Spotlight - courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr

Caught in the spotlight: Christian leaders who mishandle sexual abuse disclosures

A few months ago I wrote about the deceitful, but all too successful, ways sex offenders in the church act when confronted with abuse allegations. Tragically, the sex offenders are not the only ones who deceive when confronted with abuse disclosures. Too often, leaders of faith institutions respond similarly when confronted with the mishandling of sexual abuse disclosures. Instead of acknowledging the failure and grieving over the pain the institution has caused an already traumatized victim, some leaders immediately move into self-protection mode and will stop at almost nothing in shifting the focus away from their own reprehensible failings in order to protect personal and organizational reputations.  (On an encouraging note, as I my last blog post noted, more and more church leaders are responding to abuse disclosures in a manner that places the affirmation and care of the victim above all else.)

A spotlight is switched on whenever an abuse survivor steps forward to tell others how institutional leaders mishandled their sexual abuse disclosure. Spotlights that shine light into dark places are seldom welcomed by those responsible for the darkness. These spotlights come in many different forms and sizes. Some are media reports or articles, while others take the form of lawsuits and criminal cases. In recent years, many survivors have been empowered to turn a blog or a Facebook page into bright and stubborn spotlight. A few years ago, I learned of a faith institution whose leaders had failed miserably when learning that children under its care had been sexually and physically abused. Years later, a handful of these children who were now adults privately confronted the leaders about how their failure to respond had devastated the lives of so many who had been abused. The leaders expressed concern and promised to “look into it”. After two years of empty lip service, the survivors realized that the leaders had little or no plans to do anything. The sad reality was that as long as these conversations remained private, many of the survivors believed that the leaders had nothing to lose by dragging it out as long as possible with the hope that they would simply go away. Instead of continuing the endless and fruitless private dialogue, these brave young adults decided to turn on a spotlight in the form of a public blog that exposes the horrors committed by offenders and the ongoing failures by the institutional leaders to properly respond to these crimes. Over time, this spotlight grew brighter as it reached more and more people around the world. Suddenly, empty lip service was no longer a viable response as the institution no longer controlled a private narrative.

Instead of focusing time and energy in doing the right thing when a spotlight is turned on, many leaders will focus time and energy trying to get them turned off, or at the very least pointed elsewhere. Fortunately, truth can be quite stubborn and has a way of finding the spotlight regardless of how hard others try to turn it off or point it elsewhere.

Turn off the spotlight. This is simply an effort by leaders to take the matter out of the public eye where they have very little control. Turning off the spotlight allows leaders to retake control of the narrative by taking it out of the public eye with little or no accountability.  Here are just two ways that leaders attempt to turn off spotlights that are beginning to have an impact.

Turn it off, you’re hurting Jesus. Leaders caught in the spotlight will often claim that the public exposure of their failures is the airing of “dirty laundry” that hurts the name of Jesus. Do you see the deception and danger of this tactic? Those who are bringing truth to the light are the ones accused of somehow hurting Jesus. Really? Perhaps, keeping dark and ugly truths silent is what hurts Jesus. Perhaps, bringing this junk out into the light is what Jesus is all about. Isn’t the Gospel all about a God who brings light into the darkest of places?

Turn it off, you’re hurting other victims. If the hurting Jesus tactic doesn’t work, leaders will often attempt to turn off the spotlight by claiming that it is hurting other victims. This tactic is reprehensible because it exploits other victims in order to protect personal and institutional reputations. An abuse survivor once told me that church leaders requested that she stop speaking publicly about how they had grievously failed her in light of her own abuse. They "advised' that the mater be addressed privately as it was hurting other abuse survivors. Fortunately, she didn’t listen to their “advice” and kept the spotlight on. Victims are marginalized when leaders demand that they not share their stories in the manner in which they have decided, publicly or privately. This tactic is deceptively clever because it attempts to paint a bold survivor as an insensitive perpetrator in a disgusting attempt to shame the survivor into turning off the spotlight and putting the institution back into controlling the narrative. Leaders who really care about abuse survivors shouldn’t be attempting to control or silence them. Instead, perhaps they should be focusing their efforts on providing those other struggling survivors with qualified and experienced assistance.

Spotlight - courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr

Spotlight - courtesy of Tilemahos Efthimiadis via Flickr

Point the spotlight elsewhere. When leaders aren't successful in turning off  spotlights that are shining their way, they will often do the next best thing…try and point the spotlight elsewhere. The hope being that if the spotlight can shine someplace else, their mishandlings will be overlooked or minimized.

Point it towards the perpetrator.  What better place to turn the spotlight towards than the actual perpetrator.  In attempting to turn the spotlight off of themselves, leaders will argue that the focus should be exclusively on the one who committed the horrific crime. In doing so, they make very convincing statements about the horrors of sexual abuse and how such offenders should be punished. They emphasize this point by highlighting some of the heinous particularities of the offense, hoping that the watching world becomes so disgusted with the perpetrator that the failures by the leadership pale in comparison.  Shifting the spotlight towards the egregiousness of the offender’s behavior does not make the failed responses of leaders any less wrong and hurtful.

