By Danni Moss
Copyright protected, all rights reserved
Obviously, when a pastor is accused of sexual misconduct there are many opinions about his guilt or innocence. If you are reading this article, it is likely you know of such a sitution.
At this point, the only people who know the truth with absolute certainty are the accused pastor and those who have accused him. For everyone else, all we actually have is speculation and opinion.
But this is an opportunity to look at some issues. I would venture to guess that for most, if not all, of the individuals who are being personally touched by this event, the issue of clergy sex abuse has not previously crossed their awareness. So, here are some things to think about.
Is he guilty?
Ultimately, there is no way any of us can say with complete certainty at this point. I’m going to play devil’s advocate both ways, for the purpose of highlighting the global problems facing the church when a clergy member is accused of abuse or sexual misconduct. So don’t get mad at me yet! 😉
It is still far more likely – in general – for clergy sex abuse to be unreported than to be reported. When sexual misconduct is reported against clergy, the incidence of false allegations is extremely small. And almost universally, the people directly affected by charges within their own church refuse, at least until a guilty plea, to believe the allegations could be true.
It is earth-shattering to consider that someone whom you have trusted completely could be a grossly different person behind their visible face. But reality is that pedophiles, sexual predators, and abusers are almost impossible to discern, even for their closest family, friends, spouse and parents. We all think we have some sense of what a person is really like and discovering we can be utterly deceived is devastating. It is common for the closest family members and friends of people as depraved as serial killers to have no idea of the person’s real nature. And it isn’t because these people are foolishly blind.
Abusers in powerful positions necessarily hide their true selves to protect their territory of predation. I have personally known about a dozen predators fairly closely that I can think of off the top of my head (and knew many others more distantly but directly) and only a couple did I have any “off” feelings about prior to finding out they were secretly abusers. After that happened a few times I stopped being shocked. ANYONE is capable of ANYTHING, while looking like the most wonderful, sensitive and wise Christian.
One example of this was with a couple who had been married for between 20-30 years (I can’t remember exactly). They travelled around the country doing marriage seminars for churches and church functions. I met them when they travelled with the organization I worked for, teaching marriage seminars around the country over a 6-week period. They had many books published about marriage and parenting and were well-respected. A few months after the tour, the wife called our office (I worked in the office that planned the tours). She was calling to let us know before we found out through the news or word of mouth, that her husband had been arrested for sexually molesting their foster children throughout their marriage. She never had the first clue anything was wrong and the children involved never told until after they were adults.
You know what she said that struck me most strongly? She said she found out about the accusations against her husband the week before they went out on the tour with us. But she chose to say nothing because she said her husband’s message was truth and would be a life-changing blessing to those who heard him, and she respected that. Even when abuse struck that close to home, literally, she covered for him because “God’s message” was more important. Her husband was proven guilty, admitted his guilt in court, and went to jail.
There is a tendency in churches to put God’s message before honor and justice – and that’s not in agreement with God’s standard for righteousness. If an allegation of misconduct is made against a leader in the church, it must be investigated. Even if everyone is sure the allegations are false, they must be investigated.
While they are investigated, it is appropriate for the accused party to at the very least voluntarily refrain from pastoral duties. The qualifications for pastoral leadership include being free from any appearance of evil and being blameless. It is not an admission of guilt for a church leader to work with a process of evaluation rather than insisting everyone should take his word about his innocence and let him continue his church role without question.
It is also very important in churches, for the sake of all those out there who are being abused, that any allegation of abuse be taken seriously. An accuser needs to be treated supportively, even if the accusation seems appalling and unbelievable. We can safely let the process take care of determining whether the accuser is lying. It will be time enough at that point for a false accuser to bear the consequences of their lies.
Is he innocent?
Again, no one other than the parties directly involved know for sure. But false allegations do happen. And multiple accusers can collude in their accusation, too. Let me give you a couple examples I personally know, along with why the false allegations were made
First, was my cousin. When he was a late teen, a younger girl from his church accused him of molesting her. He was reported to child services, the allegations were determined to be true, and he had to bear the punishment and rejection resulting from the charge. Since they were both minors there was no jail time involved. Years later the girl finally told the truth. At the time of the original accusation, someone suspected she was being abused and she blamed my cousin to protect her abuser. It is extremely common for an abuse victim to protect an abuser. So if faced with exposure, it would not be outside the realm of reasonable possibility for a victim to name someone else as the perpetrator.
In the other case, a man in the church was accused of rape by three girls. One of the girls claimed to have been raped by the man and the other two claimed to be witnesses. They had letters “from him,” photographs of the girl’s bruises, and a story that was very plausible. One of the girls’ father was a man of some significance and he testified in court in support of the girls. However, the authorities were able to unravel the girls’ case in court. Eventually it was revealed that the girl claiming to be raped had gotten caught being promiscuous and she made the accusation to get her parents’ eyes off her behavior. Her friends thought it would be fun, and a jab in the collective eye of the adults in their life, to fabricate this story and evidence. The accused man and his wife moved away after the trial. The man who testified for the girls lost his job as VP of an international Christian ministry.
This is an example of why we can’t jump to conclusions. While most allegations end up being true, there are times when the allegations are false and it can be very difficult for anyone, sometimes even the authorities, to tell. The fact that there are multiple accusers, with easily proven or disproven detail, doesn’t ensure guilt. Especially in our modern culture, teenagers are very aware of sexual detail. They can come up with anything, especially if they put their heads together. The younger they are the less likely the accusers are to include unusual details in a false allegation. At the very least, in young children you would have to look to see who had abused the child because they came by that information somewhere inappropriately.
But by the time our kids reach middle school, many of them are more sexually aware than their parents – scary thought. I remember being shocked several years ago when my 6th grader came home from the bus with a newly-acquired awareness of the details of homosexual intercourse and bestiality. As parents and adults we need to ditch the naïve blinders. Our kids are not living in the society we grew up in.
So, is he guilty or innocent?
I think we need to accept the potential that any of us can be deceived, while maintaining the assurance that God can work this out. No matter the outcome, God’s nature is REDEEMER. He can use this event to accomplish purposes we cannot conceive. And He can be trusted.
I also think it is right for friends of the accused to stand by their friend unless/until proven guilty. And it is right for the friends of the accusers and their families to stand by them unless/until proven wrong. That’s the nature of true friendship. Where betrayal hurts is when someone wrongly accused is abandoned by friends or when someone making a legitimate complaint is not believed by their family and friends.
As a church, we are responsible to take every accusation seriously. Taking an allegation seriously does not inherently include either believing or disbelieving the charge. It means we address it properly, through the correct legal channels. And we remain mature adults and Christians who don’t need to stoop to name-calling and mud-slinging everywhere.
If an accusation is proven true, we will all need each other for comfort and support. And a guilty party can be loved in truth, without sheltering that person from the consequences of their actions. I knew of a family several years ago, where the grandfather (my friend’s friend’s father) was accused of molesting his granddaughters. When they knew the accusation was true, the family collectively turned him in to the authorities, then proceeded to sit by his side – and the granddaughters’ sides – through the trial, and then visited him in jail throughout his sentence, and helped enforce his long-term consequences after he was released, including never being allowed alone with children. Their love didn’t end but they didn’t protect him from judgment either.
And regardless of how this case ends, we all need to keep in mind that the issue of clergy sex abuse is a very serious one that is plaguing the church and could even lead to its downfall as an institution. I know that seems impossible, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think anything will ever stop God’s Word and real Christians from living as Christ intended. But the religious institution of Christianity – yes, it could crumble under the weight of its own resident evil unless we stand up and do what is right.