What Is an Institution Worth? The Church and Abuse

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For almost 40 years of my life, I was a sexual abuse victim and didn’t know it. That thread, if we pull on it long enough, leads to much more than an individual story of suffering and healing. It leads to bigger questions about the role of institutions—such as families, churches, businesses, and governments—and their role in contributing to people’s willingness to ignore and cover up abuse, but also the importance of fighting to save them.

Rachael Denhollander’s book What Is a Girl Worth?: My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics showed me how to pull that thread. Her 2018 testimony in Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing was, for me, much more than a spellbinding expression of how the gospel illuminates justice. That testimony and her subsequent work speaking out for justice, especially in churches, was part of a process by which I discovered that events in my early childhood had more significance than I had wanted to realize.

What Is a Girl Worth? shows how the individual experience of abuse is formed and malformed by institutional claims to authority and incentives to self-protection. But it also shows that our institutions—our families, our churches, our businesses, our schools, our governments—are worth fighting for, worth rescuing from their own worst instincts. And it shows how important carrying out this work is to the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Don’t Assume You Understand

When I was a boy at summer camp, the head of the camp pulled me out of an activity on a pretext. Then he cajoled and finally bullied me into going into the big communal shower in the men’s room and showering at the same time—not “together,” but not apart, either. Thankfully, we were discovered by another adult at the camp, who saw what was happening and put a quick stop to it before anything else occurred. Also, earlier in my childhood, a babysitter had exposed himself to me.

Strange as this may sound, I didn’t realize until fairly recently that these were instances of abuse. It was a wounding invasion of my sexuality, and a violation of my trust and integrity, by figures who had power and authority over me. But in the moment, and for a while after, I was so disturbed that I couldn’t articulate or categorize the experiences at all. Eventually I just called them “weird” and tried to stop thinking about them, eventually with success. (I was all too eager to succeed.) Only now do I see how this early abuse contributed unconsciously to the arc of my emerging adolescence, which was not what it should have been.

Something analogous happened to Denhollander, who did not at first realize she was being abused. One of the gifts of What Is a Girl Worth? is the way it helps the reader understand the experience of abuse. Victims not only typically feel an overwhelming sense of inability to fight back or speak up, but very often don’t even understand what is happening to them.

This psychological incapacitation is not a character fault or a lack of virtue; it’s an unavoidable effect of the victimization itself. You might just as well blame the victim for being a child, or for being in the doctor’s office or at summer camp, as blame them for being psychologically affected in this way by what was done to them.

Institutions Are Essential

Denhollander realized she had been abused because her mother recognized something was wrong and would not let the issue rest—even when Denhollander resisted dealing with it. She found healing through the support of her parents and family, and later her husband. And she ultimately carried on her fight for justice because she found people in other kinds of institutions who were determined to do their jobs: journalists, police, prosecutors, politicians.

Abuse cases are hazardous to institutions, which thrive by maintaining public trust and good reputations.

But abuse cases are hazardous to institutions, which thrive by maintaining public trust and good reputations. Anything suggesting that life in the institution is anything but sweetness and light is felt as a danger. An abuse case feels like an existential threat. Churches, businesses, schools, governments and (alas) even families can respond to such cases with a sort of instinctive horror.

Institutions have a powerful natural instinct to protect themselves. This instinct is not necessarily wrong. Institutions do face threats and have a legitimate need to protect themselves. An animal in the wild without any instinct for self-preservation would be eaten swiftly by predators.

But we are not animals. If we wish to be human and not revert into beasts, the needs of real justice must take precedence over the needs of self-preservation. That is what being human means. Or, to put it from a theological perspective, if we wish to recover the authentic humanity that was ruined in our fall into sin, we must learn how to put justice ahead of self-preservation.

One of the most shocking moments in What Is a Girl Worth? comes when we first realize Denhollander’s case against a Michigan State University doctor will be investigated by a detective from the Michigan State University police department. In effect, the university will be investigating itself. We all know perfectly well how strongly institutional incentives will affect such a case and which way they pull.

Institutions Are Formative—and Malformative

We may not realize how this problem of self-interested incentives affects every abuse case. The people around the victim have to decide whether to prioritize justice or protection. And we have all been consciously and unconsciously trained, by our daily participation in the life of our institutions, to protect the institution. Meanwhile, few have experienced a similar level of training—day in and day out, over the course of many years—in the virtues necessary to do justice.

We experience this imperative to protect the institution as a sense of loyalty and mutual care. When it is rightly ordered, the loyalty and mutual care of its members is the institution’s lifeblood, and a great source of human companionship and purpose. But how often is it rightly ordered in a fallen world? And how often do we assume that our own institutions cannot possibly be the wrongly ordered ones?

