Trigger warning: child sexual abuse, rape culture.
Over at Tumblr, Toranse raised some important questions about whether child rape and sexual abuse have been adequately addressed in feminist discussions of rape culture. As she points out, much of feminist discussion of rape centers issues of consent that don’t apply to children. Similarly, feminist critique of the relationship between patriarchy and rape culture doesn’t often look at the role of patriarchy in abusive family or domestic contexts when children are the victims (as opposed to spouses or intimate partners).
I think Toranse is absolutely right that there’s a real need for feminist analysis of child rape and sexual abuse as product of patriarchy and rape culture distinct from rape and sexual assault of adults. I know of only one book, Christianity and Incest by Annie Imbens and Ineke Jonker, that talks about the relationship between patriarchy (and Christian patriarchy specifically) and child sexual abuse. I’m sure there are other books and articles on the topic, but my impression is that there aren’t many. It’s certainly not a topic I’ve seen specifically addressed much on many mainstream feminist blogs.
Toranse has given me permission to share her thoughts here. Please read and share them.
In all of the feminist discussions surrounding rape and rape culture when is there an examination of child sexual abuse?
Heck, in feminist discussions, when is there an examination of child abuse in general?
I feel like this is still a subject that not even social justice circles pay attention to at the same critical level as other topics. And I can’t help but wonder why that is.
Think about it: in discussions of rape culture, feminism tries to center the discussion on the rapist and on society at large.
But in discussions of child abuse, there is still far too much emphasis on training children on how to avoid those situations. Hell, not even that – most of the literature I’ve seen aimed at children is about how to deal with it as and/or after it has happened.
How messed up is that? Children – with the least amount of power – somehow have to figure out how to handle child abuse all on their own.
And I wonder how much ageism – that dreaded -ism that is so well-mocked when it comes to children – is at play here. Because talking about the things that cause child abuse and the ways to prevent it – that don’t involve blaming the child – mean that we have to talk possibly about ourselves. How we contribute to it. We’re the adults, right? We’re the ones in power over children.
This will sound mean, but I’m including myself to – I wonder how much is is that children are not us. Discussions of rape and rape culture; these are things, that as a group of older teenagers/adults…we go through. These are personal and close to us. But some seven year old abused kid is probably not going to come on to an online forum or any place for discussion and talk about the abuse they’re going through.
I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to class. I’ve seen arguments on child abuse that are classiest while saying they’re not, because they argue that bringing up child abuse is inherently classiest; as though we can’t talk about child abuse for free of offending the poor people who obviously abuse their children.
I’ve seen discussions on child abuse as it relates to unemployment. Cold, clinical ones, as though it’s just something that “happens.” “Oh hey, lose your job, smack your kid, whatever.”
I’ve seen discussion on child abuse centered on how the child can prevent it. The only thing good in discussions like those is the possibility of equipping children with vocabulary to describe their experiences. But rarely is there anything out there of any worth. Most of the books I’ve seen (of course, this is only based on what I’ve shelved in the library) are walking a line between “how to tell children while still keeping them innocent” and failing miserably at telling anything of any worth.
I’ve seen discussions on adults complicit in child abuse – family members, teachers, etc. But where is the discussions on the abusers themselves? On how we structure our families, on the way that the patriarchy and ageism affect this? Where is the serious look at child abuse and the ways to combat it?
Do we not have the answers to these questions? Because I feel as though everything is structured for discussions on the aftermath of child physical and sexual abuse. Like everything out there is only places to help you patch up the wounds while we don’t even think about even just considering how we might discuss the causes and ways society needs to change to at least lessen abuse. Is all there is just fixing it up and turning a blind eye when it happens?
Are there no answers or have we just never started looking for them?
Because those are discussions I’d like there to be more of. The abuse of children – all of it, physical, mental, emotional, sexual, all of it – that’s something I think the feminist and social justice circles should focus a lot of attention on. Far, far more than there currently is.
Toranse follows up on these thoughts here:
I don’t fault feminism for focusing on rape. I just want my experiences to be included in these discussions as well.
Hell, there’s still way to much of lumping all childhood sexual abuse as “molestation.” Have you seen that? Cause I’ve seen that far too much and I think it’s an attempt to sanitize it. I wasn’t just ‘molested’ I was raped. And being raped was part of the whole experience of sexual abuse.
I feel like what’s expected of me is to just fit myself into current discussions of rape and rape culture. But sexual abuse is different, it doesn’t function in the same way and I feel like those things need to be addressed.
