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.
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.