it’s become clear that victims of sexual abuse are often trapped in a cycle of shame, confusion, and fear that keeps them silent.
Sadly, this same pattern of abuse and victim-silencing can happen in the church as well, and just like with the Weinstein scandal, it can go unnoticed for years. In 2007, the three largest insurers of churches and Christian non-profits reported 260 cases of sexual abuse. In the past five years, multiple influential evangelical institutions—from Bill Gothard, to Sovereign Grace Ministries, to Bob Jones University—have come under fire for either directly sexually abusing women or shaming the victims of abuse into silence.
These stories are horrifying to pastors and leaders in evangelical churches, precisely because they seem so unthinkable. They lead to a vitally important question: How can we create churches that don’t allow sexual abuse or victim-shaming to happen? The good news is, there are ways to help prevent abuse and respond effectively and it starts with hearing and learning from the stories of abuse victims.
“I THINK YOU’RE JUST TOO SINFUL TO BE FRIENDS WITH”
When Melissa* met the man who would rape her, he seemed like a gift from God. She was a 14-year-old girl, new to the faith, and James* was an 18-year-old intern at the youth group who gave her the attention her dad never did. James was everything Melissa’s father wasn’t: Attentive, a role model others looked up to, a young man of God being mentored by the pastor of the church. The two of them would hang out alone frequently, and although James said their relationship was a secret, he told Melissa they were dating and that he loved her. Sometimes James would be overly angry or combative, which frightened Melissa, but mostly she was just a 14-year-old who was in love.
* Names have been changed for privacy
“One night we got in a fight,” Melissa said. “Later, James called me to make up and said he wanted to meet me somewhere private. We went to this abandoned building, he shoved me against the wall and started touching me in ways I didn’t want to be touched. I told him I wasn’t comfortable but he wouldn’t stop.”
Melissa pauses as she remembers, eyes closed, visualizing what happened.
“He put his arm up against my throat, choking me. He hit my head against a brick wall, got on top of me and raped me. Afterward he threw my clothes at me and told me to get up. I couldn’t move. Eventually he kicked me and walked away.”
Melissa wasn’t sure what had just happened. She knew this man was a leader in the church and that she loved him. “Can you be raped by someone you’re dating? That you’re in love with?” she wondered.
In her confusion Melissa turned to the only people in her life she’d ever trusted. First she told one of her friends in the church that had helped lead her to Christ.
“She told me, ‘I think you’re just too sinful to be friends with.’”
Melissa would be told something similar by a small group leader, and ultimately a church elder who called her a “used tissue” that no one would ever want. Melissa was confused, because she had never chosen this, but she absorbed and believed the message her church family told her: This is all your fault.