Sexual abuse and the Christian response

June 1st, 2015

The important thing for the Christian church to remember about Josh Duggar’s sexual assault and the subsequent cover-up is this: it’s going to happen again. 

Any quick Internet search is going to give you a broad and horrifying look at the epidemic that is sexual abuse within the confines of the church, from the numerous pedophilia cases among Roman Catholic priests to the infidelities of evangelical megachurch pastors, this two-part problem runs the gamut of the theological, organizational and socio-economic spectrum that is modern Christianity. Sexual abuse is by no means only a Christian problem, but it is a serious problem for all Christians. 

The Church is mired in this issue, mostly for its inability to address it properly. Time and time again, the actions are those of an organization seeking to avoid the pain of admitting when things have gone wrong. This instinct behind these actions is born out of fear, fear for reputation and continued existence. Tragically, these are the exact impulses all Christians should reject. Our loyalty to an organization is supposed to be pitifully small in comparison to our loyalty to our neighbor. Our faith is to be one of light and truth, specifically a light and truth that protects all life. 

There are numerous layers to the rampant problem of sexual abuse in America and worldwide, making it a complicated, and often intimidating, one to confront head-on. There are certain segments of Christianity which are proving to have a harder time than others, notably those that have a harder time talking about both the positive and negative aspects of human sexuality to begin with. Which is why we as a religious body should be using all our spiritual, scientific, historical and social information to become better equipped; better equipped to learn from our troubling mistakes and deal with the complex nature of sexual abuse as it arises in our congregations. Which it will. 

We can do so much more than we are currently doing to address sexual abuse in our churches and in our wider communities, but as long as social structures protect power, there’s little we can do to stamp out sexual abuse completely. And make no mistake, so much of sexual abuse is about power. Which is why the second part of our current crisis, the cover-up, makes so much sense.

It’s no wonder that details have come to light of the Duggar family’s silence and attempted cover-up. When there’s power to protect, human nature leans toward protecting it. And as long as victims in our faith communities do not have the full support of the community (or their own family, as appears to be the case with the Duggars), power will exercise its will to keep sexual abuse in the shadows. Which, as we see in many cases, and in Josh Duggar’s specifically, only leads to more abuse. 

What must follow, for those of us who are weary to our bones of hearing these familiar and heartbreaking stories, is a radically honest discussion about both the nature of sexual abuse, including its relation to power and to the nature of sexuality as a whole, and the willingness of the church to turn a blind eye to protect itself and certain leaders. We must begin by treasuring transparency and actively working to give victims every available space and resource to be protected and empowered. We must remember that forgiveness does not cancel out accountability. Crimes are crimes, and Christians aren’t exempt from either committing heinous actions or facing their consequences.

Now is our moment to live into the justice Christ preached so that we may experience the grace Christ offers. If we fail, the crimes of Josh Duggar will be just another sadly normal moment in the Church’s history of sexual abuse. 

Victims and families of victims: for resources regarding sexual assault, including the National Sexual assault hotline, visit the RAINN (Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network) here.

Ministers and Congregations: Find a variety of links for several denominational and public resources, including clergy support, victim/survivor help, and national prevention groups contacts here.

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