Clergy sexual misconduct (CSM)/clergy sexual abuse (CSA) can occur in any religion. When CSM occurs in a Christian environment, the gospel message is undoubtedly twisted. First, the minister communicates a perverted version of the gospel message in order to convince the victim that the abuse is in some way spiritually acceptable to God or overlooked by Him. Second, the gospel message is often miscommunicated when the church responds to the abuse in an unbiblical and unloving fashion. For example, many churches sadly seek to protect the institution, rather than the victim. Victim shaming and blaming by fellow Christians further misrepresents Christianity and the message of Jesus. Because of this, many survivors turn away from the Christian faith after disclosing their abuse. Additionally, those who witness the mishandling of abuse cases by Christian leaders often find themselves questioning the authenticity of the church and the validity of Christianity.
Correcting Unbiblical and Dangerous Messages Communicated to CSM Victims
The gospel message speaks of forgiveness of sin and reconciliation with God through faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:1–4 ESV, Rom. 6:23). When a pastor commits clergy sexual abuse, it is typical for the pastor to tell the victim that the sexual contact is either permitted by God or automatically forgiven without the need for him to genuinely repent. Repentance is the act of turning away from sin with deep remorse and turning to God for forgiveness and reconciliation. In situations such as sexual abuse, it would mean confession as well. However, in order to protect himself, it is common for the pastor to convince the victim that his inappropriate behavior should be kept quiet.
The gospel teaches that all have sinned against God and that sin can be forgiven only through the payment for sin that Jesus made on the cross through His sacrificial death and resurrection from the dead (Rom. 3:21–26). This forgiveness, however, must be accompanied by repentance (Luke 13:3, 5), which is evidence of true faith (Matt. 3:8). When a minister of the gospel removes the biblical mandate to turn from sin in repentance to God (Luke 24:46–47) so that he can continue to live a life of sin behind closed doors, he is teaching a perverted gospel message.
A well-known section of the Bible that is often used by CSM perpetrators to control and abuse victims is the story of King David and Bathsheba (2 Sam. 11, 12:1–25). Typically, the story of King David taking Bathsheba and impregnating her and subsequently killing her husband is twisted into a tale of romance. The abuser may highlight the facts that the son of David and Bathsheba, King Solomon, becomes the wisest king of Israel, and that Jesus descends through their lineage. Because of this, the abuser reasons that David and Bathsheba are blessed by God, despite David taking the married Bathsheba to have sex with her. The abuser reasons that based on this biblical event, the minister sexually contacting the victim is permissible and even “used by God” in some way.
The real “twist” in this situation is that the very passages that the perpetrator is using to justify his sin are the same scriptures that speak to the issue of leadership abuse of power. When confronted with his sin by the Prophet Nathan, King David isn’t accused of helplessly falling in love with a woman who consensually joined him in a mutual sexual relationship. David is told a parable that likens him to a rich man who “took the poor man’s lamb” (2 Sam. 12:4) in the same way he “took” the wife of Uriah (2 Sam. 12:7–9). The result of his abuse of power is not a blessing, but devastating consequences that affect his family’s line: his first son dies and he is plagued with family problems including incest, fighting, and murder (2 Sam. 12:10, 14). Bathsheba is never rebuked for what David did to her.
However, David does genuinely repent (2 Sam. 12:13, Ps. 51) and his sin is made known publicly, recorded in the Bible for all to see. Unfortunately, this is normally not the route that an abusive pastor wants to take.
This excerpt from Flawed Families of the Bible: How God’s Grace Works through Imperfect Relationships, coauthored by the late Dr. Diana Garland and Dr. David Garland of Baylor’s George W. Truett Theological Seminary, looks again at the story of Bathsheba and David, exploring the dynamics of abuse of power, survival, and God’s working through even the most troubled and troubling family dynamics.
The gospel message is one of selfless sacrifice. Jesus willingly chose to lay down his life as a sacrifice for sin on the cross (John 10:18), suffering a horrific death and rising from the dead in triumph (Rom. 5:9, 10:9–10). This selfless sacrifice satisfied the wrath of God against sin and made a way for sinful mankind to be reconciled to the Father (Isa. 53:5, Rom. 5:8–9, 1 John 4:10).
When church leaders respond to an incident of clergy sexual misconduct in a way that protects the interests of the organization above the well-being of the abuse victim, they are operating in contradiction to the gospel message. The choice of the leadership to operate in self-preservation mode communicates to the victim that he/she is the one who must be silenced and sacrificed for the “greater good” of protecting the reputation of the ministry and gospel. This incorrect approach is based out of fear, pride, and a misunderstanding of the power of the gospel, which is not dependent on our attempts to present a flawless image.
