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In this age of small-group ministries, most pastors would know how to handle a crisis that affected significant numbers of believers in their pews.
“If you had 1 in 4 members of your congregation actively battling cancer, or 1 in 4 members … experiencing being widowed or losing a spouse, chances are that you would have some level of intentional ministry to those individuals,” said Rachael Denhollander at a recent Trinity Forum event focusing on how churches respond to sexual abuse. “Maybe you would have a support group or a Bible study for them. You would have meal trains to help provide for their physical needs.”
But many sexual abuse victims hesitate to speak out, she said, because churches act as if they don’t exist. Thus, they have little reason to believe the sins and crimes committed against them will be handled in a way that offers safety and healing.
Denhollander is an attorney, activist and author who is best known as the first female gymnast to publicly accuse Larry Nassar — the longtime team physician for USA Gymnastics — of committing sexual abuse during physical therapy sessions. When telling her own story, she stresses that she was also abused in church, at age 7.
Far too many religious leaders act as if they haven’t grasped the magnitude of this crisis.
“There is an astonishing perception gap, and it’s really inexcusable at this point,” she said, speaking to victims, clergy and activists online — including participants in 24 nations outside the United States. “We’ve had the data, literally, for decades. … Even what we know is dramatically undercounted.
“The statistic has stayed right around 1 in 4 women, for sexual violence, by the time they reach age 18. … The rate continues to rise, and there really isn’t any excuse, at this point in time, for not knowing that data. But sometimes, it’s emotionally easier to not know that data, and all of us have that intrinsic desire to not have to see the darkness that’s around us.”
Sexual abuse is a hot-button issue everywhere, from small fundamentalist flocks to the Roman Catholic Church. Revelations from #MeToo scandals have rocked the careers of A-list players in entertainment, politics, sports, academia and business.
During a 2019 Caring Well conference sponsored by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Denhollander said that fears among abuse victims in America’s largest Protestant body were “very, very well-founded, because most of the time when they speak up, they are trampled on. And this has happened in the SBC over and over and over again.”
Those remarks made national headlines. Meanwhile, Denhollander has continued — out of the public eye — to work in smaller settings such as the Trinity Forum event, offering guidance on how religious leaders can take public and private steps to minister to victims, to prevent abuse and to seek justice for criminals.
In most churches, she said, the problem isn’t terrible “packs of men” hiding sexual abuse. Often, people of goodwill simply believe that it’s impossible for abuse to occur in their congregations without them knowing about it. They forget that abusers are often masters of creating confusion and doubt to hide their deeds.
Church leaders who want to take this issue seriously will need to know basic facts about how to conduct background checks, find qualified counselors for victims and seek legal advice about how to respond in a crisis. But Denhollander said the most important step is for pastors to learn how to discuss sexual abuse — in the pulpit, in education and on social media — as a reality in modern life, including in the church.
Often, she said, “pastors are not equipped to recognize when they are not equipped to handle something, and so the survivor doesn’t get the kind of care and the kind of multifaceted approach to healing that they really need.”
The goal is for victims to know that their church is a “safe space” to seek help, she added. At the same time, abusers who are scouting a church for weaknesses need to get a clear message: “You are not going to be safe here, and if you do something and someone speaks up, we are going to take it seriously and know what to do about it.”