Like everyone else, I make the same old New Year’s resolutions—eat better, exercise more, get more rest. And like everyone else, I forget about them soon thereafter. Nice try, but no banana. This year, I stumbled into a New Year’s resolution that put all of my other resolutions to shame.
I went with my cousin to see the movie Spotlight. Spotlight is the true story of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative wing’s report on the sexual abuse of children by priests within the Boston Archdiocese.
The Spotlight Team (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) began their investigation based on reports of pedophilia perpetrated by one priest, John Geoghan, and a lawyer’s allegation that the Boston Archbishop, Cardinal Law, knew children were being abused and did nothing to stop it. According to Spotlight’s damning report,
For decades, within the US Catholic Church, sexual misbehavior by priests was shrouded in secrecy—at every level. Abusive priests—Geoghan among them—often instructed traumatized youngsters to say nothing about what had been done to them. Parents who learned of the abuse, often wracked by shame, guilt, and denial, tried to forget what the church had done. The few who complained were invariably urged to keep silent. And pastors and bishops, meanwhile, viewed the abuse as a sin for which priests could repent rather than as a compulsion they might be unable to control.
—“The Church Allowed Abuse by Priests for Years” (1/6/2002)
What began as an investigation into one priest’s predatory activities ultimately escalated to reveal a widespread epidemic of multiple priests sexually abusing children. Spotlight’s investigation of one priest expanded to 13, then mushroomed to a mind-boggling 87 priests and over 1000 victims in Boston alone. Instead of facing legal prosecution and prison sentences, offending priests were relocated by church officials to other parishes where the sexual abuse of children continued. The investigation surfaced a church-wide crisis that stretched well beyond Boston to other cities nationally and beyond.
What was most disturbing of all about Spotlight for me was the fact that, as I watched through Protestant eyes, the story ceased to be simply about the Catholic Church. I couldn’t escape connecting what I was seeing with what is and has been happening within Protestant Evangelicalism. As Protestants, we have no right to feel smug or shake our heads over the terrible disgrace this scandal brought on the Catholic Church. We have deep abuse problems of our own.
Law Professor and former child abuse prosecutor Boz Tchividjian made that precise point. “Spotlight: It’s not just a Catholic problem.” He backed his assertion with a report from three companies that insure most Protestant churches. The report indicated “approximately 260 reports a year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders and members”—Protestant church leaders and members! That figure exceeds the 228 a year “credible accusations” of child sexual abuse reported by the Catholic Church. Boz went on to say, “Both numbers are much higher due to underreporting and the manner in which such information is collected and determined . . . In reality, the likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches” (emphases mine).
Over the past few years reports have surfaced on the Internet, revealing instances of child sexual abuse within major leading protestant evangelical churches and ministry organizations, accompanied by leadership efforts to cover-up or gloss over these atrocities to protect the careers and reputations of perpetrators and religious institutions. Case in point: “New charges allege religious leader, who has ties to the Duggars, sexually abused women.”
Stated bluntly by The New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, the film’s major concern “is the way power operates in the absence of accountability. . . . Challenging deeply entrenched, widely respected authority can be very scary.”
That statement shifts the spotlight onto what is happening within the Protestant fold and our responsibility to deal with abuses that go unchallenged or covered up here.
Abuse situations easily tend to become hurdles to get past, rather than reasons for us to investigate our own systemic abuse problems and come up with strategies for addressing and preventing abuse. Protecting colleagues, maintaining the status quo, or expressing relief when the statute of limitations runs out and moves an offending colleague beyond the reach of the law leaves a trail of wreckage in all directions.
Life-long wounds and PTSD suffered by victims are exacerbated when their stories are doubted and discounted or they are pressured to forgive and disappear in silence. That trend is currently being reversed as numerous abuse survivors have found their voices and are going public online, courageously telling their stories on survivor websites to a wider listening Internet audience. But these young abuse victims aren’t the only ones who are damaged when church leaders circle the wagons.
Perpetrators of abuse aren’t confronted and dealt with both legally and spiritually in ways that bring a guillotine end to their abusive actions, lead them out of what must be a hellish darkness, and establish immovable boundaries to protect them from themselves. Don’t the souls of these abusers need and require that kind of uncompromising but redemptive intervention?
Enablers who protect them suffer self-inflicted damage by violating in egregious ways their calling to shepherd and care for those who are weakest and most vulnerable among us. Ultimately, the whole church suffers because the church of Jesus Christ is no longer a safe place for any of us if it is not a safe place for all.
As the New Year begins, what could be more important or healthy than for the Evangelical Protestant church to turn the spotlight on ourselves, repent, and get serious about addressing abuse within our ranks. This important film gives us a powerful way to begin that conversation by creating awareness of an urgent problem we must address.
Consider adding a few more items to your 2016 New Year’s ministry resolutions.
Face the facts: May I be so bold as to suggest that every pastor, every ministry leader and team member, every elder, every deacon, every Sunday School teacher, every seminary professor and student make it a point to see this film and then to weigh the implications for their own ministry community.
Abuse problems don’t just exist somewhere else “out there.” The abuse of power is among us in a variety of forms. Hopefully, learning more about the presence of sexual abuse will create awareness of the wide range of other forms of abuse that thrive unchecked among us. Just maybe it will even compel us to ask hard questions and to reexamine honestly how our theology and preaching may be part of the problem—fostering, even sanctifying the abuse of power of some over others.
Know your audience: According to statistics, 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused as children. This statistic doesn’t stop at the threshold of the church, but marches right on in. Even if the abuse didn’t come at the hands of someone in the church, the survivors are among us. Those who minister in the name of Jesus bear a profound and primary responsibility to care for the young, the weak, the vulnerable, and wounded among us. Every alleged or proven incident within the church, every ignored or mishandled abuse situation resounds with unbearable pain and creates enormous distrust in the hearts of those represented by these appalling statistics.
Mobilize everyone to protect our children: Late last year, Justin and Lindsey Holcomb released a new book—God Made All of Me: A Book to Help Children Protect their Bodies. This important tool is
designed to help parents engage their children in preventing sexual abuse.
Seek professional help: Sometimes with the best of intentions, our attempts to address these complex situations backfire, and we do more harm than good. Church leaders can’t be expected to be experts on every problem they encounter. Expert help is required and thankfully also available—from law enforcement, sexual abuse experts, and trained trauma counselors.
My New Year’s Resolution for 2016: Let’s make 2016 the year we begin to heal those who have been abused and eradicate the forces of abuse that are wounding the Body of Christ. Let this be the year the Church becomes a sanctuary—truly a safe place for all of us.
Republished on HuffingtonPost/Religion