In this age of small group ministries, most pastors would know how to handle a crisis that affected a significant number of believers in their pews.
“If you had 1 in 4 members of your congregation actively battling cancer, or 1 in 4 members…becoming widowed or losing a spouse, chances are you have some level of intentional ministry to these people,” Rachael Denhollander said. at a recent Trinity Forum event focused on how churches are responding to sexual abuse. “Maybe you would have a support group or Bible study for them. You would have meal trains to help provide for their physical needs.”
But many victims of sexual abuse are reluctant to speak out, she says, because churches act as if they don’t exist. Thus, they have little reason to believe that the sins and crimes committed against them will be dealt with in a way that offers security and healing.
Denhollander is an attorney, activist, and author who is best known as the first female gymnast to publicly accuse Larry Nassar — the longtime Team USA Gymnastics doctor — of sexually abusing physical therapy sessions. Telling her own story, she points out that she was also abused in church, when she was 7 years old.
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Far too many religious leaders act as if they have not grasped the magnitude of this crisis.
“There is an astonishing gap in perception, and it is truly inexcusable at this point,” she said, addressing victims, clergy and activists online – including participants from 24 countries in outside the United States. “We’ve had the data, literally, for decades. … Even what we know is vastly understated.
“The statistic has remained around 1 in 4 women, for sexual violence, by the time she turns 18. … The rate continues to rise, and there’s really no excuse, for that. stage, to not know that data. But sometimes it’s emotionally easier not to know that data, and we all have this intrinsic desire not to have to see the darkness around us.
Sexual abuse is a hot topic everywhere, from small fundamentalist flocks to the Roman Catholic Church. Revelations of the #MeToo scandals have rocked the careers of high-profile actors in entertainment, politics, sports, academia and business.
At a 2019 Caring Well conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Denhollander said the fears of victims of abuse in America’s largest Protestant body were “very, very well founded. , because most of the time when they talk they get stepped on. And that happened in the SBC over and over and over again.
The remarks made national headlines. Meanwhile, Denhollander has continued – out of public view – to work in smaller settings such as the Trinity Forum event, offering advice on how faith leaders can take public and private action to caring for victims, preventing abuse and seeking justice. for criminals.
In most churches, she says, the problem is not so great “packs of men” hiding sexual abuse. Often people of good will simply believe that it is impossible for abuse to occur in their congregations without their knowledge. They forget that aggressors are often past masters in the art of creating confusion and doubt to hide their actions.
Church leaders who want to take this issue seriously will need to know the basic facts about how to conduct background checks, find qualified victim counselors, and seek legal advice on how to respond in the event. of crisis. But Denhollander said the most important step is for pastors to learn to discuss sexual abuse — in the pulpit, in education and on social media — as a reality in modern life, including in the church.
Often, she says, “pastors aren’t equipped to recognize when they’re not equipped to handle something, and so the survivor isn’t getting the kind of care and the kind of multi-faceted approach to healing that he really needs”.
The goal is for victims to know that their church is a “safe space” to seek help, she added. At the same time, abusers looking for weaknesses in a church need to be given a clear message: “You’re not going to be safe here, and if you do something and someone talks, we’re going to take it seriously. and know what to do about it.”
(Terry Mattingly runs GetReligion.org and lives in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is a senior fellow at the Overby Center at the University of Mississippi.)