Spotlight: Next Steps
Last weekend, the film Spotlight won the Oscar for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Earlier this year, we shared Dan Allender’s enthusiastic response to the film, followed by his reminder that sexual abuse does not only concern the Catholic Church. Here, Dan returns to his gratitude for the reception Spotlight has received, before urging us to consider—with rigor and brutal honesty—how sexual abuse is addressed in all of our churches, organizations, and institutions.
Spotlight won best picture. I am gratified, and it seems amidst significant failure of inclusion that at least the Academy got that film and issue right. (I would have been ecstatic if Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You” had won as well.) What are we to do with this slight momentum?
Perhaps, you have begun to realize there are very few churches or parachurch organizations that have policies and procedures for addressing sexual abuse and harm. You know how easy it is for well-meaning people to dismiss the concerns about sexual violation as extra-curricular to the work of the gospel.
We don’t need policy, procedures, or expertise on how to do brain surgery because it is not our province of education and skill—it simply doesn’t happen in our midst. But sexual abuse does. And caring for little ones is our domain. Caring for adults harmed as little ones is part of the calling of restoration—which is the gospel. We can’t leave the work to professionals or pretend it is not part of our “family” story.
Perhaps all this is old hat, but I find few are willing to make an appointment with a pastor, elder, administrator, or staff person and address these issues. I, for one, know how time consuming it is to create policy and procedures and then live it out when so much else is on one’s plate. The moment we enter this battle we must suffer the fog of war and the reality that there are seldom simple and clear solutions.
The moment we enter this battle we must suffer the fog of war and the reality that there are seldom simple and clear solutions.
Let me illustrate from my experience in a seminary. There are many who are stunned that sexual harm occurs in seminary, though I find that naïve presumption difficult to comprehend. Are we not aware that many deeply damaged people end up pursuing psychology, ministry, social services, education, medicine, business, military, politics, law, science, law enforcement, and every other field? Of course, we all must be prepared to deal with the inevitable sexual harm in our midst. As I said, the issues are overwhelmingly complex.
The time spent to address a student’s complaint of sexual harassment or harm is overwhelming when the system runs on a few valiant employees doing vastly more work than is righteous. I have been part of meeting with students who hint at harm having been experienced. Getting to the data and allowing the student to know what will happen with that data might cause a student to refuse to give names or details. It is a delicate process that can’t be rushed or bullied.
Students have sometimes taken a full year to decide to talk. Once the story is told, an investigation needs to occur. The accused needs to be interviewed. They can’t be coerced to talk or assumed to be guilty. The person who makes the complaint must be honored and given comfort and safety, but the process can’t be rushed nor easily resolved.
If both are in the same class, do you ask the accused to remove him/herself? How do you address the issue of support from friends who have only heard one side of the story? When different stories are told and those stories begin to compete for “believers” in the community, how is the issue of support differentiated from gossip? If the harm doesn’t rise to the extent of a clear crime, is it inappropriate to address it as an issue of conscience or character? If one does so, what are the implications if one or both parties threaten to sue the school?
No wonder most choose to either ignore it as too difficult or simply adopt a formula that suffices as a means to escape the fog. For example, if a woman lodges an accusation of abuse, simply believe her. If a man denies culpability, he is merely being defensive. These “he said/she said” claims are generally viewed as impossible to adjudicate unless patterns can be established and/or corroboration provided.
These issues of fog and complexity are not just found among adults. Claims of sexual abuse in the midst of a hideous divorce are sadly a typical move by some attorneys to threaten a spouse into compromise regarding financial settlements. A child might have conflicting stories due to the fragmentation of memory in trauma. A child might conflate one event with another, just as we all do.
Suffice it to say, addressing abuse is comparable to climbing Mount Rainier in the fog with the danger of crevasses that can swallow an entire team in one instant of neglect. Is it any wonder that most people and organizations throw their hands in the air and say it is hopeless? If we ignore the single voice, one that may or may not be telling the truth or only part of the truth, maybe the noise will go away.
I have no patience for that kind of cowardice, nor do I have much respect for impassioned advocates who shout with righteous fury but who have never worked in complex systems where one step forward, two steps sideways, and a half step back is herculean progress.
What is the next half step? It will depend entirely on your context and calling. Always begin with what is observable and can be read with the benefit of other’s input. If there is an obstinate insistence that abuse doesn’t occur in “this church” or among this socio-economic bracket, then the first step is not hard to discern. If conversations about the reality of sexual harm cannot occur, then it is time to light a fire. Someone needs to name that the Emperor’s new clothes are not leaving anything to the imagination.
Someone needs to name that the Emperor’s new clothes are not leaving anything to the imagination.
What is likely to occur is abuse won’t be denied, but it will be shelved with faint praise. A woman asked her pastor if she could start a group for adults who had been sexually abused as children. She was told: “I fully support what you are doing, but it would be upsetting to many if we talked publicly about such a delicate subject.” Faint praise to dissipate conflict is the height of organizational cowardice.
What is needed is simple: an acknowledgement that sexual harm is not an occasional blemish on a lovely institution, but an inevitable heartache of living in a fallen world.
Faint praise to dissipate conflict is the height of organizational cowardice.
We need to struggle with reality and know there is no simple solution or elegant process to discern the truth. But the worst thing we can do is to do nothing. Here are a few simple steps for us to take.
1) Every organization needs to have policies, procedures, and trained staff to address sexual abuse when it is exposed in their midst. These policies need to be vetted by an attorney and a therapist trained to address sexual harm.
2) Every organization needs to set aside finances for training and equipping staff to investigate, triage, and refer to care providers who work primarily with victims of sexual abuse.
3) Every organization needs to do a thorough analysis of its history of addressing sexual abuse and harm in its midst, and name what factors were involved in failures of care. Until pernicious assumptions and fears, or worse, self-righteousness, is addressed, all the policy and money thrown at this heartache will sink in the abyss of unseen traps.
Our task is again simple: Tell the truth. Be humbled by the truth that grace furiously exposes unrighteousness not to shame, but to offer a way back home to full restoration.