Abuse is evil. The Houston Chronicle’s recent series of articles about sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention sheds some light on this pervasive problem in churches.
This is a watershed moment, and it is also an opportunity for Southern Baptists to step up and walk the narrow path of repentance and change.
I am inspired by survivors like Debbie Vasquez and David Pittman, their stories were featured in the article, who courageously share with the world about their traumatic experiences. They speak truth to prevent the same thing from happening to others.
Their stories are heart-wrenching and infuriating, and unfortunately, they are nothing new to the church. I know multiple women and men who were sexually assaulted by church leaders as children. While healing is possible, the trauma of abuse ravages people physically, mentally, and emotionally for years and decades.
This is our opportunity to listen to survivors and mourn together.
Stories like Heather Schneider’s are haunting. Churches have the opportunity to listen to her mom, Gwen Casados, about her abuse and suicide and hear from survivors in our communities. Survivors are everywhere, including our churches. In the broader U.S. culture, one in three women and one in six men have experienced sexual abuse in their lifetime.
We can step up, listen, and learn from survivors; their voices and stories matter the most.
Note: the church has a reputation of “blaming the victim.” This includes asking questions about what the young person wore or how he or she acted. This is wrong. Any adult who inappropriately touches or has sex with a minor is 100 percent to blame. No child is to blame.
This is our time to focus on victims’ voices and collectively mourn such evil.
This is our opportunity to repent.
Repentance means to turn away from ungodly practices and toward godly ones. In regard to sexual assault, churches and organizations need to repent -- need to change their ways. We have neglected these issues too long, and our neglect has allowed abuse to occur.
Proverbs 29:8 says, “Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy” (CSB).
This is the time for the protection of children and survivors, not a time for protecting the reputation of churches and institutions. True, public repentance can start the healing process, focus attention on the people who have experienced pain, and create a precedent for structural change.
This is our opportunity to educate ourselves and our institutions about sexual abuse and make structural changes.
Church and lay leaders need to know how to prevent and spot sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the church is an easy place for predators to hurt children. Baptist churches are particularly susceptible because local church autonomy and a lack of institutional oversight creates an overall lack of accountability for the actions and inactions of local churches.
Power and control are two key components of abuse. Unfortunately, the nature of pastoral roles sets leaders up to have access to both. The National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence’s Power and Control Wheel highlights how abusers use their power and control to exploit others. The wheel focuses on women experiencing domestic violence from men, but the concept applies to various types of abuse and victims.
Ministry leaders need to recognize the dangers of predators using their power as community leaders to coerce victims. Instead, pastors can use their power for good to take preventative actions that protect future children, rather than protect abusers due to their church status.
In addition, Texans need to know that our state has mandatory reporting laws, meaning every adult must report any suspected abuse or neglect.
Texas Baptists partners with Ministry Safe, an industry leader in sexual abuse prevention, to provide free training and awareness events and resources to help churches prevent sexual abuse. I encourage churches to contact Katie Swafford, the director for counseling services, for information about Ministry Safe and counseling services.
Ultimately, God is concerned with the most vulnerable people in our midst, especially survivors of abuse.
Psalm 12 states, “‘Because of the devastation of the needy and the groaning of the poor, I will now rise up,’ declares the Lord. ‘I will provide safety for those who long for it’” (CSB).
As Christ followers, we are clearly called to “bear one another’s burdens” and not turn a blind eye to suffering and evil in our houses of worship. Survivors are real people who deserve healing and support. They are in our homes, churches, schools, and communities.
Restoration takes time with years of counseling, trauma care, fellowship, and love. Recovery is messy and complicated, but we can make a difference. We can sit with survivors and listen. We can combat shame with love that doesn’t leave when healing is rough. We can come together as individual and institutions to create actionable plans. Do we have eyes to see and the courage to listen and act?
The time is now. We have the opportunity to unashamedly stand with survivors; we have the opportunity to act so that no child is abused, especially not in our houses of worship.