Why do some churches and Christian organizations seem to struggle with encouraging members to report the suspected abuse of a child? At the heart of the struggle is a fear that is rooted in the need to self-protect. It is a fear of losing the ‘good reputation’ of a ministry, it is a fear of losing ministry donors, it is the fear of losing congregation members, it is a fear of losing a ministry altogether. All such ‘fears’ are usually masked by a rationale that the reporting of such abuse may ‘damage the reputation of Christ’. Do you see the great tragedy? It is a fear fueled by protecting self. This has nothing to do with Jesus.
The Gospel tells Christians that our identity is in Christ alone, and that our reputation and all that we possess belongs to Him. Another way of putting it is that apart from Christ’s accomplishment, we have no reputation and we possess nothing.
This Gospel-centered perspective gives us great freedom to confess, confront and expose sin without fear of earthly consequences. This Gospel-centered perspective liberates us to sacrifice personal and institutional reputations if doing so protects and preserves the lives of His little ones. Isn’t that what God did for us? He sacrificed His reputation, His supporters, His ministry, and even His very own life in order to protect and redeem. This Gospel-centered perspective should drive us to expend ourselves in protecting children, regardless of the consequences to our church, ministry, or our very own lives.
The next time someone tells you that reporting suspected abuse of children may ‘hurt the reputation of Christ’, tell them to stop protecting themselves. Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is reflected in how we love and protect children. Tell them that the reputation of Jesus is only damaged when we turn away and leave grievous sin alone in the darkness of silence.
God commands His followers to live in the light; that is, to come out of the spiritual darkness where they were once hiding in sin (1 John 1:6–7). By protecting the institution over the victim, leaders are choosing to hide in the darkness and demanding that the victim does the same. The gospel, however, teaches us that Jesus gave His life as a sacrifice so that we can be empowered to come out of darkness and into His glorious light (1 Pet. 2:9) where we find freedom living in truth (John 3:19–21). Ministries can and should learn how to properly respond to clergy sexual misconduct.
The Bible is clear that because Jesus paid the price for sin in full on the cross, there is “therefore now no condemnation” for those who put their faith in Him (Rom. 8:1). Yet, there exists a spiritual opponent, Satan, who is referred to as the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10) and who desires to remind believers of their sin, causing them to feel alienated from God.
When Christians victim shame and blame, they are not gracefully living out the truth of the gospel but are instead functioning in way more akin to the adversary, Satan. Many survivors of CSM refer to their experience of victim shaming and blaming as more traumatizing than the actual abuse itself. This form of retraumatization leaves the vulnerable even more devastated than they were before. In some cases, poorly trained church counselors and lay counselors have further damaged survivors of abuse through victim blaming and shaming as well. Instead of being the healing hands of Jesus, Christians become a tool of the enemy when they choose to blame and shame the victim.
The motivations of those who victim shame and blame vary, but the spiritual reality is that after it occurs, many survivors of CSM leave the faith, deeply hurt and further traumatized. Because of this, Christians should choose to become educated on how to properly respond to abuse in the church and be careful what they say and post on social media in response to public abuse allegations, which can send the tacit message to victims that if they disclose abuse, they will not be believed.
When Christians truly understand the gospel and its implications for daily living, they will operate with grace and tact, moving toward the hurting and vulnerable with a desire to help in the healing process and bring comfort, just as they have been comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3–4). Survivors will experience God’s healing power through positive, supportive relationships with Christlike believers (1 Thess. 5:11).
It is common for survivors of clergy sexual misconduct to struggle with their faith. If you are a survivor of abuse, understand that negative reactions to your faith are normal. It is both typical and OK to question what you once believed.
In fact, wrestling with spiritual truths can aid in your healing process as some beliefs you have been taught may be unhealthy. Examples of common toxic beliefs that need to be changed include blind submission to a spiritual leader, the belief that a leader is above criticism and accountability, the idea that a leader can speak for God, even if it contradicts what the Bible says, and other ideas commonly taught in toxic churches that are marked by control, manipulation, and other unbiblical and cultlike practices.
Coming to the realization that certain doctrines you once held were in place to control you is a difficult process. Give yourself grace and time to work through these changes. Reaching out to a professional Christian counselor to help identify unhealthy beliefs, while preserving your faith, can prove helpful.
Remember that reevaluating your beliefs is healthy and people often change their position on various religious doctrines over the course of their lifetime. Hold on to positive thoughts and the knowledge that there is a God who cares about you, values your life, and is actively working in your healing process and spiritual recovery, even if you feel far from God.
Below are steps you can take toward spiritual healing.
If you find yourself going into a dark place mentally or experiencing suicidal thoughts, ask for help. Do not struggle in silence.