For instance: grooming. There is no way there is any room to discuss grooming in current feminist contexts. At all. And hell, I needed the “coercion is not consent” conversation LONG before we ever had it because seriously, “yes means yes and no means no” things just DON’T mean ANYTHING when you were a toddler when it started.
Today’s guest post is by Dianna Anderson, a writer and blogger. She wrote an awesome open letter to Mark Driscoll a few months back, and runs the blog Be The Change. ETA: And I have a guest post up today at Dianna’s blog on how the constructs of virginity and “sexual purity” completely erase queer, trans/gender nonconforming, and intersex people.
Trigger warning: sexual abuse and violence.
When I was a kid, one of my favorite places to go was underneath our back deck. I was lucky enough to grow up in a house with a pool in the backyard; it was above ground, and had a deck surrounding it. Off to one side, there were steps that led down into the un-mowed backyard, where there was a huge maple tree growing between the privacy fence around the pool and the fence bordering our property.
This little space of yard was one of my favorite places to play. In the fall, the maple leaves would gather and pile up, and I could climb up the fence and hop down into a soft pile of leaves over and over. I could play back there out of sight of both neighbors and parents (something important when you’re enacting secret missions and pretending to be a spy). It also served as headquarters for my Calvin and Hobbesinspired club – “GROSBoyS” – which didn’t work out so well because my best friend was a neighborhood boy.
Every child needs a safe space – a space where they can feel free to be whoever, do whatever, and feel safe and protected and free. These spaces hold our deep secrets – confessions of “crushes” and talking about fears and how much you actually do like school – told in confidence to friends away from the prying eyes of parents and adults. My space was a place to explore, to develop, to become more myself. I never felt more at home than I did standing, daredevil fashion, on the top rung of our rickety back fence, preparing myself to leap into the pile of leaves or snow or pillows (depending on the season).
But safe spaces aren’t just for kids. Everyone either has, or feels the lack of having, a safe space to call their own. As we grow, these spaces become communities where we can share things without judgment, where we can trust others, and where we can learn about ourselves and others with a safety net. We can take leaps into the unknown in these safe spaces, knowing that there will be a landing.
When we reach adulthood, we develop new safe spaces – they could be virtual, as my blog and Grace’s blog here demonstrate. But very often, they are still heavily rooted in the physical. For me, when I turned 18 and moved off to college, my college was that safe space, as it becomes for many other students. The college campus becomes home base – it’s supposed to be a place where students can come back at the end of the day and feel protected; one develops friendships, does a lot of work to figuring out who s/he is, and learns a lot about himself or herself and others.* The safe space of college mirrors the safe spaces of childhood.
And this is a large part of why abuse – especially abuse involving an uneven power structure, say, that of an adult to a child – is so insidiously awful. It is physically and emotionally and psychologically damaging precisely because it destroys any sense of safe space the abused person may have had. The ultimate “safe space” is one’s own bodily autonomy, and when that is violated, it becomes harder and harder to develop new safe spaces.
Safe spaces are vital for recovery: because abuse causes all sense of safety to come crashing down, developing a new place to feel safe where one can readjust and rage and cry and discuss all the effects of abuse is vitally important. This is why therapy exists. Safe spaces are also massively important to seeking justice – the abused must be made to feel safe and not re-victimized in the act of coming forward.
It is precisely for this reason that the riots at Penn State over the firing of Coach Paterno are so disheartening. Arguably, the firing itself is problematic as he is only the most visible part of the controversy surrounding the child sexual abuse, and his firing seems to speak more of a PR move than actually seeking justice (this is not to say he should not have been fired – I frankly don’t think firing is enough, considering he violated Pennsylvania’s mandatory reporting laws).
However, the reaction to the firing is disgusting. There is not a big enough “shame on you” for every single one of those students who “defended” Paterno by overturning news trucks and rioting in the street.
This riot is not an isolated problem. It is not just Penn State’s problem. It is not just Coach Paterno’s problem. It is not just the problem of Pennsylvania, or one isolated incident in the world of college sports.
Many statistics and studies confirm that college-age women are the highest risk group when it comes to sexual assault and rape. As many as 1 in 4 are victims of an attempted or completed rape. Frequently, the rapist is someone they know, someone they have to sit next to in class and see around campus. It can be very hard to regain the safe space that a college campus is supposed to be for this 1 in 4.