Point it towards the victim. At first, this may sound like a bad and ruthless tactic. However, we sadly live in a culture that is still quick to discredit sexual abuse victims. Shining a spotlight that casts doubt upon a victim’s character or credibility will naturally reduce any concerns about whether the leaders mishandled the situation. I recently learned of a clergy who abused his position to engage in a sexual relationship with an adult parishioner. When confronted about the matter, the minister laughed it off claiming that the victim was an alcoholic and couldn’t be trusted. Sadly, this attack of the victim’s veracity gave the church leadership the “perfect” excuse to do nothing. Other attempts to discredit victims can be more subtle such as claiming that victim was partially responsible for the sexual abuse, or that the victim is exaggerating about the type or gravity of the abuse.  Attempts to discredit victims come in all shapes and sizes with the sole objective of shifting the spotlight away from the leadership’s responsibilities and failures related to this crime.

Point it towards anyone but me. The reality is that many leaders who are caught in the glare of spotlights that expose ugly truths will work feverishly to point at anyone but themselves. An all too convenient tactic is to demonize those who express support for the victim. Their motives are questioned and their behaviors are labeled as “ungodly”, all the while the leader claims to be unfairly persecuted. This is done with the hope that the focus will shift from the mishandling of a sexual abuse disclosure to the persecution of Christians. Supporters aren’t the only ones who find themselves maligned by leaders desperate to push away the penetrating spotlight. I recently learned of a pastor who actually blamed unsuspecting and devastated parents for not protecting their child from being sexually abused by an adult. Little doubt that this distressing claim was an attempt to turn that darned spotlight off of his own failed response to this crime.

Spotlights don’t get turned off or turned away easily. I believe that has everything to do with the amazing individuals who bravely step forward and risk so much to have them turned on. So many of these heroes have spent their lives struggling in the shadows, all the while the leaders who failed them continue to pastor churches and operate ministries without ever thinking about the destruction and pain they have caused. A good friend once told me that the higher you go in church leadership, the less likely you are to encounter Jesus. I can’t help but wonder if those holding the spotlights are hoping to see Jesus somewhere in the lives of these leaders who profess His name. I like to think that Jesus is actually standing alongside these courageous souls helping them hold the spotlights in place and making sure that they stay on.

Perhaps, Jesus is the spotlight.




  1. Most of the clergy abuse survivors with whom I’ve communicated — and there have been hundreds — have expressed the view that the harm done by other church and denominational leaders who mishandled their abuse disclosures was even greater than the harm done by the clergy-perpetrator. Imagine. As incredibly difficult as it is for clergy abuse survivors to deal with the psychological fall-out from a single preacher’s horrifying deeds, it is even more painful and traumatic to deal with the deeds of the many others who work to keep the abuse concealed — and then to keep their own cover-up-conduct concealed. Such enormously grave harm! Thank you, Boz, for shining a light on these tactics. Most of what you describe occurred in my own case, in which at least 18 Southern Baptist church and denominational leaders mishandled my sexual abuse disclosure, allowing a child-molesting minister to continue on as a children’s minister, even though my report was well-substantiated.

  2. THANK YOU, BOZ!!!

    Still gripping my little spotlight over here. I won’t let go!

  3. It is sad but amazing how, with a few changes, this very same piece could be written how parts of the Jewish Orthodox world deal with this very same issue.

  4. Thank you for helping me hold a spotlight too. It wavers and flickers but due to GRACE I’ve connected with others and we are learning to help each other and not be alone anymore.

  5. I lived in a situation where everyone around me, including saints & clergy, forced silence on a sexually, mentally and physically abused child. Most went on to tell me when I grew up that I had no right to report the abuse to police. “God has forgiven, it’s “under the blood and God has forgiven and you can’t bring it up”. News flash! David repented, the child died anyway. My faith in God is gone. I do not know how to trust in an entity that blames the victim. I do not know how to believe in miracles; I have never seen one.

  6. I’m with you on this one. I have long given up in believing in the God who inhabits places that harbour child sex offenders and will lie and cheat to keep their secrets hidden.
    As for miracles, I “saw” many of those as a child on the mission field. Except when I returned it was explained to me how these “miracles” were performed and how so many could be conned with the trickery. Just another arrow in the quiver of disillusionment for this Agnostic I’m afraid.

    For me to find the God of Love that was beaten into me as a child, will take a miracle of true repentance and justice served on the criminals that hide behind the cross. And I just don’t see that miracle occurring in the near future.

  7. Oh yes I can see it twinkling in the night sky. Hang on, it’s a halo . . .


    I’d turn mine on, but it went to the dry cleaners and hasn’t returned.

