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Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?

The Andy Savage case should lead us to question the way many churches are handling the issue.
Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?
Image: J. McGuire

Many observers were troubled when Andy Savage, a pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, received a standing ovation from his congregation for his admission of a “sexual incident” with a 17-year-old high-school student when he was a youth leader at Woodlands Parkway Baptist Church in Texas. They have reason to be troubled.

Though the congregation was probably unaware that the woman involved described the “incident” as an assault, at least one pastor at Woodlands and the leaders of Highpoint were aware. The alleged victim claimed that Larry Cotton, an associate pastor of Woodlands at the time, urged her to stay quiet about what happened. And only after the alleged victim made the case public did Highpoint’s pastor Chris Conlee admit that the information was not new to him or to the church leadership. Conlee went on to support Savage and his continued ministry at Highpoint Church.

Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for churches and religious organizations to try to handle sexual assault allegations internally. Bob Jones University, Sovereign Grace Ministries, the Association of Baptists for World Evangelism, and the Institute in Basic Life Principles have all come under fire in recent years for not adequately addressing sexual abuse within their communities. Some of these organizations have been accused of blaming the victims—even those who were children at the time of abuse—and pressuring them to forgive their abusers rather than report them.

Many church leaders probably react to these stories by thinking that they would never do such a thing. They would never intentionally cover up allegations of sexual abuse in their church. But what if intentionally covering up the truth is not the only thing churches need to worry about? When investigations of sexual abuse by church leaders are handled internally, we risk missing the truth in the first place.

The Problem of Bias

We’re all familiar with our tendency to evaluate our own moral failings more leniently than the moral failings of others. When someone else does something wrong, we condemn; when we do something wrong, we rationalize.

The problem is, this bias doesn’t stop at ourselves.

Research shows that we also extend this favored treatment to members of our in-group and to those close to us. We judge our friends more positively than other people judge them, and we are likelier to excuse unfair behavior by an in-group member than we are to excuse the same behavior committed by someone outside the group. Given that church leaders are often personally close, this calls into question their ability to be impartial when judging one of their own.

We also have a hard time being objective when we have a stake in the outcome. Harvard researcher Max Bazerman and colleagues demonstrated this in a study where they gave participants identical information about the potential sale of a fictitious company and asked them to estimate the company’s value as the buyer, the seller, the buyer’s auditor, or the seller’s auditor. The researchers found that the participants playing the role of seller’s auditors reached estimates that were 30 percent higher than the estimates of the buyer’s auditors, even though they were told they would be rewarded according to how close their evaluations were to those of impartial experts.

Even when we’re trying to be as accurate as possible, if we’re already on a particular “side,” this can hinder our ability to view the situation objectively. And if people are this influenced by bias in a hypothetical case, this doesn’t give us much hope when we have a real interest at stake.

The effects of bias can continue beyond our initial evaluations. When another person’s morally questionable behavior benefits us, we trust them more than if it doesn’t, and we are less likely to remember their bad behavior.

As we can see, bias doesn’t just affect our final decisions; it can permeate our whole judgment and decision-making process. People who have an interest in seeing data in a particular direction have a hard time being objective about a range of judgments and in a variety of contexts.

There might be an even greater danger of rationalization when it comes to judging church leaders than non-religious leaders. Church leaders are not only working for us; they are working for God. Precisely because working for God’s kingdom is a noble goal, it can lead us to justify any sins committed by those who have made it their career. Indeed, this is one of the ways people often try to rationalize keeping leaders accused of sexual abuse in power.

This is a precarious road, however. Many terrible injustices have been rationalized in the name of “God’s kingdom.” Power without accountability is dangerous.

The Importance of Impartiality

Another problem with bias is that it generally occurs outside our awareness, leading us to overestimate our own objectivity. As researchers have found, we tend to evaluate ourselves as more ethical and less biased than other people. The unconscious nature of bias can make it especially difficult to recognize and correct through our own conscious efforts.

This is why judges are supposed to recuse themselves when they know one of the parties involved in a case, or when they have an economic interest that might be affected by the outcome.

Though there are some differences between the decisions made by a judge and those made by a church, there are also some important similarities. In both cases, we have similar aims and values: We want to find the truth, to be fair, and to carry out justice for all parties.

We would never let a judge preside over a sexual assault case where the accused was a friend or a business partner. Yet, not only is Chris Conlee judging his close friend, but he is using this friendship as a reason we are supposed to trust his judgment: “As one of my closest friends and partners in ministry, I can assure you that I have total confidence in the redemptive process Andy went through under his leadership in Texas.” On the contrary, this friendship is one of the reasons we should doubt his ability to uncover the whole truth, to be fair, and to carry out justice for all parties.

In the legal system, not only are judges supposed to recuse themselves when they have doubts about their ability to be objective; they are also supposed to recuse themselves when the public might have doubts about their ability to be impartial. When we doubt the ability of judges to make impartial judgments, it erodes public trust in the fairness of the justice system.

Similarly, it is in the wider interest of the Christian community that people can trust that church leaders will seek the truth. When people see churches trying to handle investigations of their own leaders internally, it leads many to doubt whether the church really desires to bring the truth to light.

Even if you think you can be objective, if the public views your actions as trying to sweep things under the rug, this does real damage, not only to your church but to the entire Christian community.

How Should Churches Respond?

We obviously need to do what we can to prevent sexual abuse, but we also need to have a plan in place for how to respond if it does occur. Once your real interests are at stake and your church’s reputation is on the line, it can become far too easy to rationalize bad behavior.

“But what about 1 Corinthians 6:1–6?” some will ask. That’s the passage where Paul reprimands the Corinthian believers for taking their disputes to court. I would submit that this passage—like all biblical passages—should be read with careful attention to the context that surrounds it, chapters 5 and 6, in which Paul is especially severe on sexual sins. They are not among the “trivial cases” being taken to court that he refers to in 6:2; on the contrary, he goes so far as to instruct perpetrators to be handed over “to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (5:5). It seems that certain transgressions are beyond the church’s power to address adequately.

That is especially true of sins of abuse. As Owen Strachan wrote in a Christianity Today article on domestic violence, “The civic ruler, Paul says, acts as an ‘avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer’ (Rom. 13:4, ESV). When churches teach otherwise, they not only fail to provide psychological and emotional care, they also fail theologically. Divine vengeance cries out to be exercised against evil.”

Given all this, and given how difficult it is to evaluate our own leaders objectively, it is essential to have sexual abuse allegations investigated by an independent party that does not have a vested interest in the church. If we want the church to be a safe place of healing, we can’t afford to cover up the truth. The first step, though, is finding it.

We need to be aware of how our relationships with the accused and our desire to keep them in power might affect how we interpret the situation. Don’t take your ability to overlook warning signs or minimize accusations as evidence that there is no problem. Your biases might be preventing you from seeing the truth.

Jen Zamzow has a PhD in philosophy and cognitive science from the University of Arizona and teaches undergraduate ethics online for UCLA and Concordia University Irvine. She writes about faith and doubt, meaning, morality, and motherhood at jenzamzow.com.

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Should Churches Handle Sexual Abuse Allegations Internally?