And the Penn State rioters just made it even harder. Not only is this a massive display of rape apologism – that a man should not be punished for failing to report and excusing a child rapist – but it makes it harder for “not perfect” victims to seek justice. The college girl who passed out drunk at a party and woke up to being raped? She just got the message that her campus is not a safe space to even try and come forward. The young co-ed who developed an inappropriate relationship with a professor, who then took advantage of her? She just got the message that, not only will the administration likely not support her, but neither will the student body. The sophomore attacked by the star of the athletic team while out for Halloween? She was just told not to come forward because her whole campus might turn against her.
By rioting, the Penn State students have participated in the abuse. They have removed the safe space not only for the children who were Sandusky’s victims, but they have damaged the safe space for sexual assault victims in their university and at campuses across the nation. Paterno was fired for being complicit in covering up child rape – a generally agreed upon “most despicable of crimes” – and students rioted. How much worse would this be if Paterno had covered up the rape of a section of the cheerleading squad and got fired? How much worse if the victim was not an “innocent child” but a “slut who was asking for it”?
The thought terrifies me. Every day, when we participate willingly in a culture that is ambivalent about charges of rape, that will rush to the defense of powerful men instead of the victim (ahem: Herman Cain? Kobe Bryant? R. Kelly? DSK? Julian Assange?). When we riot over the dismissal of a coach who helped cover up the rape of a child, we destroy the safe space that victims need. We take away the thing they most need, and we deny them justice.
And then we wonder why women don’t come forward.
*Linguistic reinforcement of the gender binary is recognized by the author. Apologies.
Trigger warning: discussion of sexual abuse.
When cases like Penn State become news it so often seems that public reaction is about everyone except the survivors. And in the midst of all the discussion of what was done and was could or should have been done, there’s little often little time taken to consider what we can do now, and in the future.
I include myself in this criticism. Part of me thinks that it’s some kind of ritualized catharsis, where venting outrage about abuses made public is more about managing fears and anxieties – to assert some measure of control over the terrifying reality of widespread abuse. And a lot of it also seems to be about creating distance between ourselves and people who abuse, or enable abuse – the language of monstrosity, for example, that is so often used to describe child molesters. I understand why we do it and there’s probably some kind of collective psychological utility or purpose to it, but by itself it’s not quite adequate.
Here are a few things I think we can do:
– As with any kind of violence and oppression centering the voices of people who experience it is paramount. It’s hard to speak about abuse openly. We can counter the damage done by pro rape apologism demonstrations by not silencing survivors, by listening when they speak, by believing them.
– Be informed about organizations that offer support to survivors. The National Sexual Assault hotline is free, confidential, and staffed round the clock [1.800.656.HOPE(4673)]. Let’s find out where our local rape crisis shelters or women’s shelters are. If we can, find out how we can help or support them. Let’s ask what they’re doing to provide services to trans women, queer and gender nonconforming youth, nonbinary people, and queer women, who are often underserved populations, but disproportionately at risk of assault and sexualized violence.
– Be aware of the particular stigma that’s attached to male survivors of rape and assault and prepared to point them to resources where they can speak with other male survivors and get support, like 1in6.org.
I got to thinking about this after my twitter friend and AWH reader APBBlue tweeted urging people outraged by Penn State’s rape enabling to donate to or volunteer for RAINN (the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network). I’m grateful to her for that spur to concrete action. I signed up to volunteer with RAINN today.
What are some of your thoughts on what we can concretely do to change the culture around issues of abuse? Please share them in the comments.
Trigger warning: sexual abuse, spiritual abuse.
SGM leaders who want to reach out to the blogs appear to be turning their attentions more specifically towards the allegations of sexual abuse. A few weeks ago Mark Mullery “confessed” to FCC that the pastors had mishandled (to put it lightly) two cases of child sexual abuse in the church. Now Greg Somerville, a family life pastor at CLC, has reached out through the SGM Survivors blog to try to establish communication with the exCLCer and SGMnot, the people to come forward most recently with accounts of abuse and coverup at CLC.
Both Mullery’s “confession” and Greg Somerville’s letter show that, at best, SGM leadership still don’t understand what they did wrong – and at worst, don’t care. Their comments are largely about themselves and their fellow pastors, not the survivors of abuse they claim to be apologizing to. And they’re still approaching these cases as though they are relational conflicts or estrangements, as though all that’s necessary is for the pastors and those they’ve abused to be “reconciled” – or worse, as though they’re cases of inexplicable, even irrational customer dissatisfaction.
Their responses don’t reflect an understanding that they did enormous damage that needs to be fully and publicly acknowledged. That would mean stating clearly what was done wrong, why it was wrong, making a real apology and real restitution as appropriate (legal, monetary), and stating clearly what the pastors’ plans are to make sure this never happens on their watch again (frankly, the thought of any abuse survivors being *ever* under their watch and “care” makes me feel ill, but it’s too much to hope that all of the pastors will voluntarily step down).
