Why The Church Covers Up Abuse

http://ssofdv.files.wordpress.com/2013/04/a-cry-for-justice-book.jpg 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.

shane lems
hammond, wi

11 comments on “Why The Church Covers Up Abuse

  1. […] Presbyterian Church and services as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, Wis. This article appeared on his bog and is used with […]


  2. […] Why The Church Covers Up Abuse is Ps Shane Lems’ review of the book A Cry For Justice.   […]


  3. Excellent! Thanks for bringing attention to this cancer in our churches and homes.


  4. celestebella says:

    Thank you for your review Shane; it does a great job of identifying where the church’s thinking goes wrong when abuse is in its midst. I appreciate you clearly stating the response God wants from the church to the victims. This is so beautiful ===> “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.”

    God has used your words for the church: “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.” to also benefit me, an abuse victim. I have needed to avail myself of an important resource for help, but have put it off time and time again due to denial and ‘nothing good has come from it.’ Your article has given me the push I needed to be one step closer to freedom. THANK YOU!


    • Thanks for the notes, CelesteBella. I’m glad that words from this helpful book were encouraging to you. May God give you the strength and courage to seek justice and help! Remember, he hears the prayers and cries of the needy! shane


  5. StillReforming says:

    When I first heard about this book, I was still excusing many in the church – especially in the leadership – for not understanding because indeed abuse is well-hidden especially by the Jeckyll-and-Hyde personality types whose stock-in-trade is deceit. But at a certain point, as I began to share incidents that happened and as the abuse in our home intensified, I grew very weary of hearing from the pastor, “Well, I don’t know because I wasn’t there.” Then when I was asked to forgive another church leader for that leader’s refusal to read my prayer request, all the while our pastor excused him the man for not answering why, but the pastor continued to beseech me to forgive the man and seek the Lord about the state of my own heart (this as the abuse was getting much worse in my home that week and the pastor knew it). This all gave me pause to reconsider whom I can trust in the church. I’m still there and I’m still in our home, but praying the Lord deliver me and my children from this evil, and I believe He is. Yet, it’s in His timing, and I’ll continue to trust in Him and Him alone. He never forsakes His children. It’s very sad that some in the local churches do. I have never felt as alone as I do now, all within the body of Christ, who continues to not mind my teaching twice weekly and doing other administrative tasks for the Body, but cares not for supporting me or my children in the least. When I told our pastor how I was reminded of the parable of the Good Samaritan with me being the poor sod on the ground as the leadership passed me by on their way to preach, patting me on the head saying “Be warm and well fed,” the pastor replied, “Now we know how Jesus felt.” I replied, “But the leader in question is my brother in the Lord. I expect more from a brother.” He had no answer except to seek the Lord about forgiveness more. I told the pastor that I had done so because I had to at a certain point with respect to my husband and if I was to just forgive all future offenses as well, no matter what they may be (against our child even), to which the pastor replied, “Sometimes you think too much.” And that was that. Jeff’s book was a breath of fresh air, and much needed for a time such as this.


    • I’m thankful for your comments, Stillreforming. I’m so sorry that (if I read it right) you’re not getting a listening ear with the leaders of your church. I’ll never forget the story of a young girl who went to her pastor crying (in tears!) because her family situation was so bad. The pastor essentially did nothing. My heart still breaks thinking about it. I hope this book prevents other stories like this – and I pray that God’s love and comfort help you through this time. Perhaps he can use you to help others going through the same difficult experience you are going through.


  6. Grace says:

    Thank you for this! The bad handling of abuse by the churches is something all Christians, and especially pastors, need to know about. I will be buying this book.


  7. pnissila says:

    This is my first time here although I have accessed A Cry for Justice and many other good sites on leaving an abusive relationship.

    I left and divorced my husband in the last alcoholic rage he will ever perpetrate against me out of the blue, nearly two years ago, now. Why it took 42 years, only God knows, but then, as a Jeckyll/Hyde personality my ex was very good when he was good. We also had some great Christian counseling about 25 years ago that lasted for several years.

    But the time came, that fateful night, when in the middle of his vicious verbal rage, in my spirit, I “heard,” “You need to leave now.” And, perceiving this was the Holy Spirit, because I know His voice, I did just that. Because my ex gave himself permission to be physically abusive several times early in our marriage, my Christian counselor and support group believe he probably would have used that against me, too, that night, considering the particularly cruel nature of the attack–if I had not escaped in the middle of it.

    The reason I am writing, here, is actually to bring up one other reason it is so very hard for many church leaders to face reality when it comes to abuse against women. Perhaps this has been adequately covered already, I haven’t read every post or response. But there is a teaching in many churches that men hold a superior spiritual position over women, a “headship” over their wives and daughters and children that equates them with Christ in the home to whom all others must submit. One of the cults (let’s just call it what it is) teaching this is called Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood. (Note: my husband was not a church goer, thank God, so I never had to deal with that particular lie.)

    If a woman has been trained up in this notion, this makes it extraordinarily more difficult for her to do anything to stop the abuse. And it goes waaaaay beyond appropriate biblical submission, “one to another.”

    Male leadership in the church needs to take a very serious look at this teaching and worldview and do some public repenting where appropriate. The teaching is not correct, and the fruit of it is very repressive, sometimes deadly, for women and children.

    Anyway, my two cents.


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