Voice of the Victims: Sex Abuse Survivors and the Church
The news rumbled like an earthquake through evangelical circles. Tom White, the 64-year-old director of religious-persecution group Voice of The Martyrs (V.O.M.), had committed suicide after allegations that he'd molested a 10-year-old girl. For those of us who have no connection to the case or the ministry, the sad news may have been, say, a 4.0 on a spiritual Richter scale - enough to rattle a few pictures and shift our routines for a moment or two. I wonder what number on the spiritual Richter scale the little girl and her family would give to this news.
There is a predictable arc to the way many Christians talk among ourselves about high-profile cases of children victimized by high-profile spiritual leaders. We recoil in shock as the revelations of the leader's misconduct unfolds, while simultaneously reminding ourselves of the size of his organization and the impact of his ministry has had on congregation, community and world. (In most cases, it is a "he" we're discussing.) Days or weeks later, we may engage in a wistful airing of previously unvoiced suspicions: "He was always a little too friendly to the junior high kids, but I never felt like I could say anything because of his position." The third act comes as those loyal to the church or organization heroically proclaim that the message of the gospel will go on.
A fallen leader has never stopped the progress of the gospel, and never will. But I do not believe we are proclaiming the gospel well when we do not put priority on first things: namely, the victim and his or her family.
A few years ago, the suicide of a popular youth pastor at a megachurch made headlines in our Wisconsin community. Like White, the pastor took his own life rather than face legal charges that he'd sexually abused a minor. There were many young boys, primarily from single-parent households, who'd been preyed on by this wolf in shepherd's clothing.
After this man's suicide, one of these parents sought refuge in our smaller nearby church. She was dealing with her son's shame, confusion, and deep depression while also navigating her own anguish over the fact that she wasn't able to protect her son from this predator. Mother and son were seeing a counselor, but our small group laid aside the pre-programmed curriculum for months in order to grieve with her, listen, and pray.
It seemed as though the news of the pastor's suicide gave people in our community permission to speak about the unspeakable. A close friend wept as she told me her husband refused to attend church with her because he had been abused by a priest four decades earlier. A young woman I was mentoring decided she would tell her family about the sexual abuse she'd experienced throughout her childhood by a close relative, also a pastor in their church. During this period, the elders in our congregation were creating safe ministry boundaries for a church member who was on probation for a sexual crime that he'd committed before coming to faith in Christ.