“When I needed them most, they didn’t respond. When I spoke, they didn’t listen…The pain and hurt the church has caused is deep and lasting.” Those words could fall from the lips of many a former church-goer.
As one reared in the church, who worked vocationally within the church, left the church, and returned to the church, I understand that what Christians call “the Body of Christ” sometimes barely has a heartbeat for those who hurt the deepest.
The divorced. Those whose loved one committed suicide. Addicts. Skeptics. The mentally ill. The poor. Gays. Immigrants. There are untold numbers of individuals and groups of people who have been marginalized and harmed by the faith community. But maybe no persons have been more devastated than those who have suffered sexual abuse by the clergy.
The abuse, in and of itself, is horrible enough. Very little could be more corrupt than a pastor, preacher, or priest using his or her authority and power to take advantage of someone sexually. Yet, the exploitation is magnified when an entire system aids and abets the offender by intentionally or tacitly participating in the cover-up.
“When I spoke, they didn’t listen” are the words of one such abuse victim. As a teenager she was taken advantage of by her church’s youth minister. It was finally determined that this particular minister (predator) had committed “intentional acts of misconduct” against multiple female parishioners.
He was fired, but because of liabilities, litigation, and the constant threat of legal actions, nothing was really done afterwards. The whole episode was a “hush-hush” topic, and the victims were largely ignored, suffering in silence. But then, years later, the church decided to do something bold.
The leadership publicly admitted that the abuse had taken place. They publicly admitted that they had not responded as compassionately and as truthfully as they should have in the process. Out of fear of the consequences, they admitted that they had not been supportive to those harmed by the abuser. They began an intentional ministry to the sexually abused, within and without, their congregation.
Not everyone was happy with this action. The church’s insurance company sent a warning to the pastor: “Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything.”
To this the pastor said in a sermon the following Sunday: “We are profoundly sorry that our response after the abuse was discovered was not always helpful to those entrusted to our care…We won’t hide behind lawyers…Jesus said the truth will set us free.”
Then turning to a group of young women in the audience, he said, “Let me speak…to our survivors. We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed.”
Was that a risky thing to do? You bet it was. Could it cost the church its finances, members, and years of court proceedings? Probably so. But risky or not – and regardless if the church survives or thrives in the aftermath – it was absolutely the right thing to do. It was right to tell the truth so that people – an entire congregation – could get on with the healing process.
When it comes to abuses such as these, the church must practice what it preaches: Confession, repentance, honesty, truth-telling, and the asking for forgiveness. Such practices are only bad for business if the church misunderstands the nature of its business. The church doesn’t exist to protect itself, its assets, its financial bottom line, or the reputation of its clergy.
The church exists as an instrument of God’s love. Its business is the healing business, maintaining a heartbeat for those damaged and broken, those who are vulnerable and at risk. And when it’s the church that has put people at risk, then it’s all the more urgent to own up and repent.
Yes, such honesty can result in much loss, but it is better to lose the world than to lose one’s soul by failing to say and do what is right.
Ronnie McBrayer is a syndicated columnist, speaker, and author of multiple books. You can read more and receive regular e-columns in your inbox at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.