On Sexual Abuse and the Church

In Saturday’s links wrap, I mentioned Rachel Denhollander, the former gymnast whose testimony at the sentencing hearing of serial sexual abuser Larry Nassar went viral — particularly among her fellow Christians, who were inspired that she used that difficult platform to talk about the Bible’s message of grace and forgiveness. But I also encouraged anyone who had shared that video to then read Denhollander’s op-ed in the New York Times, “The Price I Paid for Taking on Larry Nassar,” which included two troubling allusions to religion: (emphasis added)

I lost my church. I lost my closest friends as a result of advocating for survivors who had been victimized by similar institutional failures in my own community.

…we need to encourage and support those brave enough to speak out. Predators rely on community protection to silence victims and keep them in power. Far too often, our commitment to our political party, our religious group, our sport, our college or a prominent member of our community causes us to choose to disbelieve or to turn away from the victim. Far too often, it feels easier and safer to see only what we want to see. Fear of jeopardizing some overarching political, religious, financial or other ideology — or even just losing friends or status — leads to willful ignorance of what is right in front of our own eyes, in the shape and form of innocent and vulnerable children.

I included that link both hoping and dreading that we would learn more clearly what she meant. And now, I’m afraid, we have.

Here’s a portion of Denhollander’s powerful interview with Morgan Lee of Christianity Today:

Church is one of the least safe places to acknowledge abuse because the way it is counseled is, more often than not, damaging to the victim. There is an abhorrent lack of knowledge for the damage and devastation that sexual assault brings. It is with deep regret that I say the church is one of the worst places to go for help. That’s a hard to thing to say, because I am a very conservative evangelical, but that is the truth. There are very, very few who have ever found true help in the church….

One of the dynamics that you see in a Christian church that is particularly devastating is poor theology. The reason that most institutional cover-ups happen in the church is not simple institutional protectionism. When you’re dealing with something like MSU [Michigan State University] or USA Gymnastics, they’ve got medals and money and their institutional reputation on the line.

You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ. But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.

It’s devastating enough when money and medals are put against sexual assault victims. But when the gospel of Christ is wielded like a weapon against sexual assault victims, that’s wicked. There’s no other way to say it.

In between those two quotations, Denhollander explained that she and her husband attended a Kentucky church that was “directly involved in restoring” C. J. Mahaney, the former president of Sovereign Grace Ministries, accused covering up sexual abuse in a 2012 lawsuit.

By all means, share Denhollander’s courtroom comments about grace… but don’t dodge what she told CT.

In the midst of the larger #MeToo movement, Denhollander’s story raises important questions about church complicity in sexual abuse, the treatment of women within evangelicalism, and the problem with extending forgiveness without accountability (and sometimes without repentance).

For example, here’s NPR’s coverage of the story of Tennessee pastor Andy Savage, who recently confessed to his congregation that he had had a “sexual incident” in 1998 with a 17-year old girl while he was a youth pastor. He received a standing ovation. “Christians love a redemption story,” CT editor-at-large Katelyn Beaty told NPR. “In these cases, you have a very vertical understanding of forgiveness, something that happens between the perpetrator and God… But we lack a horizontal understanding. There really has to be a reckoning with the wrong done to this woman.”

Or read John Wigger’s special guest post at The Anxious Bench, on the church’s response to Jessica Hahn during the PTL scandal of the 1980s: “Thirty years later she has retreated into obscurity while her assailant, Jim Bakker, is still on television, preaching the gospel.” John, author of an acclaimed book on Bakker and PTL, continued, “Evangelicals cannot afford to miss this moment of change. They need to take a long, hard look within. Jessica Hahn’s story is a good place to start.”

And in Kristin Du Mez’s October 2017 post at the Bench, “Me Too. And Why This is a Christian Problem,” she explains that her “current research on evangelical masculinity has has opened up a world of sex abuse scandals within the evangelical Christian subculture. These situations have often been facilitated by patriarchal understandings of ‘biblical manhood and womanhood,’ and even when abuse has been exposed, an alarming number of Christians have ended up defending abusers, and blaming victims.”