In 2001, editor Marty Baron of The Boston Globe assigned a team of journalists to investigate allegations against John Geoghan, an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. Reporters Michael Rezendes, Matt Carroll, and Sacha Pfeiffer interview victims and try to unseal sensitive documents. The reporters make it their mission to provide proof of a cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church. What they uncovered revealed a scale of abuse that was unimaginable and utterly shocking.
It’s time, Robby! It’s time! They knew and they let happen - to kids! Okay? It could’ve been you, it could’ve been me, it could’ve been any of us! We gotta nail these scumbags! We gotta show people that no one can get away with this! Not a priest, or a cardinal, or a freakin' Pope...If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.—Mike Rezendes
The sad and tragic reality is, when you hear the word ‘church’, many people in our culture think of the word ‘abuse’. Many people view the church with a sense of suspicion. That is no doubt true in most of the communities we are working in.
The Church’s Design
These stories are shocking, not least because of the harm they have done to the name of Jesus and the reputation of his church. The church that Jesus has established is built and designed to be a place of refuge for broken sinners, not a hiding place for pedophiles and abusers. You see, Jesus has designed the church to be a place of healing, safety, hope, and light. The church is intended to be the safest place on earth for all who treasure the name of Jesus.
Perhaps you’re reading this because something terrible and traumatic happened to you when you were just a young child. It is difficult to talk about it, even as an adult. You wonder: Who will understand? What’s the point of bringing it up? It’s unbearably painful to revisit those memories, so why bother?
The truth is, though, deep down, you know that it has affected you. The way you interact with others. The way you feel about yourself. The fear you have of being abandoned or let down by the people you trust. The insecurity you feel in your relationship with God Himself. That traumatic event may have occurred decades ago, but the wounds still run deep.
As a young child, I experienced the trauma of physical and sexual abuse. These wounds become scars that won’t go away. Children who are abused will carry emotional and mental scars well into adulthood. Childhood abuse leaves us completely disorientated. But, praise God, for me the most orienting experience of my life was accepting Jesus Christ as my Saviour.
After my Mum started to take us along to a small Baptist church in the north of Scotland, an older man in the church, a rugged fisherman from Peterhead, with a thick accent, glass eye, and a long dark beard, introduced me to the Bible. He taught God’s Word in a way that made it seem real and alive. He was a gentle man with an affection that I could trust. The gospel broke into my stubborn, cold, and dead heart. I found Christ as my hiding place, and the church became a refuge. The church provided a place where I felt, for the first time, safe.
That is not the story many associate with the church and abuse. Far too many view the church as a dangerous place. Oh God, may our churches become the places of refuge that the Lord intends them to be.
The church is to be our refuge. Jesus is a suffering Saviour who knows what it is to be abused and abandoned. He is a friend who comes to us in our pain. We have no scars that Jesus cannot see, and we have no wounds that He cannot heal. So how do we draw near to Jesus? The answer is in the context of a healthy, local, gospel-centered church. As part of a healthy church, we experience the love of Christ and hear the voice of God in a very real way.
So, let me point out to you three ways that God intends for the victim of abuse to feel at ease in the church and three ways that the church should protect our congregations from the abuser.
How Can You Feel Safe In Your Church?
1. We Need Christ-like Leadership
Christ is the Head of the Church: Those who have suffered abuse might be tempted to run from authority, to resist any form of leadership, to see anyone in power as being a potential abuser. But the Bible tells us that authority in and of itself is inherently good. We are designed to submit ourselves to an authority higher than us. The church is under the authority of Jesus. He is the head of the church and Jesus has never, and will never, abuse his people.
And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.(Eph. 1:22–23)
These verses teach us that we are not called to submit to the sinful demands of an abusive pastor, but we are called to submit to Christ because of who He is and what He has done. Biblical leaders in a healthy church understand that. We should look for leaders who look to Jesus. The church will be a place of safety for us if it is led by men who model the characteristics of a pastor set out in 1 Tim 3 and Titus 1.
These standards for Christlike leadership are designed to protect the church from abusive men who use their authority to abuse their members. We need to come under the watchful care, love and compassion of Christ-like leaders, and God provides such leaders for us if we are part of a healthy church.
2. We Need Christ-Centered Preaching
It might seem odd to address preaching in the context of abuse, but the reality is that gospel centered expositional preaching is perhaps the most effective means by which we grow and heal as believers. The Bible is the very Word of God. We desperately need to hear His voice above all the other voices that are screaming at us—including the ones in our own heads that keep us awake at night. We need to know God more than we need to make sense of our abuse.
We may never understand what has happened to us, but let us come to see that it is not our abuse or our abuser that ultimately gets to define us. It is our relationship with the living God that defines us. As we come to the Word of God, we meet with a loving father who walks with His people, protects His children, and defends His own against wicked oppressors. We need to hear the voice of God more than we need a therapist or a self-help group. This happens when the Bible is preached.
3. We Need the Body of Christ
You need the church. You need to join a healthy, local, gospel-centered church. Our communities—the hard places, where many people feel unsafe, trapped in darkness, lacking any sense of dignity or worth or value—desperately need a church where the light of the gospel breaks into the darkness.
For some, church might feel very intimidating. There can be something very daunting about committing to and trusting a group of people. But we need the church because we desperately need godly, faithful, mature Christians in our life to help us talk through our struggles. Galatians 6:2 instructs us to, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”. Church membership is burden sharing. When it comes to sexual abuse, we heal better together—in community.
The truth is, you need the church, and the church needs you. Do not let a fear of rejection or an inability to truly trust people keep you from God’s gift to you. God intends for Christians to live in community with other believers. It is how we experience the love, care, and compassion of God. Let us be absolutely convinced of this—that what the hurting, abused, and wounded in this community, and every community, need more than our counseling or our therapy groups or our self-help books is a healthy church!
All who have first given themselves to the Lord, should, as speedily as possible, also give themselves to the Lord’s people. How else is there to be a Church on the earth? As I have already said, the Church is faulty, but that is no excuse for your not joining it…The Church is not an institution for perfect people, but a sanctuary for sinners saved by grace, who, though they are saved, are still sinners and need all the help they can derive from the sympathy and guidance of their fellow believers. The Church is the nursery for God’s weak children where they are nourished and grow strong. It is the fold for Christ’s sheep—the home for Christ’s family…still, imperfect as it is, it is the dearest place on earth to us.Charles Spurgeon
For more on how the cross offers healing to victims of abuse, see Mez McConnell’s book—The Creaking on the Stairs.
This is part one in a series on abuse and the church.