Dan Allender on Protestants and Sexual Abuse


Last November, we shared Dan Allender’s response to the film Spotlight, which chronicles the investigative journalism that exposed the widespread cover-up of sexual abuse by the Roman Catholic Church in Boston. Here, Dan writes about how this issue does not only apply to Catholic churches. Sexual abuse is widespread, and the attempt to cover it up can mar any institution or organization. As we move into the new year, may we resolve more than ever to boldly proclaim the truth and to stand on the side of the victimized and the abused.

The movie Spotlight dropped on Friday, November 20, and it is not a blockbuster, bang bang, shoot em’ up Bond thriller with a single CGI invention lavished on a soulless plot. In other words, I fear many will see it as a ‘film,’ not a ‘movie.’ It is further not a visually compelling film with lush backgrounds and cinematic finesse obscuring the absence of a story line. As I described in my initial response, this is a movie of substance and heartache. And it is about the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse among priests.

As I was walking out of the theater in Brooklyn where we saw a prescreening of the film, I heard a man say to his partner, “I wonder where else is this happening?” I nearly turned to him and said: “Everywhere—the military, the protestant church, schools, mission fields, and anywhere that is committed to pretending it couldn’t happen here and where women are not empowered to tell the truth.” Becky sensed my fury and squeezed my hand. I held my tongue.

The protestant church doesn’t have the elaborate hierarchy or history of the Roman Catholic Church, but what we have in common is the long, dark history of patriarchal cover-up. It is not that women can’t be cowards or work to protect a system at the expense of victims, but that is not the story that needs to be addressed. The story is a long, long history of men’s complacency, cowardice, and complicity.

The story is a long, long history of men’s complacency, cowardice, and complicity.

I will not name the mission organization related to the story I am about to tell.* A client was abused in a mission school run by a loosely knit group of churches. The teacher who abused her was several years from retirement. He was beloved and honored for his sacrificial care of over 35 years of on site teaching in an African country. My client told her pastor, who counseled her that it was best to forgive and simply let God address the harm.

She told the mission agency that supported the mission school. They refused to meet with her or seek professional guidance in adjudicating the allegations. She was told that it was unseemly to question the integrity of a good man, and that her memory of the abuse was either fabricated or falsely remembered. The abuse was horrendous; the resultant failure of nearly every religious leader was even more unconscionable. Administrators in the school, mission, and churches ignored her. She eventually spoke to an Episcopal priest who walked with her for months and helped her name the spiritual abuse that was used to silence her.

She reengaged the mission school and this time took a fire-breathing attorney. Oh I can hear the screeching of those who cry out: “A Christian should never sue another Christian.” Indeed, the scripture adjures us not to make our failures a matter of public display, but also not to hide the crime or ignore the harm. It is because we ought to be mature enough to care for harm in the body of Christ with wise leaders assessing the offense and delivering justice for the victim and restoration for the perpetrator.

What makes this so tragic is the mission agency, school, and churches refused to engage the accusation against the teacher because his church had already exonerated him of prior claims of sexual abuse. The school punted to the mission, and the mission to the church. The church failed to call any witnesses or interact with victims, and only trusted the stern denial of the respected teacher. All the organizations dissolved responsibility through the façade of institutional processes.

My client sued the school, not an individual. The threat was sufficient to propel their attorneys to offer a moderate settlement with the provision that she sign a nondisclosure statement. It is common fare, not surprising or even notable.

I don’t judge those who settle for a financial restitution, though there is so much harm from abuse that no amount of money is capable of righting the wrong. As a symbol it is a form of ‘reparation,’ but it simply doesn’t repair. My client wasn’t interested in a settlement; she wanted accountability and a system-wide ownership of the original harm and the cover-up.

She used the threat of a lawsuit to prompt ownership. It did. She got an official apology and the man was forced to retire—early. She received a meeting with the principal of the school and several mission officials. All apologized and admitted their failure.

However, no one resigned. No policy changes were made in the school, mission, or churches. No one publicly addressed the crime or the resultant cover-up. No other students of the teacher were pursued and queried about prior abuse. No funds were set aside to care for the victims or their families. In essence, nothing occurred other than an apology and this teacher’s early departure.

The problem is similar to this claim: “The banks are too big to fail. If we let a Lehman Brothers collapse, then the whole system might disintegrate.” I have heard a similar sentiment regarding religious institutions. Is it an issue of too big or important to fail or, in fact, too small to take on the task of accountability, investigation, and consequences?

During my tenure as President in the early years of what was then Mars Hill Graduate School, several moral, relational, and legal issues were poorly addressed, causing harm across the institution. In our arrogance and poverty, we felt like we could handle the situations without outside assistance. I was wrong. At the time we did not yet have an HR team or even an HR consultant. We didn’t bring in a neutral investigative team to address the complaints and accusations. There are many things we would handle differently if something like this occurred again today, but the debris from our lack of attunement to the needs of the situation have left a deep mark of grief on my heart.

It is no simple issue or solution, but to attempt to manage the immense brokenness of abuse or other relational harm without accountability and outside assistance is comparable to attempting to anesthetize and do surgery on oneself.

Just as my wife and I have saved money for our children’s education and our less capable years ahead, so have we tucked away funds for our children’s therapy. It is inevitable, at least if you grew up in our home.

In the same way, every organization needs to have policies for reporting and addressing sexual abuse not only of children and adolescents, but of adults who return to acknowledge crimes committed against them in the institutions we now serve. We need policies and plans to address those who have violated children, whether arrested and convicted or not.

Every organization needs to have policies for reporting and addressing sexual abuse.

We need to address what is our responsibility long after the harm. How do we go forward while also going back? How do we set up funds through the diaconate or other benevolence funds to address the wounds that may not be perpetrated on our watch but were done under the name of Jesus?

What is necessary first, is not a plan or an immediate referral—but a conversation. What is needed is the right opportunity to turn to the man who asked the question on the way out of the theater and say: “I am a follower of Jesus and in the midst of the believing community—rightly called in this case, Protestants, abuse has occurred—often—and it must be named.”

If you are a member of a church, work for or give to a Christian organization, then you have the right to ask those in authority: “May I read our policies and procedures for reporting on sexual abuse or harassment and what happens if someone in the organization reports they were harassed, threatened, or harmed by someone on staff or in the congregation/organization?” If the answer is “there is no written policy or procedures,” then you are free to ask why not and when will we start?

If you ask, then you are equally called to follow up, do research, talk with experts, and help shape what is not yet formed. Whatever we do, we cannot remain silent. No matter how long it takes we must stumble forward.

*In order to protect confidentiality, I have taken the liberty to conflate several stories into one.