Glimpses of Jesus in the darkness of abuse

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Cross and Candles via flickr - courtesy of J McDowell

Cross and Candles via flickr - courtesy of J McDowell

In a season when we continue to hear about churches making bad decisions related to child sexual abuse, the darkness can easily overwhelm us. In those painful moments, I often find myself in tears asking and wondering, where is Jesus in all of this mess?

If Jesus is the head of the Church, shouldn’t His church be the greatest protector and supporter for the vulnerable and the hurting? Where is Jesus when churches fail to respond wisely to sexual abuse and then refuse to take responsibility or repent for such colossal failures? Where is Jesus when churches make expedient decisions that affirm offenders, rather than making difficult decisions in the best interests of children and abuse survivors? Where is Jesus when churches go out of the way to advocate for offenders, while hurting victims watch in terror and isolation? Where is Jesus when churches refuse to acknowledge their need for help from experts, thinking that they know best? Where is Jesus when churches simply aren’t teachable? Where is He? These are the painful questions I am asking all too often these days.

In these moments, when I am just about to give up on finding answers, God often displays His kindness and love to me by showing me flashes of light in the darkness. This week, God has reminded me of the  many churches across this great country that have taken remarkable actions related to understanding and responding to child sexual abuse. As Henri Nouwen aptly explains, these flashes of light reveal the hidden but real presence of God. These flashes of light are the glimpses of Jesus I’ve been so desperate to see.    Let me show you a few of those flashes of light.

I’ve seen glimpses of Jesus in a church that demonstrated public repentance. In 2011, senior pastor Peter James of Vienna Presbyterian Church, before his congregation, stated, “We failed as leaders to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed for this abuse. I am sorry. The church is sorry.” Six years earlier, the church learned that its youth director had been engaged in sexual offenses against the minors in the church. At the time, the church made the offender resign and reported the offense to child protective services.

Cross and Candles via flickr - courtesy of J McDowell

Cross and Candles via flickr – courtesy of J McDowell

However, James admitted that the church had failed in its response because they did not inquire if there had been other victims. Tragically, there were many more victims. Through a series of amazing events, the church leadership became growingly convicted that they had failed so many children and families. They decided to publicly acknowledge those failures—against the advice of their insurance carrier, which was focused on minimizing the legal exposure of its insured.

A local therapist, who worked with the church, saw the church damaged some of its most vulnerable congregants. The therapist also saw how the church’s efforts to hear victims, investigate, and apologize, “have made a difference.” The church has since begun a ministry that serves victims of abuse. By stepping forward and publicly repenting of its failure to protect children and respond correctly to abuse disclosures, this church gave the world a beautiful glimpse of Jesus.

I’ve seen glimpses of Jesus in a church that made difficult decisions in the best interest of children and survivors. In 2009, Jimmy Hinton replaced his father as the pastor of Somerset Church of Christ outside of Pittsburgh. Growing up, Jimmy watched and admired his father, a kind family man.  That all changed in 2011 when a woman approached Jimmy and disclosed that his father sexually abused her as a child.

In that moment, Jimmy faced a life-changing decision. He could ignore, silence, or marginalized this woman in order to protect his father, or he could affirm her and call law enforcement. Jimmy decided to report these crimes to the police. He states, “I’m not saying I wanted to believe that about my dad.”  However, he chose the right decision, not the expedient one. Hinton continues, “Doing the right thing isn’t doing what we want to believe. It’s about doing the right thing.”

Jimmy’s father was charged with over 200 counts of child sexual abuse and is currently serving between 30 and 60 years in state prison. The chief detective in the investigation stated, “I’ve never seen anybody who took action like Jimmy did.”  By making difficult decisions that protected children and survivors, this church gave the world a beautiful glimpse of Jesus.

I’ve seen glimpses of Jesus in a church that went out of its way to advocate for a survivor. A couple of years ago, a congregation member shared with her associate pastor that her former youth pastor repeatedly sexually abused her as a child while she attended another church in a different state. The pastor affirmed the survivor’s disclosure, and the church supported her and her husband in their decision to report the crimes.

