Friday, January 18, 2013

Abuse in the Christian Environment

Those who know me personally know it is in my nature to be an advocate. The truth in Micah 6:8 is imprinted on my soul, and though I've strayed from it at times, I cannot deny what God has called me to do.

I grew up in a subset of Fundamentalist Christianity. There were many people in that group who loved God but believed strictly adhering to religious rules (generally those espoused by the pastor) was what God required. I had one childhood pastor in particular who advocated child abuse from the pulpit. Oh, not in so many words, of course. His "Biblical counsel" from behind the "sacred desk" was to encourage parents to use "firm discipline" with their children while they were very young; then parents wouldn't be questioned about "bruising" when the children were school-aged.  Because, you know, the government hates God and everything He stands for and the government is going to take away our rights to beat hit discipline our children.

In such an environment where a child has no rights, s/he typically will not speak up if being abused, either physically or sexually. Even if the child does somehow muster the courage to tell someone, the nearly universal result is that the congregation rallies around the accuser and blames the victim. I saw this first hand.

At my church, I once (over)heard some ladies talking about a local youth pastor and a girl from his church. I gathered that a 3 year old girl had told her mother the youth pastor had been touching her inappropriately. I couldn't have been more than 5 years old, and I remember being shocked and saying so. I was told "There's more to the story than that." It was then explained that the girl hadn't actually come out and said anything, but the girl's mother had noticed radical changes in the girl's behavior and had taken her to "a counselor." (Obviously, the girl's pediatrician had found enough evidence of sexual abuse that he referred her to a psychologist or psychiatrist who was then able to get more details from the girl.)

During this narrative, it was obvious to me the adults assumed the counselor had planted the idea of abuse in the girl's mind in order to attack the "man of God" (youth pastor). Incredulous, I asked, "But why would she lie?" The answer was astounding. "Well, maybe she really believes it happened because the counselor told her it did. Maybe she's just a naughty little girl who was trying to find a way to get out of being spanked."

I'll let you digest that for a bit.

By the time I got to high school, I had met several girls who admitted to me they had been sexually abused, or suspected they had been, due to large blanks in their childhoods. In an environment where victims are certain they will not be believed but blamed, none of the girls who shared that part of themselves with me had told anyone else. I suggested we tell an adult, but the girls inevitably refused.  Since by the time I was told, the abuse had ceased, and because I was in the system myself and saw no other recourse, I didn't think to encourage my friends to go to the police. I wish I had.

I think a lot of us who grew up in similar subsets of religion wish we could have done more to help our friends, but we honestly had no clue what to do or who to turn to. Even now, people all throughout the Christian community have no idea what the proper, godly response to abuse is, especially when it happens at their church, or within their church family.

That is why G.R.A.C.E. (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) is so important. This organization provides information to those concerned about the proper legal and godly ways to approach both the perpetrators and victims of abuse. G.R.A.C.E. also conducts investigations into organizations where allegations of abuse and/or abuse cover-up have occurred.

Two current investigations involve the ABWE (Association of Baptists for World Evangelism) mission board and Bob Jones University and Academy. I am not in any way affiliated with ABWE, but I did attend BJU and can speak about my perception of the institutions views toward abuse. I will not share those perceptions here, but I will post a link to the investigational survey. If you have any connections or knowledge about either of these organizations, I encourage you to participate.

ABWE investigation

BJU investigation