The camp employee who discovered my situation and rescued me is a perfect example. That person quickly separated me from my abuser. But they didn’t speak to me about it, neither to ask what had happened and gather facts, nor to find out whether I was hurt and how they could help. They didn’t want to know. Looking back, I get a strong impression that this person found us only because they knew the abuser did this sort of thing—they were checking on him.

In other words, the employee was not protecting me so much as protecting the camp. I’m glad I was rescued before worse happened to me. But by protecting the camp, this employee also protects the abuser.

The abuser was protected from accountability not only because the person who found us didn’t ask what happened, but also because they didn’t show concern for my well-being. As a result, I never realized I had been abused. If this person had asked me if I was okay, I might have realized that I wasn’t.

To be fair, I think this person was totally unaware of the fact that they were enabling abuse. I think they were even unaware of the fact that they didn’t want to know what was going on. But that also shows how huge the problem is, and how essential it is for us to work against it consciously and diligently if we want to become faithful people. Good intentions aren’t enough. One of the main themes of What Is a Girl Worth? is that it was not only malefactors but well-meaning people who did all the wrong things and enabled abuse.

The More You Love, the Harder You’ll Fight

A consistent motto in What Is a Girl Worth? is “the more you love, the harder you’ll fight.” This motto applies to institutions as well as to individuals. The fight for justice cannot be effective if it is carried out in a spirit of destruction; it must be carried out in a spirit of redemption.

“The more you love, the harder you’ll fight” nicely captures the uniquely Christian response to the problem of reform. The natural tendency is either to hold back from fighting at full strength because we’re afraid we’ll stop loving, or to hold back from loving at full strength because we’re afraid we’ll stop fighting. The Christian metaphysic of creation and fall, and the doctrines associated with redemption, are the only sound basis for uniting the two impulses—and thus the only way to keep either love or fighting holy and pure.

In the long run, doing justice is in the best interests of our institutions.

In the long run, doing justice is in the best interests of our institutions. They need authentic moral community and trust to thrive. Both are undermined when institutions ignore injustice. When MSU Detective Lt. Andrea Munford assured Denhollander her loyalty was to what was right and not to the school, it would have been just as correct to say her highest service to the school lay in doing what was right. What’s true of institutions, we already know to be true of individuals. Every parent knows that holding people accountable for their misdeeds is one of the most important ways we love them.

I said before that institutions experience abuse cases as existential threats. The profound irony is that they are never an existential threat to an institution that responds to them rightly. Any institution that is even minimally viable as an institution can survive the exposure of an abuser. But no institution, however strong, can survive persistent distrust that it lacks minimal honesty and integrity.

The Unique Challenge in the Church

Churches by their nature have the strongest positions of moral authority and trust. Abusers gravitate to this authority, and the authority also creates powerful temptations for anyone who possesses it to become abusers. The same extraordinary social position of moral authority also intensifies people’s false sense of urgency to protect the institution from any scandal that might tarnish it, and gives them more power to suppress victims.

The public scandal of abuse is not prevented by churches that suppress it, but only delayed—and the bill accumulates interest at an appalling rate every year it goes unpaid.

Of course, this only means that churches suffer all the more in the long run when they fail to handle abuse the right way. Precisely because the church occupies this unique position of moral authority, it lives or dies by whether people find that authority plausible. The public scandal of abuse is not prevented by churches that suppress it, but only delayed—and the bill accumulates interest at an appalling rate every year it goes unpaid.

Like others in the church, in the past I have sometimes been dismissive about this problem—even as someone who has suffered abuse—on the theory that abuse is nobody’s problem except the court system’s. Personally, I am entering a period of confession and repentance in this regard, and I hope to see others do so.

Called to the Resurrection Life

Fighting for justice in our institutions is hard. Fighting for justice in our churches is even harder. But it is only hard in the same way that the Christian life is always hard. To follow Jesus means to be locked in a deadly war with evil—with the evil outside us as well as the evil inside us. This is the cost of discipleship.

I told a friend that reading Denhollander’s story in What Is a Girl Worth? is in one way like watching Sherlock Holmes hunt down and finally trap Professor Moriarty. Later that day, I came to a sobering realization. In the end of that story, while Holmes does trap Moriarty, Moriarty also traps Holmes. The great detective has to sacrifice himself to bring the villain down.

There is a strong element of that in What Is a Girl Worth? Denhollander, with so many others, is made to pay the cost.

But there is one difference. When Holmes and Moriarty go over the falls and plunge to their deaths, that really is the end of their story. But we, as followers of Jesus, know that graves have exits as well as entrances.

If Denhollander’s 18-month fight to bring Nassar to justice against all opposition has the qualities of death, What Is a Girl Worth? has the qualities of new life. Even when recounting great sorrow and anger, it bursts forth with an unmistakable joy and power of life in the Spirit that no grave of injustice could contain. And, like another resurrection, it not only is new life, it summons us to new life.

It summons us to follow.

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