Not long thereafter, the associate pastor learned that the offender was serving as a youth pastor at a church in the Midwest. Knowing that this offender still threatened unsuspecting children, the pastor and another church leader flew to inform the perpetrator’s senior pastor about his dangerous employee. As a result of this visit, the youth pastor was confronted and eventually terminated from the church.

After this visit, the victim ran up to the associate pastor, and he recalls, “She fell on my shoulder crying and just stayed there. I then looked at her and said, ‘All of the elders believe you.’ She then smiled and replied, ‘thank you for believing me.’” By boldly advocating for an abuse survivor, this church gave the world a beautiful glimpse of Jesus.

I’ve seen glimpses of Jesus in a church that reached out for help and was teachable.  As I wrote about in 2014, pastor Jonathan Rockness of Westminster Presbyterian Church, immediately contacted law enforcement when he learned that one of the church youth volunteers was suspected of sexually abusing children. The volunteer was eventually indicted for dozens of sexual abuse offenses against at least nine children.

Not only did Pastor Rockness call the police, but this small West Virginia church also reached out for help from experienced child protection professionals who could help them navigate how to best serve and protect the victims and other abuse survivors. The church went a step further and publicly announced a “careful re-examination of all our child and youth safeguarding measures and policies.” Westminster Presbyterian Church’s leadership understood the critical truth that a teachable church is a safer church. By reaching out for help and learning how to better protect children and serve survivors, this church gave the world a beautiful glimpse of Jesus.

In no way do I expect these flashes of light to numb the excruciating pain suffered when Christ’s Church fails to protect or support. I pray that perhaps these flashes of light will give hope, a hope that reminds us that light can shine in dark places, a hope that carries us forward to another day. A hope that reminds us that dark winters don’t last forever.

A hope that is perhaps best articulated by one of my heroes, Pastor Jimmy Hinton:

“God hates oppression and God calls his people to stand up and oppose it. It’s not that God is passively sitting by, watching innocent children being abused and doesn’t care. God is angry. God is weeping with us. God is calling people to stand up and oppose it.”

A hope that allows us to see Jesus…perhaps at least for the moment.

  • Just another…

    Thank you for sharing these examples. Reading this stirs hope and also sadness. I am incredibly impressed to hear the steps these leaders took on behalf of their people.
    At the same time, I don’t see this in my own community and long for it to happen. I have seen brief gestures of church leaders making attempts and am glad to see those attempts. I suppose most church leaders, even if they care, really don’t know what to do and if they did know what to do, they simply wouldn’t have the time, energy or resources to take steps like this.
    I know it’s too late for me, but I hope to see this for the next generation of victims and I am incredibly glad to hear that it does happen in some places!!

  • Raz

    I am glad you see a few flashes of light, Boz …. you have a much wider view than many of us do. I sit in a place of great darkness, and feel doubtful I will ever see light coming from within traditional Christian leadership structures. I KNOW this is not the way our Shepherd meant for this to be! I also know he understands, why so many of us have given up hope of ever seeing significant improvement in this area.

  • Just another…

    Raz,
    I’m so sorry, but am with you. (((hugs))) It is hard…maybe impossible to hope for light coming from within traditional Christianity. I don’t expect it to come. I can’t hope for it anymore.
    I agree that our Shepherd shows something different. I just don’t know any churches that represent that. I think some feel like they do, but aren’t willing to truly face the darkness with a survivor. Perhaps the darkness is too much and they can’t. Perhaps they are too busy with other church needs. I really don’t know. I do believe that God cares for us. I just don’t think the “Church” is ready for us. There isn’t room for broken people who have nothing to offer…at least, I have nothing to offer.
    The perpetrators are so respected and so beloved. We really don’t stand a chance against them. I hate this reality. It often keeps us in a place of worthlessness and our perpetrators in a place of reverence and high regard. I don’t have any answers. Am just aware that I’m broken.