Take Somerville’s letter to victims of abuse at CLC: it’s the sort of thing someone writes when they want to sound as though they’re apologizing, but really are trying to extract forgiveness without actually doing the hard work of admitting to or understanding what they did wrong. SGMnot, whose daughter was abused as a child at CLC and one of the people addressed in the letter, makes this point and other criticisms of the pastors’ continued failure to address issues of abuse head on in her response to Somerville here.
To be quite clear, I’m not making any claims about Somerville’s personal feelings or opinions on these cases. He could very well believe the pastors screwed up and understand how they did so. But he’s writing on the behalf of the CLC pastoral team, as their representative. This is about how the pastors have chosen to present themselves as a group to the people they’ve abused, not a criticism of one pastor. They think they’re being conciliatory, but in reality, their approach is extremely self-serving and self-absorbed.
This is clear from the outset of Somerville’s letter:
The details are heartbreaking for me, the pastors of Covenant Life, and the members of our church. I cannot imagine the anguish these events have caused for you and your families.
While he does address the trauma survivors have experienced, he describes it in passive language. This is slippery language that glosses over the fact that actual people caused exCLCer, SGMnot, and their families anguish. Abusers and the pastors who enabled them and further abused victims caused anguish. Not “events.”
I am doubly grieved to know how deeply disappointed you are with the pastoral care you received during that crisis and in the years following.
Wow. Does Somerville really think the problem is that survivors are “disappointed” in the “care” they received? That’s what “grieves” him about this situation?
This is not the language someone uses when they really understand that they’ve been complicit in a horrible wrong against another person. This is language a customer service representative uses when responding to a customer who is dissatisfied with their company’s product. Take away the “grieved” comment and that’s all you have left – “I’m sorry to hear that you were disappointed in the service we provided.” REALLY?
Did he miss the part where pastors tried to force a woman to remain married to a man who abused her children, and told her that the poverty she endured after divorcing this man was “self-induced?” Or the part where pastors testified as character witnesses for abusers and tried to obstruct and subvert the legal process? In what way, exactly, were these actions “care” for victims and their families?
In my 14 years of pastoral ministry at Covenant Life Church, I have so often failed to love and care for God’s people the way I should. If it weren’t for the grace of our Lord Jesus and the forgiveness of the saints, this pastor would not have the faith to keep caring for God’s precious church. Stories like yours cause me to cry out for more of God’s Spirit, more of God’s heart. I do not want to fail his children in their time of deepest need!
Um…way to make this all about you? Seriously, who cares? This isn’t about anyone being an imperfect pastor. This is about pastors consistently deciding that abusers are worth protecting and caring for over victims. What does this have to do with crying out for more of God’s spirit? What does it have to do with Somerville’s or anyone’s faith for caring for “God’s precious church?”
Sorry, I just read this paragraph and all I hear is “me me me me me.” It’s an attempt to sound humble – quite possibly sincere – but what it actually does is center Somerville and make this all about *his* faith to serve others and *his* failings and *his* desire not to fail – not about the people that his fellow pastors hurt and traumatized.
I realize you don’t have much confidence in the pastors of Covenant Life Church right now, and I can understand that. But would you be willing to talk with me about your experience? Though I am sure it would be painful to review the details, I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future. And if nothing else, I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured.
To my mind this is the most unbelievable and egregious part of Somerville’s comments. I’m willing to believe that he and the pastors genuinely think that extending this “offer” is a compassionate and thoughtful response and an attempt to set things right. But if that’s what they believe, that only demonstrates just how little they understand what they’ve done wrong or why people are angry and upset with them.
First off, it is ignorant and entitled for the pastors to respond to people who have made it abundantly clear that they were abused by the pastors by asking them to come in and “review the details” of their case. It’s entitled because you’re asking someone to revisit pain that you’ve inflicted on them. It’s particularly entitled in this case because the pastors mst know perfectly well what they’ve done – SGM keeps METICULOUS records on its members – and they know perfectly well how exCLCer and SGMnot feel about it. On top of all that, exCLCer has been writing letters to the pastors reminding them of the details of her family’s case for the past 20 years. There are numerous comments on the SGM Survivors blog recounting in painful detail how the pastors “cared” for survivors and their families. What is there to “review?” Either they agree that they did was wrong, or they don’t. Period.
