Last week, a former youth group leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland, was convicted of multiple accounts of sexual abuse of minors. Testimony at the trial confirmed that an elder at the church knew of the abuse and did not report it to authorities. When I read a news report while researching this article, I was struck by this section:
Tears of joy could be heard from victims and their family members as the verdict was read.
“I started crying. It was just, it was overwhelming to know that the struggle, the fight, the 25 years of trying to bring this forward, was worth it,” victim Jeremy Cook, now a married father of three, said.
I could only imagine their reaction. My heart aches for children who for years keep their abuse secret out of fear and misunderstanding of what happened to them. But what about the child who does tell someone but that person either doesn't believe them or minimizes what they've experienced? I can't imagine the double harm such a response does to youth already experiencing the trauma of abuse. If a child was shot in the arm, we'd recognize more clearly the double trauma of protecting the one who pulled the trigger, minimizing the damage done by his actions, and not reporting it to the police.
My children's preschool teaches kids and parents how to protect children from sexual abuse and how to respond if it happens. My preschool as a child did not. My children are much better prepared for such situations than I was at their age, and I'm much better prepared than my parents were at my age.
I note that my pastors now are better prepared than were my pastors from my youth as well.
Need to Be Taught
Around the same time these boys were being molested by Nate Morales in the 1990s, I was a counselor at a Christian youth camp. I had a camper share with me (in repentance, trying to repair her reputation with me) that she didn't mean to have sex with the guy she was caught with. She hadn't meant to dress provocatively. In fact, she had holes in her undergarments when their sexual encounter took place. Obviously, sex with him wasn't on her mind when she got dressed that day. She told me she'd even protested and said no. But at some point, because of her moral weakness, she gave in. At least we both kind of accepted that view of it, which was the view projected onto her by her rigidly religious father and pastor. She was brought up for church discipline with the guy. She “repented” and was left with a reputation she worked hard to repair.
Now, with the maturity of an adult living in the real world, I think of her story with a cold knot in my stomach. She was caught by surprise and embarrassed by the poor condition of her dress that day?! She said no?! This was rape. But her sexual abuse from her past and the acceptance of it all by the authorities in her life (her religious parents, her Christian school, her pastor, camp counselors, and so forth) led her to believe it was her fault. I accepted it as her fault too. I was a young college student, barely older than a minor myself. Nevertheless, I had an obligation even at that age, but I didn't understand that responsibility or act on it.
I was in my mid 30s when I woke up in a cold sweat to recognize the gross error of my response toward her. Sometimes I wonder if I had been of stronger character, how would I have handled that situation differently? How could I have advocated for her? Was I a mandatory reporter? But I had a bigger problem than lack of character or fear of authority. My problem was ignorance: I was not trained and I did not know how to recognize sexual abuse or to report it. I wish I had known better naturally without someone telling me, but I didn't. I needed to be taught.
In the last decade, the churches with which I'm most closely affiliated have adopted strong procedures to protect children during worship services. We need continued emphasis in the future on the issues that hampered me as a camp counselor so long ago. Pastors, elders, deacons, lay leaders, and pretty much everyone else in our churches need to understand how to recognize sexual abuse and how to report it. Whether it happens on our ministry campuses or in a member's private home, as one rises in positions of authority, one rises in accountability to recognize and report abuse. But each of us has a role regardless of our position of authority.
Loves the Wounded
The Lord blesses and protects those who are wronged; he sides with the powerless and the oppressed (Psalm 9:9; Isaiah 1:17). He also amazingly offers grace and blessing to the oppressors who have abused power (Luke 19:1-9), though that blessing can only come on the far side of repentance that makes no excuses and bears full responsibility.
Jesus doesn't snuff out the smoldering wick or break off the bruised reed. He loves the wounded and was wounded for them that they might be healed. Jesus also blesses the elder who sinned by not alerting authorities, because when a leader lays down his defenses and admits his sin against God, government, and the young victim, he is freed. Repentance blesses the person repenting. Note that the blessing of admitting your sin and asking forgiveness of the one you sinned against isn't that you're freed from the consequences of that sin. We are ignorant of all things spiritual if we think legal constraints are the main thing from which we need to be freed. I'd rather be freed from sin and guilt in jail than walk under its weight outside. Walking in the light, even with consequences, is still a lighter burden than walking in the dark hiding from the truth of our sin.
Ultimately, God offers great grace, love, and healing in the pursuit of justice that reflects his image. Admitting our sin is a crucial first step in that process.