  8. I, along with many, many others, spent much of the past few years reliving past horrors to participate in the sexual abuse investigation that Bob Jones University asked us to participate in. The experience of being part of it is not something easy to describe.
    For me, the past came up during the months before the investigation. One of those triggers was hearing Dr. Bob III discuss the abuse that was covered up at another university and making the claim that Bob Jones University has NEVER covered sexual abuse. That combined with a few other things that brought the past up in a way that I couldn’t avoid the memories. I went from having what seemed to be a normal life, to days filled with flashbacks, dissociation, panic, confusion and fear. The nights were filled with nightmares. I would wake up throwing up from the intensity of the memories of past abuse that I desperately wanted to block out.

  9. In time, I began counseling and started to face the past. Facing the past, however, also included facing Bob Jones University, as they were a big part of covering sexual offenses in my history.
    The next several months included finally filing legal charges against one specific perpetrator – the same perpetrator that Bob Jones University had previously encouraged me to tell no one of his crime as it would limit his ability to serve God as the godly man that he was. After filing charges, I went to look at the records that BJU had about the offense, since they were the ones to whom his offense was initially reported to, the ones who stated that they would “handle” the fact that their student had just raped someone AND fully admitted to it. The records were spotty with a lot missing. I asked the administration what happened to the records and was told that their attorneys had encouraged them to “purge” their records.

  10. Can the spotlight be switched on Lundy Bancroft? The cult founding charlatan fake “abuse” expert? Many “christian” abuse advocates are deceived by him.

    Lundy Bancroft is a cult founder.
    “1) The human being is an animal. We are no more different from other animals than they are from each other. We are not a race apart. All the creatures of the earth are our sisters and brothers. ”

    Lundy Bancroft was fired by the Massachusetts trial Court.

    Eph. 5:
    11 Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. 12 It is shameful even to mention what the disobedient do in secret.

  11. Fast forwarding…GRACE completed the investigation. The report was incredibly thorough and detailed. We had all waited for so long and had much hope that the investigation would lead to repentance and change. We thought it would end the many voices that had hated and mocked us during the two year period while the investigation was ongoing.
    We waited and learned that there would be a response from BJU in 90 days, so we waited, hoping and praying that they would respond truthfully and that all we had sacrificed, would finally pay off. We all wanted to see current and future students protected. We wanted to see the school support the legal reports with their records. We wanted to see their counseling change from something that destroyed victims and defended perpetrators to something where God’s love was shared with victims.

  12. Nothing ended up happening. The school completely dismissed the report. For some reason, the local BJU pastors chose not to even read the report. It seems that the faulty did not read it and not even all the board members of the school read it.
    Nothing changed. The victims were betrayed again, only this time, BJU had complete access to the truth, but simply wouldn’t do anything about it. They ignored the recommendations from the investigation.
    Those who participated in the investigation were just as hated as we were before. This is their most recent response:

  13. Another tactic is to accuse the child of being a willing participant in his own assault and calling him a homosexual when he was raped!!!! Yes people this is what our former pastor has done along with the perpetrator and his family. Well, the light has been shining for two years and it’s about to come full circle! I an gearing up for the biggest fight of our lives and God has brought reinforcementts. They tried to silence us but the truth has kept darkness away.

  14. This is the most difficult of the God questions – if ur asking a question. Usually there’s a face behind it too, which makes theological answers sound sort of lame. Also a very Eastern question; doesn’t reject God’s existence, just his goodness. But really, I don’t think the Bible missed this. Geez, it seems to specialize in the kind of character flaws ur talking about! Just saying… It helps me to think of the Kingdom as a tree… which attracts birds – birds with all kinds of perverse reasons for hanging out in the branches. But if I get hung up with the birds, I’m the one who’s missing the point. I’ll pray for your miracle. I’m waiting for one too. In the means time, great book with a modern miracle in it – “Picking Cotton” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton.

  15. Excellent article, Boz. Added to the heaps of abuse that victims are subjected to, their parents (and family members) are also subjected to it, and witnesses.

    At my former church, I was ordered to be excommunicated and shunned by the pastors/elders for not supporting their secretly giving church membership to their friend a Megan’s List sex offender. They did not tell all members that and parents. I discovered him on Megan’s List while doing another project.
    The pastors/elders put him in a position of leadership trust and invited him to volunteer at a 5-day sports summer basketball camp that the church puts on for children. Parents – believers and unbelievers – who entrusted their children to us were never told that a Megan’s List sex offender had been invited to work with their children! The other denomination that rented their school to my church was also not told, and they can be sued for acts of negligence on their property!

  16. Boz,
    Thank you for recognizing sexual abuse for what it is and doing something to bring this ugly truth into the public eye. After 2 years I’m still trying to pick up the pieces of a shattered kid and a mom who’s heart has been devistated over what was done to him by his perpetrator and our former church leaders. Please know that I have an incredible kid who survived his rape and together we are joining you and many others by bringing his abuse into the light and holding accountable those who have attempted to silence, accuse,slander and abuse us for reporting , not meeting with his perpetrator , not sticking around to worship at the same church as his perpetrator , or giving them anymore access to me or my son. The buck stops here at least with us. We will not be silent. My son is incredible as he has said I was raped by so and so and the pastor sided with my perpetrator, when asked why we left our church. God is steadily giving him a boldness and he is standing on the…

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