And clearly, they don’t. “I hope I could express the grief we feel for the suffering you have endured” – in plain speech, that’s “I’m sorry you suffered,” not “I’m sorry we hurt you.”
Furthermore, who exactly would be served by such a “review?” Its purpose is almost entirely self-centered. What would survivors get out of rehashing the details of their spiritual and emotional abuse with the organization that abused them in the first place? For whom exactly would it be most “painful” to do this? The survivors. It could even trigger renewed feelings of traumatization. What he’s asking for is a huge leap of trust – but who does it benefit?
“I want to make sure our pastoral team learns all we can from your experience so that we can better serve other families in the future” – well, there you have it. Who it really benefits is the pastors. They want survivors of abuse to be the ones to educate *them* on how to handle abuse better. IT IS NOT THEIR JOB TO DO THIS. If they truly want to learn how a church should handle abuse and care for survivors, there are MANY MANY resources online and offline that they can consult, and organizations that specifically address this issue. They don’t need survivors to come in and relive their stories to learn how to do better.
And once again Somerville uses language that sounds more like a customer satisfaction inquirity than an attempt to redress mishandling of child abuse. Oh, you weren’t happy with our product? What can we do to improve it in the future?
To quote a response someone tweeted me about this letter, this is “the definition of privilege: demanding the time, energy, input of survivors to bolster yourself, not them. How dare they?”
They dare because they continue to think this should be all about them, their wants, their church, their reputation. They want reconciliation because that will make them look better – it’s to their benefit to be able to say they patched things up even with sexual abuse victims. No matter that many of their victims have made it plain that they neither want nor need any reconciliation – or any contact at all – with the pastors.
They continue to ignore repeated and clear demands for honesty, openness, and accountability when it comes to sexual and other kinds of abuse, because that doesn’t benefit them. It makes them look bad. So they keep asking for things that survivors of abuse don’t want, and denying the things they do want, because it’s All. About. Them.
Trigger warning – sexual abuse, spousal abuse.
Today is, more or less, my first blogoversary. I published my first real post on Are Women Human? one year ago today. That post was about John Piper’s advice on how women who are being abused by their husbands can still “submit” and affirm their husband’s leadership and should “endure” abuse “for a season.”
Comparing that post to my most recent post on child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries, there’s an obvious common denominator of Christianized patriarchy. Piper’s response to abused wives and CLC and FCC’s responses to abused children and their families share in common an assumption that the world should be ordered around the belief that the authority of straight, gender conforming men over all other human beings should be universal and unquestioned.
Women should “endure being smacked around for a night” so as not to “disrespect” or be “unsubmissive” to to their husband – their leader. Children who have been abused should be sent away from home so that their molester fathers can “stay in the house as the head of the household.” Survivors and their families should shut up and tell no one about the abuse or the identity of the abusers so as to preserve the reputations of the men “leading” the church. Everything is set up so that men who abuse (not that only men abuse) are coddled, protected, enabled.
This is all about Christian patriarchy. It’s all about defending a worldview that God cares about straight cisgender (white) men more than anyone else, that they are worth more than everyone else no matter how disgusting or evil their behavior.
The devastating effects of these teachings on queer people, trans and gender variant people, women, gender people of color, and children are many. And As I’ve written over the past year, this kind of Christian patriarchy is incredibly toxic to men as well. It imposes a standard of perfect leadership and providing that no man can ever live up to. It teaches men that they aren’t “real” men if they don’t live up to this standard, if they are not able to dominate everyone around them (including other men) and thus turns everyone into challenges to be subdued. It primes men to lash out at any threat to their complete control over others with anger and abuse.
As I’ve blogged about these issues over the past year I’ve become even more convinced that they are entrenched, pressing issues that desperately need addressing. To a lot of people, the effects of Christian patriarchy might seem far removed from their lives. But the reality is that Christian patriarchy is just a more explicitly articulated, more extreme, spiritualized form of plain old patriarchy. Its response to rape is a theology that enshrines and sanctifies rape culture. Its response to female, queer, and trans sexuality and bodily autonomy is bigoted, paternalist, and based a belief in the supremacy of straight gender normative white men – just like our culture at large. The only difference is that in Christian patriarchy straight cis white men are held up as spokesmen and stand-ins for God, who is presented as the ultimate possessive, angry, abusive patriarch.
