'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.
The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.
No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.

Yes, churches shut down all the time, for various reasons. Catholic churches are affected by a shortage of priests and and era of smaller families. Many liberal, mainline Protestant churches are closing as their denominations decline.

However, lots and lots of evangelical churches close shop because they are stand-alone, one-off, almost totally independent operations that fail or collapse, often due to leadership issues. There is no backstop. There is no denomination to provide advice or support. The bottom line: There is no there, there.

That's why it is crucial for reporters -- especially those new to covering "free church" or independent bodies -- to read the following Pease passage several times. Then file it away for future study, when preparing to cover sexual-abuse cases in this context.

The following is a truth stated many times here at GetReligion. However, I don't think I've ever seen it stated better in a mainstream news source.

Journalists: Let us attend.

Without a centralized theological body, evangelical policies and cultures vary radically, and while some church leaders have worked to prevent abuse and harassment, many have not. The causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates -- especially surprising in a church culture that believes strongly in the sanctity of sex. ...
Diagnosing the scope of the problem isn’t easy, because there’s no hard data. The most commonly referenced study shows how difficult it is to find accurate statistics. In that 2007 report, the three largest insurers of churches and Christian nonprofits said they received about 260 claims of sexual abuse against a minor each year. Those figures, though, exclude groups covered by other insurers, victims older than 18, people whose cases weren’t disclosed to insurance companies and the many who, like Denhollander, never came forward. In other words, the research doesn’t include what is certainly the vast majority of sexual abuse.

Ready for the crucial passage? Read on:

The problem in collecting data stems, in part, from the loose or nonexistent hierarchy in evangelicalism. Catholic Church abusers benefited from an institutional cover-up, but that same bureaucracy enabled reporters to document a systemic scandal. In contrast, most evangelical groups prize the autonomy of local congregations, with major institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention having no authority to enforce a standard operating procedure among member churches.

In other words, it is possible for evil leaders to hide in a church bureaucracy. But that same bureaucracy can, with good leaders, be used to confront evil and to document it. It's also easier for lawyers and public officials to attempt to force (think lawsuits aimed at pools of resources and shared insurance policies) larger, united church bodies into action.

It's true. It's rather easy to hide large problems in a great cloud of fog. A reporter with good sources may be able to nail down a problem in one local church. But how does one go about showing the larger picture in the world of independent and near-independent Protestant congregations?

Bad pastors can simply move on and there is no shepherd above them. Who warns the next independent church? Who keeps tracks of the wolves? There is no there, there.

So there is a big story here. But how does one report it, in an age of shrinking newsrooms and budgets to support skilled reporters working for weeks or months to verify information from legions of sources?

How big is this story? Let's end with this, with a crucial piece of data from a major evangelical source linked to Southern Baptist life.

At an untold number of Christian churches and institutions, the silence on sexual abuse is deafening. Statistically, evangelical pastors rarely mention the issue from the pulpit. According to research from the evangelical publishing company LifeWay, 64 percent of pastors said they talk about sexual violence once a year, or even less than that. Pastors drastically underestimate the number of victims in their congregations; a majority of them guessed in the survey that 10 percent or less might be victims. But in 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 1 in 4 women (women are approximately 55 percent of evangelicals) and 1 in 9 men have been sexually abused. There is no evidence suggesting those numbers are lower inside the church.

So read this essay by Pease. Go ahead and argue about parts of it. Mourn the fact that this topic was not the subject of an in-depth, hard-news piece on A1.

But read it and take it seriously.

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