Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Does Evangelicalism Have A Sexual Abuse Problem?

The easiest answer to that is that if there is one incident of child sexual abuse in the church, then yes we have a problem. The easiest answer is rarely the most complete one.

I want to tread lightly here because of the nature of this issue. There is not a pro-child sex abuse camp in evangelicalism. This is not an issue where we have to be aware of nuance and gray areas. Sexual abuse of minors is wrong, period. When the abuser is an adult in a position of authority over them, it compounds the matter. When that authority figure is supposed to be representing Christ? Well obviously that is worse yet. That language doesn't even begin to capture the problem but I am not looking to engage in a contest of seeing who can use the strongest rhetoric. What I am saying can be very easily misconstrued so I ask you to read the entire piece and try to do so in the spirit it was intended.

Reading this story paints a disgusting picture that feels like a punch in the stomach for me as a parent and a Christian. I am sure that is why it is making the rounds of social media. Sexual abuse is a horrible crime that impacts the most vulnerable among us in the church. That is clear. So why even ask the question?

My reason for bringing this up has to do with something I saw posted in multiple places on social media yesterday. The source was an article at the New Republic and the title and subtitle are the kind of headline that gets our attention, especially as Christian parents. The story, The Silence of the Lambs: Are Protestants concealing a Catholic-size sexual abuse scandal? is written by Kathryn Joyce and is largely the story of a young girl, a missionary kid (or MK) from Indiana named Kim James who was with her folks in Bangladesh. They were there as part of the mission work for ABWE, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism. What follows is a horrifying account of her grooming and abuse by a man named Donn Ketcham, a "doctor" in the mission who apparently was serial adulterer who got away with it because of his personal charisma. It is inexcusable, sinful and shameful made worse by a series of failures to address the problem in a timely and Biblical fashion. ABWE Interim President Dr. Al Cockrell posted a video admitting their failures and lack of oversight by ABWE leaders and detailing the steps being taken to avoid similar situations in the future.

So why the post? This seems pretty clear cut. Here is why I think it needs to be talked about with a discerning eye.

The article references fundamentalism 17 times. It uses the word conservative 6 more times. Patriarch is used twice. The message is clear. Conservative, fundamentalist Christian churches and missions are a hotbed for sexual abuse. It suggests that it "has become increasingly clear—even to some conservative Christians—that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church.". An epidemic? What proof is given? Well none really and that isn't the point of the piece. The reason for this "epidemic" is obvious to the author of this piece. The problem is being a conservative Christian:

Yet the potential for sexual abuse is actually exacerbated by the core identity of fundamentalist groups like ABWE. Like Catholics, fundamentalists preach strict obedience to religious authority. Sex is not only prohibited outside of marriage, but rarely discussed. These overlapping dynamics of silence and submission make conservative Christians a ripe target for sexual predators. As one convicted child abuser tells clinical psychologist Anna Salter in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, “Church people are easy to fool.”

Is that true? I don't deny that there is some truth to it. Some of those charges are applicable to any institutional religious setting, or any institutional setting in general. What is noticeable to me immediately from the New Republic piece is that it singles out "conservative" religious groups and places the blame for this abuse in large part on the very nature of being conservative as the author understands it. There are no mentions of Methodist churches or Episcopal churches in this essay. Are we to believe that "progressive" churches don't have any issues with sexual abuse of minors? Come on. Here is another example:

The scale of potential abuse is huge. Evangelical Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the United States, with more than 280,000 churches, religious schools, and affiliated organizations. In 2007, the three leading insurance companies that provide coverage for the majority of Protestant institutions said they received an average of 260 reports per year of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and members. By contrast, the Catholic Church was reporting 228 “credible accusations” per year.

260 reports of abuse is a lot. It is 260 more than should ever happen. But in perspective, 260 reports out of 280,000 institutions is less than one tenth of 1%. Look at one word in that paragraph that I will come back to: "potential".

I don't mean, IN ANY WAY, to minimize the impact of this but this is the result of fallen human nature, not "fundamentalism". As I said, do you think this doesn't happen in Methodist or Episcopal churches or liberal Jewish synagogues? We know for a fact that serial abusers are found in places like summer camps and sports leagues, like Larry Nassar the Michigan State and Olympic team gymnastics physician who is accused of molesting something like 80 women and girls. On a seemingly daily basis the see news reports of female teachers engaging in sex with their students and those only make the news because it used to seem uncommon. Do a google search for sexual abuse in public schools and you will find articles like Has Media Ignored Sex Abuse In School? and AP: Sexual Misconduct Plagues US Schools and Schools failing to protect students from sexual abuse by school personnel, federal report says. The last article I referenced makes a staggering claim:

The U.S. Government Accountability Office said the nation’s K-12 schools lack a systemic approach to preventing and reporting educator sexual abuse of students, despite a problem that the report said affects an estimated 9.6 percent of students – nearly one in 10 – who are subjected to sexual misconduct by teachers, coaches, principals, bus drivers and other personnel during their K-12 career.

Is that true? I don't know but I don't doubt it for a second. I know for certain that it went on when I was in school but it was kept a quiet back then. Public school teachers have daily access to minors, hours a week and more for after school activities. That 10% would be subjected to sexual assault, inappropriate touching and even garden variety sexual harassment doesn't seem a stretch at all. I would say based on those statistics, it is not a stretch to say that your child is far safer at an evangelical summer camp, a fundamentalist foreign mission or an activity overseen by a Catholic priest than they are being in sports or attending a public school. It also doesn't mean that something is inherently wrong or encouraging to sexual abusers in the public school setting, which is what the author is suggesting about fundamentalism.