You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is a United States-based suicide prevention network of over 160 crisis centers that provides 24/7 service via a toll-free hotline with the number 1-800-273-8255.
Even if you struggle to believe that God cares for you or even exists, know that your life is valuable and there are people who care for you. You matter.
If you are currently experiencing clergy sexual misconduct, you can get help and begin your path to freedom and healing.
If you are a survivor of CSM, the following is a list of steps that you can take to help work through your spiritual healing process.
If the leadership or members of the church where the abuse took place are not supportive or refuse to remove the perpetrator, you should leave the church and seek a place where you can grow in your faith and heal. This is especially true if the church exhibits toxic behavior and controlling practices. Fellowship with believers is important and should not be understated. However, that fellowship must be positive and take place in a healthy environment.
Receiving Professional Christian Counseling/ Therapy
Counseling or therapy is highly recommended for survivors of CSM. Although counseling does not have to be performed by a person of faith, there are benefits to choosing a trauma-informed Christian professional who is knowledgeable of CSM in regard to working through your spiritual healing. Note that it is important to receive counseling outside of the church where the abuse took place and from an accredited/licensed professional counselor or therapist.
A professional Christian counselor or therapist, who you have vetted, can help you work through your healing process both mentally and spiritually. A counselor who understands that clergy sexual misconduct is abuse can help you work through your trauma, while still preserving your faith. Professional Christian counseling can also assist you in growing deeper in your faith while working through your difficult past and recovery.
Many survivors experience the hurt of lost friendships after disclosing clergy sexual misconduct. This is not the fault of the survivor but is often caused by individuals not understanding that CSM is abuse. Church gossip, lies, and ministry cover-ups can all contribute to the breakdown of church friendships. However, many survivors are also surprised at the grace and Christlike behavior of other friends, and many times, new friendships are forged among those who choose to empathize, instead of attack or disengage.
If you are a survivor of abuse, understand that losing friendships, especially in your church community, is extremely difficult, and sadly common. It is important to remind yourself that this result is not your fault. As heart wrenching as it might be, moving on is often the best course of action if your friends do not desire to be part of your healing process or attempt to understand. It is not beneficial to dwell on the breakdown of unhealthy friendships, and you may need to reevaluate your relationships with friends who may be present but are critical and unsympathetic.
Believe that God will stick by you and provide new friendships with positive people to help walk with you as you heal. Enjoying the company of healthy friends, especially those who can pray for you when you feel far from God, is one practical way of preserving and growing your faith during this difficult time. “A man of many companions may come to ruin, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” (Prov. 18:24 ESV).
Limiting Your Exposure to Negative Feedback
If you have recently disclosed clergy sexual misconduct, your main focus should be on your healing. Limit your exposure to negative feedback, such as gossip, unhelpful comments, and other disheartening communication. You can ask your friends not to relay discouraging messages from church members or other spectators. You can take a break from social media, where uneducated people, including Christians, unfortunately respond to public abuse allegations in callous and careless ways.
Many CSM survivors benefit from in-person or online abuse survivors’ groups. If you choose to attend a peer-support community, be mindful of how you feel. Some survivors experience discomfort when listening to abuse stories. Others may benefit from attending an abuse survivors’ group only after they have progressed further in their healing process. Decide what is best for your mental and spiritual health. Surround yourself with positivity and those who help draw you closer to God, not pull you into a dark place. If you believe that a peer-support community would be beneficial to you, Restored Voices Collective (RVC) is a peer-support community specifically designed for survivors of adult clergy sexual abuse.
Absorbing Spiritually Healthy Material
After disclosing clergy sexual misconduct, you may find it difficult to focus, especially while reading the Bible. Trouble concentrating is often a symptom of the stress and anxiety experienced by survivors of abuse.
To help grow in your faith as you journey through the healing process, consider listening to Christian books on audio while doing an activity, such as cleaning. Choose books that build you up spiritually. Christian music, audio Bibles, and sermons can be accessed through the internet. However, if you feel anxiety or discomfort watching videos on abuse, you do not need to watch them at this time. Focus on what brings you a sense of peace and draws you closer to God.
To ease back into reading the Bible, consider reading the Psalms, which can be significantly comforting to those who have experienced injustice and are in need of God’s comfort. Absorbing spiritually edifying material will help occupy your mind with spiritual truths, which will help in your spiritual healing process.
Spiritual Healing Takes Time
It’s OK to acknowledge your hurt and doubts. God is patient and gentle. In time, spiritual healing happens. It is important not to disconnect as God uses people and other means to relay His love to you. Pray and ask Him to show Himself to you as you move forward in your healing process.
There is hope. Believe.