As I wrote in my introduction to the blog a year ago, many feminists and progressives who haven’t had much contact with evangelical communities don’t fully understand the context for evangelical teachings on gender on sexuality:
I decided to start this blog because I noticed that, while there are a number of blogs and books out there that bring attention to issues of gender and sexuality in traditionalist Christian communities, most are written either by people who are still in these communities or very similar ones, or by people who have never been part of these communities. Many of the blogs by evangelical Christians speaking out against patriarchy in the church still support homophobia, transphobia, and heteronormativity. Meanwhile, non-evangelical feminist and progressive critics of religious patriarchy are often puzzled by evangelical beliefs, or don’t take them seriously.
As I read more about Christian patriarchy, I was frustrated by the lack of resources that balanced a feminist and progressive perspective on Christian patriarchy with understanding and empathy for people who grew up in patriarchal communities. I wanted resources that situated Christian patriarchy in the broader context of gender and sexual discrimination, but also addressed why these beliefs can be appealing, and recognized that it’s a long and often arduous process to work to root out these beliefs from one’s life, and to learn to think about gender and sexuality in more humane and loving ways.
I hope and think what I’ve written over the past year has contributed in some small way to illuminating these issues from a feminist and theologically informed perspective, but I’m also very aware that there’s so much I haven’t touched on yet, much more to be said, much more work to be done. I’ve found writing here to be incredibly fulfilling work and am looking forward to another year of doing it.
Extreme trigger warning: child sexual abuse, details of child molestation, spiritual abuse, victim blaming, and enabling of abuse perpetrators.
I don’t really know where to start with this, so I’ll just cut to the chase. In the past week, two more accounts of sexual abuse of children at SGM churches – this time at Covenant Life Church (CLC) – have been made public. In both cases, CLC pastors were primarily concerned with the preserving the comfort and reputation of the perpetrators, as well as the reputation of their own church. In both cases the pastors put pressure on the victims’ families to handle the abuse “internally” – i.e., within the church and without the involvement of the police – and, when charges were pressed in both cases, to make statements in support of “leniency” for the perps. In both cases the pastors pressured the victims and their families to forgive and pursue “reconciliation” with the abusers.
Both accounts are at SGM Survivors. I’ve linked them below and have also posted, below the jump, excerpts that highlight the most egregious abuses of pastoral authority in these cases.
- ExCLCer’s account of her mother’s husband’s sexual abuse of his 11 year old daughter (and ExCLCer’s half-sister) in the late 1980s.
- SGMnot’s account of a teenage boy’s sexual abuse of her 3 year old daughter, 1993.
In one case, the perpetrator, a man who abused his preteen daughter and went to jail for it, is now out of jail and back in membership at CLC. He’s remarried in the church and has regular access to children and teenagers – his children with his current wife, and teenagers in a band that he manages. In the other case, the perpetrator was a teenage boy who is now an adult and, as of a few years ago, was still a member of CLC as an adult.
In other words, there are at least two child molesters who are/have recently been in membership at CLC without the informed consent of the congregation. One of them has regular access to teenagers who most likely have no knowledge of his history of abusing children.
Additionally, this whole time, SGM leaders have been “preaching into people’s lives” and “modeling godliness for them” – i.e., lecturing people about how they should live their lives, down to the last detail, and manipulating and terrorizing people with teachings that turn the most harmless preferences, emotions, and actions into horrible sins. This whole time they’ve been disciplining people and making people feel like crap for the smallest infractions, in the name of “pastoral care.”
And over the same time, they’ve been concealing knowledge of sexual abuse in their church. They’ve imposed gags and forced forgiveness on victims and their families. They’ve exposed their congregations to unbelievable risk by hiding the presence of rapists and predators in the church. They’ve decided that when it comes to sexual abuse, the reputation of the church and the perpetrators are what need protecting, not victims, not their families, not the congregation.
They’ve been keeping people under fear and control with their bullshit on living holy lives the whole time they were working hard to make rapists feel more comfortable in their churches.
These incidents took place around 20-25 years ago. Cue the defenses from SGM leaders that they happened “a long time ago” and were “mistakes,” but now they’ve changed. No. This is bullshit.
First off, 20 years is NOT that long ago. Secondly, time is not a defense for evil actions when the perpetrators have never willingly acknowledged their actions or that they were evil. Most importantly, these “long ago” incidents are part of an ongoing pattern of pastoral victim blaming and abuse enabling in SGM. The responses of the pastors at CLC are very similar to incidents as recent as 2007 of pastoral mismanagement of abuse cases at SGM’s Fairfax Covenant Church (FCC): Noel and Grizzly’s story, 1998 and Happymom and Wallace’s story, 1998 and 2007.
