Since we live in a fallen world where righteousness does not flourish, there is such a thing as abuse in Christian churches. People are sinful and church leaders cannot see into peoples’ hearts or houses. And tragically, sometimes church leaders ignore signs of abuse or even worse, cover it up. The question then arises: why in the world would church leaders cover up this heinous sin? Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood give some reasons in A Cry for Justice. Here are the reasons (edited due to length) explaining why churches sometimes cover up abuse.
1) Fear. When we receive a report of a particularly ugly sin happening in our own church, we are afraid. What are we afraid of? a) Harm to our church (destruction of relationships, scandal reported in the newspapers, loss of unity among members, legal consequences, lawsuits, etc.). b) Criticism. Generally, those handling the reported abuse are going to be attacked and criticized by some people before it is over. c) The criminal justice system. In a real church, we are simply not very familiar with courts and police and prosecutors and jails. Suddenly, we are face to face with them when we report abuse. If we are going to think clearly and effect biblical justice for the abuse victim, then we must learn to get control of our fear very early in the process.
2) A Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. Abuse is an evil that feeds upon silence, secrecy, and shame. Sometimes people are pressured not to ask or tell about abuse, because it would damage both parties, both families by unnecessarily shaming them. But ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is not help. And of primary importance, we must affirm that our fundamental duty is to help and protect the victim. The church, the body of Christ, is the advocate of the weak and innocent.
3) Fantasy Thinking. …We cover up abuse in the church because we want to insulate ourselves from real life and its evils. Christians, and in particular, conservative, Bible-believing Christians who truly desire to live for Christ, easily adopt a magical, fantastical worldview in which prayer sprinkles pixie dust and tinsel, removing anything that is ‘yucky.’ As their world narrows to the realm of their own protected, safe Christian community, they can grow blind to daily experience of most people. But the Bible does not do this. God names horrendous sins, including sexual ones.
4) The Trauma of the Thing. Closely connected with fantasy-thinking as an explanation for our bent toward cover up is a phenomenon we might call ‘trauma.’ When we are confronted with something ugly and terrible, our head ‘sets to spinning.’ The thing somehow doesn’t seem real. Reception of such information often results in… an ‘ostrich-head-in-the-sand’ response as the recipient reacts with denial designed to shield oneself against grief and consequences. Denial is often a powerful response in us when we are faced with a horrible thing. Denial works to dilute it. However, as it is with fear, so it is with denial. Decisions motivated by denial are neither good nor just. Nothing good will come from them.
Crippen and Wood do say more about these four points and they also note that there are more reasons why churches sometimes cover up abuse. They go on to offer biblical advice on how to handle and deal with abuse in the church – which will be the topic of a future blog post, Lord willing. For now, and if you want more info, I recommend this one: A Cry for Justice by Jeff Crippen and Anna Wood.