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.
For every person who steps forward to make a claim of childhood sexual abuse by a church leader, there are countless other victims who choose to stay silent. Many leave their faith. Trust-violated victims often battle depression and addiction, struggle to form healthy adult sexual relationships, and may be tempted to become abusers themselves. Victims who stay in the church have to work hard to create an internal truce between their experience of abuse and the message of Jesus.
Exits and truces are not kingdom values. God has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Though a pastor may occasionally reference an abuser's sin if it serves as a useful sermon illustration, I've rarely heard a church leader publicly pray for the victims of clergy sexual abuse (or sexual abuse in general, for that matter). Voice of the Martyrs' press release speaks of White's death, his family, and his accomplishments for the kingdom. Let us remember that it appears he also left behind a 10-year-old victim.
Our ministry of reconciliation in this instance needs to answer the question: How are we as a community to respond when the millstone of clergy sexual abuse is placed on the neck of a child?
A few suggestions:
—Leaders can use events like a leader's suicide as a way to publicly speak about and pray for victims of clergy sexual abuse. But these tragedies also require a pastoral response for the voiceless victims sitting in the pews. This might include carving out time to meet with victims or family members and referrals to counselors or local sexual abuse support groups.
—Make certain that those involved with pastoral care in a church have a working relationship with local counselors experienced in dealing with victims of sexual abuse, and can direct those who've suffered pastoral abuse to online resources like S.N.A.P and The Hope Of Survivors as well as local support groups.
—Create a church culture inhospitable to predators. When a church leader believes "it can never happen here", that arrogance is an unholy beacon that draws predators like moths to a flame.
As we make prevention and healing of victims of clergy sexual abuse our priority, we all move off the earthquake fault line and become the city on a hill we have been called to be.