Once again, after years of pretending the ex-SGM blogs didn’t exist in public while smearing them as lies, gossip, and slander in private, SGM pastors have now been forced to admit that the blog’s accounts of sexual abuse at the Fairfax church are substantially true. Mark Mullery, the senior pastor at FCC, recently “confessed” to his congregation that the pastors did, in fact, isolate victims and their families and fail to provide them with support, treat them as being in a “conflict” with the perpetrators that needed to be “reconciled,” and pressure them into concealing the identity of perpetrators and even that someone perpetrated any abuse in the first place.
Mullery, of course, doesn’t quite state things in these terms. He doesn’t touch the allegations that the pastors pressured victims into avoiding legal recourse or being character witnesses for the perpetrators. He glosses over the real implications of the actions of the pastors. He puts on a performance about how sad and full of regret he is – and before anyone calls me judgmental or a cynic for saying his sadness is insincere, please keep in mind that FCC pastors and other SGM leaders have, for the past two years, been telling members who raised questions about these cases that the victims’ families were lying, and that the blogs were slander. Please keep in mind that Mullery is only “confessing” some of the truth at a time when SGM is in the middle of a scandal that has countless members angry, seriously questioning their leaders, and ready to leave their churches en mass. Please keep in mind that not only all of SGM, but much of the evangelical blogosphere is now aware of the ex-SGM blogs and reading accounts like SGMnot and exCLCer’s stories – and aware that these blogs have far more credibility than SGM leadership has claimed.
This is the context for this “apology.” SGM and FCC are being forced by internal pressure from members and negative external publicity to finally acknowledge these issues. Confessing “mistakes” when you no longer have a choice but to address them is not a sincere apology.
This is an apology and promise of change that is forced by negative pressure and attention. Two questions: How can anyone know the pastors actually believe they did anything wrong? How can anyone know the pastors actually understand why what they did was wrong?
The answer to both is that we can’t know. But I would bet money that they don’t believe they did anything terribly wrong, and they don’t have any clue why anyone would think otherwise. There’s nothing in Mullery’s statement that indicates anything beyond superficial understanding that they finally got caught, that people are angry and want to hear that they are sorry and will change.
This is not good enough. Not by a long shot.
Here’s the thing. Pastors have real power, influence, and authority over their congregations, and this is especially true in authoritarian and hierarchical organizations like Sovereign Grace. People look to their pastors for support and guidance in getting through difficult periods in their lives. People trust their pastors to tell them how to live in general, how to relate to others, how to raise their children and relate to their spouses and families, how to make huge life decisions. And they trust that their pastors aren’t just like any old friend they’d go to for advice, but people who have knowledge of higher spiritual truths, knowledge of God – and therefore to some extent speak FOR God.
This is a HUGE amount of power. It’s a virtually unparalleled level of trust.
So when pastors deal with victims of sexual abuse and their families, they’re coming into a situation where the things they say and do have incredible power and influence behind them, and have incredible potential to either support and help victims, or further traumatize them. By the same token, their actions can weigh powerfully in favor of bringing perpetrators to justice and whatever rehabilitation is possible, and keeping other members of the church safe from them, or in favor of protecting rapists and predators, enabling their abuse, and preserving their access to unwitting future victims.
Here is what pastors at FCC and CLC have used this power to tell victims and their families:
– Keep abuse secret and protect the identities of abusers.
– Naming your abuser is gossip and slander and unforgiveness.
– Don’t go to the police. Don’t pursue legal recourse.
– The legal and personal ramifications for the abuser are more important than the damage the abuser did to you.
– You are obligated to forgive abusers, and do so virtually instantly.
– You are sinning if you remain angry about their abuse for more than a matter of days.
– Sexual abuse doesn’t really cause long-term psychological trauma (and therefore you don’t really need care or help from us and you might even be sinning by still experiencing flashbacks, nightmares, and other effects).
Again, this is coming from people who victims and families have been taught to believe speak on behalf of God. That they are men of God. When pastors say all this, the implication is that God is saying this. Some families will believe this and accept it. But even for families who don’t accept that God, e.g., cares more about an abuser’s reputation than about their trauma, these messages add to their trauma them by forcing them to choose between their faith (as presented by people they have trusted to instruct them in the faith) and their healing and wellbeing.
This is spiritual abuse. It is a real form of abuse. I can’t state strongly enough that it is a real form of abuse to tell people who have invested unbelievable levels of trust in pastors as their spiritual leaders that their trauma doesn’t matter to God – not as much as the comfort of their abusers or their ability to “get over” the trauma, anyway. This is actual abuse and it causes further trauma to people who have experienced abuse.
