I love a clean house, but I don’t necessarily love the time and effort needed to make it so. Therefore, I keep a stock of Magic Erasers. Those spongy cleaning aids can, with minimal effort, wipe away fingerprints, crayon, marks left by Nerf pellets, Sticky Tack, all sorts of unidentified goo, you name it. I LOVE Magic Erasers.
There is no such thing as Magic Eraser for the soul. The scars of sexual abuse cannot be magically wiped away. Sitting across the table, listening to a survivor, I hear the quavering voice, the pain, the self-loathing, the anger, the mistrust. I see the hands anxiously fidgeting, the averted, tearing eyes. PTSD and nightmares are common. When the abuse occurs in the church, or by a church official, it is even more painful and confusing, especially when the church turns its back on the victim. In the words of James Hamilton, sexual abuse victim of Chilean priest Fernando Karadima,
“They almost murdered my heart, my soul … They are criminals.” (Source)
How can the church Biblically and effectively clean house?
Recognize sin as sin. Sin is defined by a holy God, not by moral relativism.
The prophet Amos confronted Israel about their sin. There was a bit of an elitist attitude in Israel — they were God’s chosen, so they were above other nations. In Amos 8:9, God says, ““Surely the eyes of the Sovereign Lord are on the sinful kingdom.” He doesn’t overlook sin merely because we are “better” than those in the world, doing more good works than our neighbors, or have a title of “pastor,” “priest,” “youth leader,” or “Sunday school teacher.”
Isaiah 5:20 makes it clear: “Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who put darkness for light, and light for darkness; Who put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter!” Sin must be confronted and brought to light.
Adam and Eve were the first to attempt a cover-up of sin. They tried to hide from God and to cover their shame, but God imposed consequences for their sin.
In scripture, God did not care if a person was a “great man.” He allowed sin to be exposed. King David is a perfect example. He tried to hide his sin, but 2 Samuel 11:27b asserts, “But the thing that David had done displeased the Lord,” and he suffered publicly-known consequences.
Ephesians 5:11 states, “ And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them.”
1 Timothy 5:20 tells us, “ Those who are sinning rebuke in the presence of all, that the rest also may fear.” Sophia Lee, in her article, “Out in the Light,” (9/7/18) in World Magazine wrote, “The Scriptural metaphors of light and darkness make clear that we expose sin so that Christ shines brighter than the wretchedness of sin. Exposing sin glorifies Christ by pointing to our desperate need of Him. Publicly responding to sin with integrity is a greater testimony to the gospel than is sweeping sin into the dungeons of secrecy.”
We must hold church leaders to a higher standard.
1 Peter 5:3 tells us that leaders are to be examples to their flocks. Church members see integrity and righteousness when their leaders pursue a transparent, comprehensive investigation of allegations of sexual abuse. This also aids in healing for victims. Leaders who ignore or dismiss allegations foster an atmosphere of distrust and cynicism.
Luke 12:48b: “For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him, they will ask the more.” Paul tells the church, in 1 Corinthians 5:12, that they are responsible to judge those within the church.
We must recognize situations that set the church up for abuse and cover-up.
On August 30, 2018, World Magazine published an article, “Crouching At the Door,” which lists three such circumstances:
- Some congregations have dominating pastors with unchecked authority. (This can apply to youth pastors too.)
- Evangelical culture has a conference and lecture circuit with celebrities and quasi-celebrities who come to cities for weekend workshops and one-night lectures that provide opportunities to sin and go, leaving behind casualties.
- Megachurch leaders face the ordinary temptations but also extraordinary pressure to cover up problems, knowing that a sniff of scandal will summon packs of critical reporters.
Allowing individuals private access to children, or allowing secrecy, are others.
We must teach people to recognize signs of abuse and abusers.
Stop It Now! (stopitnow.org) a non-profit organization formed to teach people about signs and prevention of abuse has “tip sheets” that list warning signs. There are multiple resources that churches can employ to educate staff and parents.
We must create a culture within our churches that does not tolerate abuse and have a policy in place to handle allegations. Rachael Denhollander, a lawyer and Christian who was the first publicly to accuse USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar of sexual abuse, educates churches about abuse accusations. Her advice:
- Have a written policy for all accusations of sexual misconduct.
- Require notification of the congregation.
- Immediately commission a third-party investigation.
- Report to the police.
“She said openness helps all parties, protects the accused from an unfair dismissal or ‘overzealous’ discipline, and encourages other potential victims to come forward.” (“Crouching at the Door,” World Magazine, August 30, 2018)
Denhollander points to Tates Creek Presbyterian Church (https://tcpca.org) in Lexington, Kentucky, as a model of how to respond to allegations of sexual abuse as they have walked through the above steps of the process. “If there’s going to be a predator in that church, they’re going to leave Tates Creek,” said Denhollander. “No predator is going to stay in a church like that, because they know that they’ll be caught. By that same token, a survivor or victim will be able to come forward to a leadership like that because they’ve handled it right.”
We must see our children as a treasured heritage from God for our safekeeping.
Psalm 127:3 tells us children are a heritage from the Lord. Who doesn’t want to protect their heritage?
Mark 10:13-16: “Then they brought little children to Him, that He might touch them; but the disciples rebuked those who brought them. But when Jesus saw it, He was greatly displeased and said to them, “Let the little children come to Me, and do not forbid them; for of such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.”
He blessed the children, welcomed them into His presence, and showed His affection for them.
Jesus said in Matthew 25:37-40, “Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
Certainly children are among those for whom we are commissioned to care, and in doing so, we uphold to the world a picture of the heart of God.
If we turn a blind eye, we may as well sing along with Billy Joel, “God help us all if we’re to blame for their unanswered prayers.”