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How Churches Can Do Better at Responding to Sexual Abuse

By Tish Harrison Warren Opinion Writer

In May, a third-party investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States, concluded that some former members of its top leadership committee, along with outside counsel, “closely guarded information about abuse allegations and lawsuits” and “were singularly focused on avoiding liability.” As a result, the report said, “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, or met with the constant refrain that the SBC could take no action” because of its organizational structure “even if it meant that convicted molesters continued in ministry.” The report also showed that hundreds of people associated with the denomination had been accused of abuse, and that a list containing their names had long been kept secret. Rachael Denhollander is a lawyer and a former gymnast who was the first woman to publicly accuse Larry Nassar, the former doctor for U.S.A. Gymnastics, of sexual abuse. In addition, she has worked with survivors and Southern Baptist leaders over the past several years to urge action and accountability, to call for a third-party investigation and to demand that the denomination surrender confidential documents to investigators. She also served as an adviser for the Southern Baptist Convention’s Sexual Abuse Task Force, which was formed last year to respond to widespread allegations of abuse.

August Boto, the former general counsel for the Southern Baptist leadership branch that was investigated, called the work of advocates and survivors “a satanic scheme to completely distract us from evangelism.” He criticized Denhollander and another abuse survivor, saying that their “outcries” were evidence of the devil’s success.

When the Southern Baptist Convention held its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., last week, it voted overwhelmingly to implement the reforms suggested by the report, including forming a publicly available “ministry check” website that lists credibly accused abusers who have served in Southern Baptist churches and entities. It also approved a resolution that offered a formal apology to abuse survivors, mentioning some by name, and asked their forgiveness “for our failure to hold perpetrators of sexual abuse adequately accountable in our churches and institutions.” Denhollander told me that the voting members of the denomination “sent a message this week that they will not tolerate abuse; that’s critical.” But she is quick to say that there is much more work to be done in the months and years to come. She also said, “I hope this is a challenge and warning to other denominations and any institutions to take action steps and be proactive about assessing what’s happening in their own communities and to structure abuse responses so that survivors can safely engage with the process, so that the truth truly comes out.” Before last week’s convention meeting, Denhollander spoke with me about the Southern Baptist Convention and, more broadly, about sexual abuse in churches. This interview has been edited and condensed.

What are the most important things for us to understand about the Southern Baptist report on abuse? What is most important to understand about the process is how we found these things out. The SBC ultimately commissioned what is the most in-depth assessment of a denomination’s leadership ever, in my opinion, even more so than the Catholic Church did, because the SBC actually allowed investigators to have access to all information. They did not cover up or hide documentation under the guise of attorney-client privilege.

That’s really, really critical, because so much of the time poor abuse policies and poor crisis response are guided by the institution’s attorneys. So if you don’t allow full access to information, then you miss a massive portion of what has gone wrong and aren’t as able to catch the bad actors and know where reform is needed.

That’s why many leaders fought against having full access to information from day one. The Southern Baptist Convention president, Ed Litton, said that what he read in the report was “far worse” than what he’d imagined. Did anything surprise you about the report? Absolutely nothing. This is exactly what I expected to find, because the patterns are so consistent among entities and individuals who have enabled abusers. Nobody should be surprised that there was a list of alleged abusers that hadn’t been disclosed. The Catholic Church had one, too. U.S.A. Gymnastics had one, too. Nobody should be surprised that there was a massive focus on liability rather than morality among the legal counsel and the primary leadership of the SBC, because that’s what we typically find. We find an imbalance of power. These are hallmarks of entities that have mishandled and covered up abuse.

What does the SBC need to do in the aftermath of this report? I hope they use this to really lead by example, to show incredible, genuine grief at what has transpired, which has done incalculable damage to women and children in the SBC. And to sit with that grief and to not gloss over it and to not minimize it, but then to also lead by example in reform. There’s also going to need to be a massive cultural shift in the SBC. You had survivors who were ringing the alarm bell for decades. And for far too long, many SBC leaders just literally walked past those survivors into their convention halls and closed the door.

A spirit of humble learning and proactive learning is critical. Some brass tacks related to churches generally: If there is an abuse allegation in a church, what is the right response?

