Abuse in “Safe” Places (Like Church)

 Compassionate Love: Displaying compassion for those who struggle with mental illness  (c)2015  Nancy Virden

A situation in a church I once attended arose because there were no safety measures in place. The result was a young man falsely accused of hurting a little girl. He was shamed, and I wonder if he attends church anywhere now.

The product of another church’s lack of safety precautions is a woman who talked of her struggle with God. Why would he send a “man of God” to rape her? This man was called by God to ministry, was he not? I told her the man was not a man of God, that he was evil, a wolf in a sheep pen. Something seemed to click in her mind and she cried with relief.

If church leaders are truly focused on the spiritual health of each member of the flock, they will do all that is possible to keep anyone from being spiritually destroyed in and by their church. The spiritual destruction that comes as a result of abuse is misunderstood. Too often, it is considered the victim’s responsibility to be spiritually healthy, when in fact it is our job to prevent the damage in the first place.

In my opinion, people in general tend to think “That is [the victim’s] problem” or, God forbid, “[The victim] made that up.” Abuse is our problem. Abusers get away with all kinds of things in “safe” places because we are overwhelmed by the logistics of providing true safety. It is also easier to remain blissfully ignorant and avoid the hard work of paying attention.

Yet another church is recovering from abuse and subsequent imprisonment of one of its volunteers. Supposedly, this church has safety measures in place but abusers creep in anyhow. There I observed a lax or non-existent vetting system of volunteers and staff, where going through the motions of safety fell woefully short of protecting. In speaking with one of the leaders about this, confirmation of his naiveté became apparent.

Abuse is progressive. Focusing most of our energies on bringing an abuser to repentance is misguided because we would do much better to invest in safety. Abusers are charming, know how to testify and cry and play the game, and will seemingly in true sorrow admit their sin. Put them back into the situation where they once had power and they will return to old behaviors and worse. That is who they are.

Oh, but God can change anyone! Yes, of course if they are willing. Do a cursory study on profiles of abusers and it will be clear these are generally not the people who want change. They want, or say they want, salvation, God’s love, and all the trappings of Christianity. Nonetheless, they love their sin. How is a person who believes himself entitled, supposed to come to true repentance? 

If we will not keep our eyes open for the sake of potential victims, what about confronting abusers? This lack of willingness is confusing to me and actually causes me to doubt spiritual leaders. If we are unwilling to call sin out, is that because we are hiding the same sin?

An enormous number of people, especially wives and children, suffer abuse via neglect, verbal cruelty, physical and sexual attack, and spiritual threat by family members who may or may not hold high positions in organizations or at least carry good reputations. What about pointing out hypocricy?

Too often, the victim is deemed “bitter” or “unsupportive” if she complains or leaves. She must be exaggerating, right? After all, we didn’t see the behavior she claims, and the poor guy says he’s sorry! 

Pornography and the progressive sexual addiction that comes with it, has often been dismissed as “every man’s problem.” I didn’t read the book by that title so do not know the author’s approach. On the surface, and in my experiences with church leaders, it seems as if an attitude of “Oh well, we’re just guys and we struggle through” reigns above the courage to root out and dispose of hypocrisy and abuse in the church.

In the meantime, wrongfully-considered-harmless “oops” ventures into pornography produce addicts who are increasingly less satisfied with their spouses and sinking deeper into their secret world of power and control. Taking a stand against abuse can rightfully start with being honest about porn.

As long as excuses are made for not engaging in the challenging fight against abuse, there will be victims. “It’s just porn” and “he made a mistake” won’t cut it.  An interview process that sounds like “I met him (or her) and am impressed,” or “I ran a background check – it was clear,” are footholds to begin, but not sufficient.

Safe places have to be surrounded by diligence to make and preserve actual safety, and to protect vulnerable people from being emotionally and spiritually destroyed.

If you need support or proof what I am saying is right, invite a representative from your local rape crisis center or women’s shelter to come speak to your group or staff. Advocates against abuse would love to share the facts with you.

The website, Unholy Charade – Jeff Crippen – Unmasking the Domestic Abuser in the Church  is a well-written and fully documented center of information about abuse in the church answering,  what does abuse look like, who is doing the abusing, why do victims wait so long to report it or escape?  

Our challenge does not have to be overwhelming – safety is possible. Compassionate love invests in finding out how.


NOTE: I am not a doctor or mental health professional. I speak only from personal experiences with and observations of mental illness. In no way is this website intended to substitute for professional mental health care.

If you are struggling emotionally today or feeling suicidal, or concerned about someone who is, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Hope and help is yours.

*picture from qualitystockphotos.com

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