Churches as a Haven for Whom?

Sep 12, 2017 | Abuse & Adults


“If I want to find an abuser, I go to church.”

These words emphatically stated by my attorney, Diana, seemed to hang in the air between us as I looked quizzically at her while simultaneously recognizing the veracity of her statement.  Mumbling something incoherently, trying to manufacture a tepid defense of faith communities, I was nearly paralyzed at the bluntness  — and, sadly, the piercing truth — of her declaration.

I had come to Diana amid a painful separation from my husband, after leaving a marriage of more than 20 years filled with every form of abuse including physical, emotional, verbal, financial, sexual, and spiritual.  Raw from the trauma of decades of abuse and overwhelmed with the chaos created as my narcissistic husband raged against me and anyone who tried to help or protect me, Diana quickly became not only my advocate but also a friend.  Standing just over 5 feet tall, the tiny Scotch-Irish family law expert pulled no punches.  She was a scrapper who often used colorful language but had a huge heart of compassion for clients like me and was a presence far larger than her physical size.  Opposite of me in temperament and personality, she was exactly what I needed for the ensuing legal battle to protect my children.  She became my voice when I had not yet found mine.  She would advocate for me when I did not yet have the strength to do so myself or was confounded by the legal morass.  She quickly saw through manipulations and deceptions by my husband and his allies.  And she always, always called things as she saw them.

As hard as I tried to develop a response to Diana’s bold assertion, I was both instantaneously aware of its accuracy and deeply saddened at its legitimacy.

Her comment was supported anecdotally by years of experience in family law and helping clients just like me.  As she had listened to the details of my husband’s seminary training, participation in various church ministries, and insatiable hunger for leadership opportunities all while simultaneously severely abusing me at home, she knew she had seen this same scenario many times before in the decades of protectively standing by clients.  Although the details of each case varied, the bottom line was the same – abusers using God and Scriptures to justify the most abhorrent behaviors to their families.  Diana shared stories with me of nameless clients and their abusers who, like my husband, tormented their spouses and then cloaked it under religiosity, as if God condoned it.  One client was not just figuratively beaten with the Bible, but physically pummeled with a giant hardcover volume even while suffering from a severe, life-threatening illness.  The horror of that imagery was inescapable.

Beyond her first-hand experiences, it turned out experts and researchers support Diana’s statement.  But, many pastors tend to be oblivious to the fact.  As chapter 3 of Mending the Soul points out, abusers often have a banal quality to their existence, and what is exceptional about abusers is their commonness.  Monica Taffinder, a Christian counselor who specializes in trauma recovery, told The Christian Post in 2014, “I really think people don’t think that it happens in their congregation.  I mean, [pastors] know these people. They see these people. They go to dinner with these people. They worship with these people. I know they’re savvy enough to realize that there’s just as much as they don’t know people in their congregations as they do, but still.”

abusers often have a banal quality to their existence, and what is exceptional about abusers is their commonness.

Boz Tchividjian is a former prosecutor, law professor, and head of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE).  GRACE focuses on educating and training the Christian community to recognize, prevent, and respond to child abuse.  Tchividjian understands better than most individuals the common dynamics within churches and other ministries that cover and perpetuate abuse.  Tchividjian believes that Protestant churches, groups, schools and mission fields are “magnets” for would-be molesters; ministries and schools do not understand the dynamics of abuse;  and “good ol’ boy” networks routinely cover up victims’ stories to protect their reputations.  High profile ministry investigations and lawsuits over the past several years reveal the disordered inner workings of numerous institutions entrusted to care for the spiritual (and sometimes physical) wellbeing of their charges but fail to do so — frequently with tragic lifelong consequences.  Common threads run through the stories: authoritarian settings where rule-following and obedience reign supreme; counseling techniques that emphasize victims’ own culpability; male leaders with few checks on their power; and a perversion of the Bible to justify all three.

In his work, Tchividjian emphasizes the need for congregations and pastors to understand that churches are targets and havens for abusers. One study has found that 93 percent of admitted sex offenders describe themselves as religious.  Although GRACE focuses primarily on childhood victimization, the same dynamics come into play with spousal abuse as well.  Several national studies suggest that roughly  1 in 4 women experiences intimate partner violence at some point in her adult life.  Other research indicates that domestic violence is as prevalent within the faith community as in the broader community, and some experts argue that church cultures with the common threads described earlier are breeding grounds for spouse and child victimization.  In these environments, the rates are likely to be exponentially higher than average.

Renowned researcher and psychologist, Lenore Walker, explains another dynamic — “Women with strong religious backgrounds often are less likely to believe that violence against them is wrong.”  In part, this is because spiritual leaders are not speaking up against abuse within their congregations.  The June 2014 Protestant Pastors Survey on Sexual and Domestic Violence, a first of its kind, revealed that 65% of 1,000 surveyed Protestant pastors have spoken one or fewer times about domestic and sexual violence, with 22 percent indicating they addressed it annually, while 33 percent mentioned it rarely.  Ten percent of pastors said they had never taught on it.  These results suggest that the overwhelming majority of pastors do not consider sexual or domestic violence central to other religious themes they deem more important.

Further, a key conclusion of the study states that nearly three-quarters of the faith leaders surveyed underestimate the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations.  (These numbers do not even venture into the lesser documented abusive patterns of coercive control that are emotional, verbal, psychological, financial, and spiritual without necessarily incorporating physical or sexual abuse but nearly always precede it.)   The research then points to a chilling reality – “for many women who are religious, one of the first responses to abuse by an intimate partner is to seek help from their pastor or other faith leaders. This first disclosure is critical; research consistently shows that the advice of the first person a victim tells will in large measure determine her next steps.”

The fact that churches are far too often a haven for the abuser instead of the victim should compel us to understand why, and then act to change that.

For Diana, her experiences with clients like me and first-hand interactions with their perpetrators, including my ex-husband, have shaped her adamant conclusion.  The last place she would suggest a survivor turn to for assistance is the exact setting where I met my abuser – at church.

Son of man, I’ve made you a watchman for the family of Israel. Whenever you hear me say something, warn them for me.   Ezekiel 3:17 (MSG)