More Sexual Assault in Churches Comes to Light

February 18, 2019 at 5:15 am 1 comment


Although I find my theological and confessional home in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, I have long been partial to the Southern Baptist Convention.  I admire its commitment to the primacy of the gospel, the authority of Scripture, and the need for evangelism.  This is why it disturbed me deeply when, last Sunday, the Houston Chronicle, in conjunction with the San Antonio Express-News, published a bombshell report chronicling decades of sexual abuse by hundreds of leaders inside the SBC.  The report opens with the heart-shuddering story of Debbie Vasquez:

She was 14, she said, when she was first molested by her pastor in Sanger, a tiny prairie town an hour north of Dallas.  It was the first of many assaults that Vasquez said destroyed her teenage years and, at 18, left her pregnant by the Southern Baptist pastor, a married man more than a dozen years older.

How did her church’s leadership respond when they learned she was pregnant by their pastor?

When Vasquez became pregnant, she said, leaders of her church forced her to stand in front of the congregation and ask for forgiveness without saying who had fathered the child.

She said church members were generally supportive but were never told the child was their pastor’s.  Church leadership shunned her, asked her to get an abortion and, when she said no, threatened her and her child, she said.  She moved abroad soon after. 

The reporters who worked on this story uncovered 700 victims of sexual abuse in SBC churches over a 20-year time period.  But, as the president of the SBC, J.D. Greear, noted in a blog post:  “700 is not the total number.”  He knows that for every case that has been uncovered, there is likely a case that remains under-cover.

Sexual abuse scandals in churches seem to be everywhere these days, and victims are left with lives that are shattered and, in some cases, lives that are ended.  The report goes on to tell of Heather Schneider, a 14-year old girl who:

…was molested in a choir room at Houston’s Second Baptist Church, according to criminal and civil court records.  Her mother, Gwen Casados, said church leaders waited months to fire the attacker, who later pleaded no contest.  In response to her lawsuit, church leaders also denied responsibility.

Schneider slit her wrists the day after that attack in 1994, Casados said.  She survived, but she died 14 years later from a drug overdose that her mother blames on the trauma.

“I never got her back,” Casados said.

This abuse is evil and it must stop.

The question, of course, is: How does it stop?  Here are three thoughts that, though by no means exhaustive, may provide a starting place to address and curb sexual abuse.

Care for victims.

A common denominator in so many of today’s sexual abuse stories is that victims, rather than being supported and cared for, are dismissed, or worse, blamed.  A congregation grappling with a sexual abuse scandal becomes so focused on protecting itself as an institution that it forgets about its people.

Jesus’ care for sexually broken situations can serve as our model when we are confronted with cases of sexual assault.  In John 8, a group of religious leaders drag a woman before Jesus who has been “caught in adultery” (John 8:3).  Even if her encounter with this man was consensual, as it seems to be, the fact that the religious leaders do not bring the man to stand trial with her speaks volumes.  In a patriarchal culture such as this one, men could engage in sexual exploits and conquests, often, without repercussion.  It was, in fact, a boys’ club.  This case is no exception.  The “boy” is nowhere to be found while the religious leaders are howling for this lady to be stoned.  Jesus, however, sees through the religious leaders’ hypocrisy and cares for this accused woman by protecting her and ultimately rescuing her from her would-be executioners (John 8:7-11).

If this is how Jesus addresses a situation where a woman seems to have had some willful role in a sexual encounter, how much more should we seek to protect and rescue those who have had no willful role, as in cases of sexual abuse?

Bring darkness to light.

Sexual abuse continues because it is allowed to remain under the cover of darkness – many times for decades on end.  Bringing it to light may be the single greatest strategy to stop sexual abuse before it starts.  It sends a clear and present warning to any abuser that they will be brought to justice.  President Greear’s invitation to victims to “get help” is supremely important.  His list of crisis hotlines is worth reposting here:

  • The National Hotline for Domestic Violence number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
  • The National Child Abuse Hotline number is 1-800-422-4453.
  • The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network number is 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).

Again, Jesus can serve as our model for what bringing dark hurt into the light looks like.  In Mark 5, when a woman who suffers from a form of hemophilia seeks to secretly steal a healing from Jesus by touching the edge of His cloak, Jesus will not let her remain in the shadows.  He wants to speak to her in her pain.  He wants her to come into the light.  So, He seeks her out and, after she reveals herself, He tenderly calls her, “Daughter” (Mark 5:34).  May the victims among us be met with the same tenderness as they bring their darkest secret hurts into the light of open truth.

Recommit ourselves to a biblical sexual ethic.

There is no way around it:  the hypocrisy between what we who attend church say about sexuality and what we live out in our own sexualities is sometimes stunning.  The Christian sexual ethic is good.  It exalts commitment.  It encourages tenderness.  It dignifies humanity.  Sadly, many in our churches have spent so much time criticizing what happens sexually “out there” in the world that we overlook the sexual assault happening “in here” among our congregations.  Let’s remove the redwood-sized sin from our own eyes before trying to help others with the sawdust-sized sin in theirs (Matthew 7:3-5).  Each one of us in the church should be asking ourselves:  How am I falling short sexually?  How am I tempted sexually?  How can I get help?

The apostle Paul says that Jesus treats His Church like His bride (Ephesians 5:25).  What does this mean?  It means He loves her.  It means He is faithful to her.  It means He honors her.  It means He exalts her.  It means He seeks her purity.  It means He is willing even to die for her.

To address and defeat sexual abuse, go and do likewise.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. jon trautman  |  February 18, 2019 at 8:47 am

    Powerful stuff here Zach, your ”remove the redwood size” from your eye provides the reader a profound descriptor of what we Christians need to do

    Reply

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