  • Ben in oakland

    Look, I don’t know you or anything about you. But I’m going to disagree with you. You are only broken if you think you are broken. And if it is the church that is telling you that you were broken, then you need to find a better place to go For the healing you seek,

    If the church is not helping you to heal, then you are going to the wrong church. Or perhaps going to church AT ALL is the mistake that you are making. A Competent therapist that deals with sexual abuse issues can probably help you recover your self-image. But someone that tells you that you are broken isn’t part of the solution, they are the problem.

    I say this as a gay man, who has looked for decades at the damage that sex obsessed religion inflicts upon people under the guise of loving them, or worse, loving God. It has absolutely nothing to do with God, and everything to do with their obsessions with sex. It’s much easier to obsess over that then it is to obsess over real things.

  • Ben in oakland

    You need only look at the centuries of sexual abuse that the Catholic Church has committed: the writings of Saint Peter Damien dated back at least 1000 years. You find it in Chaucer. You find it in Boccaccio. It is well documented.

    It has been covered up, deflected, and made into a deep dark secret, lest there be as “scandal in the church.” The church has paid out billions. They have blame the gay men for this, call us pedophiles and dangerous to children, all in his attempt to deflect anything away from themselves.

    And all in the name of God.

    These are not the actions of the “godly.”

  • Scott

    Thank you for this post. The church that I served before I came to law school dealt with a situation similar to those your mentioned. A volunteer in the youth group had been abusing an emotionally stunted young man in the youth group. We were blessed that one of the youth leaders at the time was also a policeman and was able to guide us through the process. It was reported and the offender went to charge on multiple charges, but the fall out astounded me. People close to the family of the offender (which fell apart) left the church because it was reported and hot handled internally. The senior pastor was excoriated by vicious websites like stopbaptistspredators.com who twisted the truth and blamed the event on the pastor. Nothing we could have done (including the background checks) would have revealed any need to investigate. We made counselors available and the family stayed in the church. But it took a heavy toll on our small church to do what was right.

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  • sdc

    Abuse is not limited to occurrences within the church. It is also known that most abuses to children are done by family members or friends and acquaintance of the family. Ultimately it is the responsibility of parents to protect their children from abuse. What educational resources are available that will help inform parents of signs of abuse, steps parents should take once abuse is suspected, and what should parents teach their children (age appropriate) about abuse and how to protect themselves without making their children paranoid of every family member, family friend, acquaintance, and everyone sitting in the pews around them?

  • ben in oakland

    There is one HUGE difference between sexual abuse committed by the clergy of whatever denomination, and abuse committed by family members– usually, the father, stepfather, or father surrogate.

    The family members don’t claim any special relationship to god, including standing as intercessor between ordinary person and god. The family member usually does not claim to be called by god to that capacity. The family member does not hide behind his “special” position. The family member does not have an entire organization, often with hundreds of millions of dollars, to shield him from the consequences of his actions.

  • Oscar

    I can see where you’re coming from and it is a good point. Healing doesn’t always come from where one would logically expect and sometimes the best option is to walk away from a situation.

    I dreamt I met a Prodigal wanderer
    Who never will go home
    For the open door has strings attached
    And it is safer to forever roam

    I dreamt I visited the home
    Where long ago they’d left
    I saw a closet padlocked tight
    Where the secrets were securely kept

    And upon the table sat a contract
    That spelled out conditions of return
    Sign, forgive, forget
    Or in hell forever burn

    Upon the stove there was a boiling
    A pot of toxic stew
    With bowls waiting to be blessed
    For the favoured few

    So I offered my condolences
    On the world and my behalf
    To which they smiled riley
    And said “Good news for the fatted calf”

  • sdc

    I hope, Professor Tchividjian, you aren’t so busy with lectures and with GRACE that you are unable to find time to respond to my previous “reply” above. I look forward to reading which resources you recommend.

    Sincerely,
    sdc