It is a heavy blow when God determines to bring to light that which is hidden in the shadows. Sometimes the Body of Christ must bear the weight of His judgment when He does.
Such a blow was delivered yesterday morning in an article that appeared in the Houston Chronicle. The headline was, “Abuse of Faith.” The extremely thorough story reported 20 years of sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches that affected at least 700 victims. Far and away the majority of the victims were children or youth; and far and away the perpetrators were ministers. Just in the past decade, at least 250 people who worked for or volunteered in a Southern Baptist church have been charged with sex crimes.
The article includes the stories of several victims, many of whom were ignored, shunned or ostracized by their churches when they tried to bring to light what had happened to them. Some were encouraged to forgive their abusers and move on; to just forget about it. Unbelievably, some who were impregnated were encouraged to quietly get an abortion.
Those previous two paragraphs should shock you. In fact, they should make you feel deeply nauseous and intensely angry. That is how the article made me feel. The more I read, the more emotional I became. I simply have no category to understand how anyone can perpetrate such evil on a minor – or anyone else – under the veil of being Jesus’ shepherd.
I can’t fully express how much my heart breaks for those who have endured the violations and shouldered the heavy physical and emotional trauma that resulted. We should feel utter devastation for those whose lives were shattered by people charged with building them up in faith rather than slamming it against the jagged rocks.
For our part, we can determine that their loss will not have been in vain and that their stories will never be repeated. I pledge that the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board will continue helping churches implement training and childcare standards to protect children, youth, and workers. We will continue to help church search committees understand the importance of thorough background checks for ministerial candidates. We must all continue to take action to ensure that sexual abuse in our churches will never happen to anyone of any age again.
Here are a few actions churches must take.
Establish rigorous safeguards. Background checks, training, and policies that define how adults are to interact with children and youth are standards all churches should implement. Everyone in the church, not just those who work with children and youth, should know the policies. Be diligent. If your church doesn’t have these standards, or is unsure about the ones you currently have, contact the TBMB and we can help.
Know the law. An individual has a responsibility to immediately notify authorities once they become aware of a situation. Failure to notify demeans the victim and opens the individual and their church to significant legal liability. Every accusation should be taken seriously.
Establish a response process. How will your church handle accusations and incidences? What assistance will it provide to victims and families? What steps will its leadership take following the notification to the proper authorities? These questions and more need answers at the ready should your church ever need them. And if you don’t know how your church would respond, ask questions of your leadership and get something in place.
Get the facts. We’re talking about events that will forever alter the course of people’s lives. Those making an abuse allegation deserve to be immediately heard and taken seriously. Those being accused deserve the right to have the facts gathered. Let’s face it, there will never be any winners in these situations so every instance must be handled with care and responsibility for all involved.
To a large measure the more I read the article, the more I felt the heavy hand of God’s judgement against sin pressing down on me – on us. The grief I feel is palatable. The shame tangible. The embarrassment deep. I am driven to humility; to repentance. It is right that these facts should come to light. Collectively we bear this sin; collectively we must repent. There is nowhere else for us to go other than to fall before our holy God seeking His forgiveness and mercy.
And when we get up, we must seek forgiveness from those who have been wronged, and we must determine we will do everything in our power to ensure our churches will be refuges where salvation is found and joy is experienced.