The editors of Christianity Today have finally heeded the outcries of readers who were offended, enraged, and triggered by their article from a convicted sex offender. They published a rather sincere apology for their grave lapse of judgment, giving me hope that the Church is on its way to having a better understanding of sexual abuse: what it is, how it works.
I hate to say it, but I was expecting an apology more along the lines of “I’m sorry you got your feelings hurt”: something insincere and not truly from the heart. I expected this not because the Church has some kind of agenda to make life more hellish for sexual abuse victims, but because Christians in particular just can’t wrap their heads around this issue. I want to know why this is.
Perhaps part of why the Church mishandles (and continues to mishandle) sexual abuse is because the forgiveness piece of our faith is so highly valued. We Christians figure if Jesus can forgive the people who nailed him to a cross, rape victims can forgive their abusers. My personal journey of forgiveness has taught me that forgiveness isn’t the same as letting abusers off the hook, though: it’s a decision that frees myself from being enslaved by bitterness, which gives my abuser a hell of a lot more power than he deserves.
But why are perpetrators of abuse told to repent and submit to consequences in every available avenue except the law? This is where the Church continues screwing up. It’s not enough to come clean to an accountability partner. It’s not enough to resign from your position of leadership.
Maybe churches with abusers in their midst figure the negative publicity will hurt attendance, sponsorship, or the cause of Christ as a whole. I know I want to believe more than anything that the conviction of the holy spirit is enough to rectify damaging behavior, but sadly, this makes Christians rather naïve. Sexual abuse is a crime that thrives on secrecy: from the victim and everyone who knows the abuse is happening. This gives power to the abuser, making him (or her) believe he/she is invincible. The recidivism rate of sexual abusers increases when “turn the other cheek” becomes synonymous with hiding from the consequences of the law.
My distrust of churches as safe havens grows every time I hear forgiveness lauded as the only solution to “getting over” abuse. Not only is this completely underestimating the severity of trauma, but forgiveness doesn’t cause amnesia. Forgiveness doesn’t wipe the memory clean of PTSD and all the physical symptoms that go with it. Even years later, there’s not a day that goes by when I don’t still struggle with it.
This is what abuse survivors need from their churches: stop telling us that the joy of Christ conquers all wounds. We know that. Just tell us, instead, that you are listening and you want to understand.
For me, that is a good enough place to start.