And it’s rampant in Christian churches. It’s endemic in Sovereign Grace Ministries. It’s not an accident, and it’s not a mistake. This keeps happening because this is what the pastors really believe about abuse. This is the culture they have fostered – one where survivors of abuse are hounded out of the church, and abusers are perfectly happy staying.
After skimming through Brent Detwiler’s, ahem, copious comments on his numerous issues with C.J. Mahaney, my overall impression is that they corroborate pretty much all of the issues that various blogs and individuals have raised about SGM, and shed new light on how those issues manifested in the inner circles of SGM leadership. It’s not a pretty picture. No one comes out looking very good, not even Brent himself.
Much of my reaction to the documents echoes what people have already commented on at length on the SGM Survivors and Refuge blogs. For those who don’t read there or don’t want to wade through the comments, the highlights are below. I’ll post some of my thoughts that haven’t been discussed as much on the other blogs in another post.
The main issues, in summary [Trigger warning: sexual assault]:
– A long-standing pattern of narcissistic and egotistical behavior on C.J.’s part: passive aggressive or outright aggressive responses to the slightest criticism or questioning, expectations of special treatment, unilateral decision making, intense scrutiny and interrogation of the lives and work of his fellow pastors, all the while routinely being dishonest or secretive about his work and home life.
– This was coupled with extreme enabling behavior on the part of basically everyone around C.J. Despite their numerous statements effectively damning C.J. as a poor leader (see the above), they were continually praising him for being an amazing and wonderful a leader: “CJ is an exceptional leader and this summary does not provide the opportunity to celebrate all of the ways in which he excels.” They consistently stated that the thought of him stepping down never crossed their minds: “There is no one we would rather have leading the apostolic team than CJ”. Despite over 10 YEARS of attempting to persuade C.J. to be less difficult, despite the fact that even the most basic of tasks (e.g., keeping track of his vacation time) were made inordinately difficult by his insistence on being treated as perfect and special. The cognitive dissonance is kind of mindblowing.
– The fact that 6 men – at the very least – weren’t able over 10 years to keep C.J. from running amok makes the CLC pastors and apostolic team look very, very weak and cowardly.
– The interactions between the men leading CLC and SGM are stilted and highly scripted – and incredibly uncomfortable to read. There’s page after page of interrogation of the tiniest details of each others’ words, and motives behinds words, and motives behind questioning words or motives… Constant “loving challenges” to each other over “sin” and confession of “sin” that really amounted to unrelenting examination and policing of each others emotional, spiritual, and personal lives. I can’t imagine how exhausting it must have been to live like this every day, having people constantly in one’s business and constantly being in other people’s business, all while claiming to be the closest of friends…
This. is. not. friendship. It’s not. I feel sad for these men who clearly have no concept of how joyful and affirming real friendship can be.
– Worse, the correspondence reveals the leadership teams to be a big nasty circle of bickering, backbiting, backstabbing, and thinly veiled jostling for power and approval. Meanwhile, the whole time these men are presenting themselves as a totally united front and CJ as the most humble and wonderful leader ever. The man literally WROTE A BOOK on humility – and they knew the whole time that they were lying through their teeth to CLC and all of SGM.
C.J. wasn’t humble. The men who worked most closely with him unanimously observed this. They routinely presented unilateral decisions on C.J.’s part – about handing the leadership of CLC over to Joshua Harris, e.g., or changing CLC’s doctrinal stance on baptism and communion – as unified decisions the pastoral team arrived at after lots of prayer and discussion together. Bottom line, they were lying to everyone for YEARS. Years.
– Oh yea, and there’s the whole part about C.J. trying to blackmail Larry Tomczak, co-founder of what eventually became SGM, into not leaving the group. This is the most serious allegation, with potential legal ramifications for C.J. and SGM. The story is that C.J. threatened to reveal information about his teenage son’s “youthful sin” (as Larry Tomczak puts it) to the church. It seems pretty clear that this was some sort of sexual “sin.” What’s less clear is whether this was participation in a consensual act, or, as has been alleged on the Survivors blog, a case of Tomczak’s son sexually assaulting a teenage girl in the church. If the latter, then not only is C.J. guilty of blackmail, he and everyone who knew about this incident are guilty of keeping a sexual crime from the authorities.
Narcissism. Enabling. Lying in order to maintain their influence over the congregation. Power grabbing. Blackmail. Coverups. Wonderful pastors for you. Again, that’s what Jesus was all about, right? Self-aggrandizement and dirty politics for personal gain? Yep.