I think there are really two important parts to that question. There is the policy question: On a very practical level, what am I to do? You need to report that allegation to the police if it is child abuse. As soon as the police have been notified and the alleged perpetrator knows that the police have been notified, you need to notify the church and protect the identity of the survivors. Let your congregation know in as many ways as possible: “These are the allegations that have been brought. Here is the information. If you hold a piece of this puzzle, here’s where you go.” Notifying the congregation is not rendering a judgment. It’s not accepting an allegation as if it is true. You’re not taking this person out of the church just because there’s been an allegation, for example. What you are doing is opening the door so that due process can happen, so that all sides of the story can come forward. In addition to that, much of the time, the church is going to need help to reach some type of factual determination. The average length of time it takes to get a conviction is between two and three years. So what is the church going to do in the meantime? Does it allow the perpetrator to continue coming to church with no restrictions? Does it assist the survivors? If you take steps to assist the survivors, to help them get therapy, to shepherd them, then you’re making some level of determination, right? If you’re going to put restrictions on the person accused of abuse, then you’re going to have to reach some level of determination in order to do anything meaningful. So it is very helpful for churches to get outside consultation or an outside investigation by a qualified firm with expertise in sexual abuse and church dynamics. That being said, when it comes to what churches really have to do, we have to start with understanding our theology and knowing how to apply it well to abuse and abusive dynamics. For a very long time, evangelicals have been incredibly sloppy about obtaining any kind of outside help or expertise to understand abuse and abusive dynamics. And they have been incredibly sloppy in their exegesis of passages related to biblical justice. We have not understood our own theology of justice and forgiveness. The gospel has to impact how we relate to those who have been wounded, who have been oppressed, who are victimized, who are vulnerable. We often have a very twisted understanding of authority and unity, and it is wielded in a way that keeps whistle-blowers silent and turns them into the bad guys for telling the truth. Church dynamics are a little bit unique, because when you start talking about these things, a significant portion of the time, the response is that you want to destroy God’s church. You must be out to destroy men of God. And so the immediate presumption is “You’re attacking my theology.” And my response to that is, “No. I’m not attacking Scripture. I’m not attacking theology. I’m calling you back to it.” But if we don’t start addressing the theological errors that are driving the actions we see in the church, we’re going to continue making the same mistakes, no matter how many times we lay out the practical steps that need to be taken. Our ideas drive our actions.

As you said, Scripture speaks so clearly about protection of the vulnerable and about seeking truth and justice. But then, I look at churches and think, “Why are we so bad at this?” I was not surprised by the SBC report, because it feels as if this keeps happening. We saw this with the Roman Catholic Church. We saw it at Willow Creek. We’ve seen similar things in other denominations. I’ve been frustrated and saddened by how my own denomination has responded to allegations of abuse and to those who are advocating for survivors. What do those of us who want to seek repair do? Is there a way to turn our anger and discouragement into action?

I think something that is really important to understand is that this presents an incredible opportunity to love others well and to show God’s glory well. When we respond in a way that calls evil what it is, that undoes the concept of abuse, that restores agency, that restores voice, that restores dignity to those who have been harmed, when we treat them as if they’re made in God’s image, there is great hope in that. This is not a hopeless situation. It is an opportunity to love God and especially to love others well.

As awful as the last few years have been with so many unveilings of church failure, are you hopeful that this report is going to change things? There’s always hope. That being said, the outcomes are beyond my control. And so what I focus on daily is just faithfulness. If everyone is faithful with what they’ve been given, that’s when real reform and the real change comes. Especially as Christians, that’s got to be our metric. Have we been faithful with what God has given us?

You have been working alongside survivors in church settings for many years now. Why do you stay in the church with all the evil that you see there?

How do I know that the authority I’m seeing isn’t a good use of authority? How do I know that sexual abuse really is wicked and it ought to be treated that way? You can’t know a line is crooked unless you have some idea of a straight line. That is a paraphrase of a quote by C.S. Lewis, and it has really been a linchpin for me.

The reason I remain a Christian is because my faith is what allows me to say that what I’m watching right now is broken. These institutions and these responses to survivors aren’t right. And I know they’re not right because I have a perfect picture of what these things are supposed to be. And so my allegiance is not to a church. My allegiance is not to a denomination. It’s not to a country. It’s not to a convention. My allegiance is to Christ. And when I look at my faith and when I look at the principles of Scripture, it gives me the ability to look at what’s happening and say, “This is not right,” and I know it’s not right because there really is a moral lawgiver, and there really is absolute truth. Because every other belief system outside of God leaves us essentially dependent on societal and cultural response to define right and wrong.


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