Truth must come to light, however uncomfortable
I recently slipped into a pew in one of Britain’s most beautiful Cathedrals on a Wednesday at dusk for evensong. I was chilled to the bone in the moment of the service when the choir sang the words of Mary’s Magnificat recorded in Luke’s gospel: He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
I had spent that day sitting in the public gallery of a Court supporting someone who was giving evidence in a criminal trial concerning childhood sexual abuse. Mary’s words expressing hope on behalf of the poor, the humble, and the powerless felt especially meaningful that evening in the aftermath of the horrific trauma recounted. Several weeks later I remembered those words of Mary again when I sat in a basement room in a different city with another woman giving testimony to investigators about the violent sexual assault she had endured at the hand of a religious teacher who lectured at the Christian institution where she worked.
This week, the Southern Baptist Convention—America’s largest Protestant denomination—released an independent investigation report compiled by Guidepost Solutions on SBC’s mishandling of decades of sex-abuse allegations. The findings are appalling and the implications staggering, as the SBC is comprised of more than 14 million members stateside commanding a substantial global influence within the evangelical wing of the church. “For almost two decades, survivors of abuse and other concerned Southern Baptists have been contacting the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee to report child molesters and other abusers who were in the pulpit or employed as church staff.” Whistleblowers “made phone calls, mailed letters, sent emails, appeared at meetings, held rallies, and contacted the press… only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility.” Yet SBC authorities “were singularly focused on avoiding liability” so that, “survivors and others who reported abuse were ignored, disbelieved, …and convicted molesters continued in ministry with no notice or warning to their current church or congregation.”
I find myself asking, “What is it about people like me—people who have faith—that leaves us susceptible to such abuse and cover up?” How did the Christian faith—which exploded in the first and second centuries among the poor, the marginalised, women, slaves, and outcasts—produce institutions in our modern societies which have become breeding grounds for sexual abuse? It is sickening to realise that what ought to be the safest of places—a community of faith where all human beings are prized as divine image bearers with sacred dignity and loved by God—is far too often found to be a haven for predation and exploitation.
Professor Jennifer Freyd, who founded the Centre for Institutional Courage, explains the phenomena of betrayal blindness which is what happens when someone can’t (or won’t) see the evidence of betrayal or abuse that is staring them in the face, because of what it would cost them to recognize it and act upon it; and institutional betrayal which is where an organization betrays people who rely upon it to take care of their wellbeing.
Freyd points out that organisations with a clear sense of belonging tend to “other” anyone making an allegation and so cast doubt on the truth of their reports. Another common reaction is a persistent “not knowing” that conveniently maintains unawareness of injustices where this knowledge would be threatening to an office-holder or institution’s well-being.
Victims and whistle blowers in religious settings, may experience negative repercussions for reporting or amplifying reports of abuse, such as being smeared as “gossips” or being tagged as untrustworthy or even unstable. An Executive Committee member of the SBC labelled survivor advocate Christa Brown “a person of no integrity.” Freyd also warns that we watch out for DARVO. The perpetrator may Deny the behaviour, Attack the individual doing the confronting, and Reverse the roles of Victim and Offender such that the perpetrator assumes the victim role and turns the true victim - or the whistle blower - into an alleged offender.
Knowing these signs and acting upon them is the beginning of resisting toxic and damaging institutional patterns.
Where the church in its institutional forms has been found to have failed miserably, is there any hope for people of faith who care about the abuse of God’s children? I find that there is strange hope in the words of Jesus Christ: “If anyone causes one of these little ones to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
The suffering of “the little ones” matters to God at a profound level. According to Christ, ultimate accountability is coming, it is unavoidable, and it’s an outworking of love. The promised judgement of evil underscores the value of the victim and offers a profound assurance for all who suffer that a loving God will hold the wicked to account, even when human institutions fail.
But this framework of judgement and justice ought also to be reflected in our commitments to each other today within faith communities. We must welcome transparency, accountability and oversight by external authorities. If we willingly embrace this path, it will reflect an honest appraisal of the possibility of evil within our own camps and the necessity of a proper response to what is revealed. It would also demonstrate a healthy theological appreciation of our own human capacity to sin, and to self-deceive.
As we look at what is happening amongst the Southern Baptists in America we would be foolish to think that abuse is not a problem here. A reckoning is coming, and it’s time for some tables to be overturned in our churches and institutions. The pursuit of power, the protection of assets, or the insinuations of lawyers and insurers that there is a ‘greater good’ than bringing the truth—however uncomfortable—into the light, be damned. Those who experienced danger in a place where they rightly expected to find safety are raising their voices. May they find in Christ one who prizes “the little ones” and one who will put down the mighty from their seats, and exalt them of low degree.
Dr Amy Orr-Ewing is Honorary Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen School of Divinity