My point here is NOT "Well kids get abused all over the place so don't sweat it". NOT AT ALL. The Church absolutely must hold ourselves to a much higher standard than the world on this issue and all others. So my point is not that sexual abuse of minors is nothing to worry about but rather to shine a light on the less than subtle conclusions of this particular essay.

For example, something seemed oddly familiar about this story and then it hit me in this paragraph:

“Protestants have responded much worse than the Catholics to this issue,” says Boz Tchividjian, a former child sex-abuse prosecutor who is the grandson of legendary evangelist Billy Graham. “One of the reasons is that, like it or not, the Catholics have been forced, through three decades of lawsuits, to address this issue. We’ve never been forced to deal with it on a Protestant-wide basis.”

The reason it seemed so familiar is that I have seen these claims made by Boz Tchividjian, accompanied by the note that he is Billy Graham's grandson, in the past. In 2013 I pointed out an article in the Huffington Post that had a very similar title and made a similar claim. Let me go back a few paragraphs where I pointed out the use of the word "potential" and then reference part of what I said concerned me about Boz and his organization back in 2013:

Second, the articles are all pretty vague and mostly anecdotal. There are lots of problems but they are unreported. Well isn't that convenient! You can make a claim of a huge problem that is unreported so you are not burdened with providing statistics/facts and if questioned just blame a culture of silence. Notice that the title is inflammatory but then he is quoted saying "I think we are worse" (emphasis mine). Pretty major accusation to make based on something he thinks might be true.

Even the comparison to the Catholic church is seemingly lifted from the very title of the prior piece, complete with the reference to his being Bill Graham's grandson.

Evangelical Sex Abuse Record ‘Worse’ Than Catholic, Says Billy Graham’s Grandson Boz Tchividijian

When did the secular media start caring about Billy Graham? They don't but it serves a purpose, they invoke the name of the great Billy Graham and assume (rightly) that it gives extra credence to what someone is saying whether it does or not. Of course Tullian Tchividjian is also the grandson of Billy Graham and is most recently famous for leaving his wife for another woman, magically getting restored to ministry literally months later and single-handedly causing a huge split in the church formerly overseen by D. James Kennedy.

What struck me very quickly in my initial reading of this article were two points.

One, this is not really an article about sex abuse.

Two, it is a hit piece aimed at a certain politically incorrect portion of the church.

Finding the most extreme case and presenting it as representative of the norm is a common journalistic tactics, especially when the journalistic source is a hostile one. The article being passed around appears in an avowedly "progressive" magazine, the New Republic. From their webpage:

The New Republic was founded in 1914 as a journal of opinion which seeks to meet the challenge of a new time. For over 100 years, we have championed progressive ideas and challenged popular opinion. Our vision for today revitalizes our founding mission for our new time.

Is something automatically wrong or suspect because it comes from a liberal source? Of course not, many times liberal sources report on things that conservative sources don't so I keep an eye on what they are saying, even as I keep in mind their bias. The converse is far more common as well. Should you keep their political affiliation in mind when you are reading an article that purports to expose the shady world a "fundamentalism", a world and a word they likely don't understand and find distasteful? Absolutely. Go to the front page of the New Republic as I did this morning and it looks a lot like a liberal version of National Review or The American Conservative  or some other more serious webzine. The articles are probably well-written but they are clearly partisan in nature. That is fine, I read conservative versions of the same style of writing but I also don't expect that they are going to be "fair" to liberal causes.

The unfortunate reality is that sexual predators are drawn to children and especially children in places where they can exert power over them. Most churches that I know of have taken concrete steps to mitigate this reality with things like background checks, having multiple adults present around kids in church nurseries and Sunday schools, even removing solid doors and replacing them with doors that have a large window. There is always more we can do of course. Sin and especially sexual sin is a problem everywhere in the world, in the church and out of it, in conservative settings and in liberal settings, among "fundamentalists" and avowed militant atheists. As I noted above, this problem is not unique to or especially prevalent in "fundamentalist" circles in spite of attempts to make it seem like it is via a couple of prominent examples. Sexual sin has been one of the most ubiquitous sins throughout human history and the Bible makes this abundantly clear, so while it is tragic it is also not unexpected.

The obvious underlying point of the article being passed around is that fundamentalism is bad and leads to child sexual abuse. The obvious solution is to avoid and shun fundamentalism or to modify what it teaches to become more worldly and thereby magically making it less prone to sheltering sexual abusers. That is the wrong conclusion and it is the wrong response.

The proper response to the reality of the abuse of human sexuality, specifically directed by adults in authority in the church towards minors, is not to soften or compromise our theology. Indeed this entire issue is a deeply theological issue and therefore the response is to strengthen and sharpen our theology, not to abandon it.

Fundamentalism or conservatism is NOT the problem. Sin is the problem. 

We are 2000 years after the cross and in spite of all of the "advances" of science and reason we are no closer to overcoming human sinful behavior outside of the new birth today than we were in the first century. In fact we might even be moving further away from finding a "solution" via medicine or therapy or of course theological compromise because such a "solution" doesn't exist.

My point in this exercise is to advise caution. Be careful when you read about the church from non-church, often hostile, sources and be watchful for hidden agendas. The media in this country overwhelmingly despises conservative, evangelical Christianity and doesn't want to see it reformed in a way that is helpful. They want to see it gone. When they are trying to tell you what they see as the problems in the church, take anything they say not with a grain of salt but instead with a 50 lb bag of salt from Sam's Club,


One finally note to reiterate again that I am not downplaying or minimizing the issues of child sexual abuse or the institutional structures that can help conceal it or other legitimate concerns about fundamentalism. I condemn sexual abuse in the strongest terms and favor both permanent removal from leadership for anyone involved, strict church discipline and absolutely the appropriate legal action, legal action that I hazard I would like to see be far more severe than is usual.

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