One of my favourite things about university has been the freedom to guide my own path in the area of research. Returning to studying after years of experience it was critical that it fit with my work with sexual violence in religious communities. For most projects and all research I chose to look at various aspects of religion and crime – mostly sexual abuse – in a variety of contexts, including Latter Day Saints, Orthodox Judaism, and conservative Anabaptists. I grew up in a series of conservative Mennonite churches – thanks to parents who never found peace in any of the ones we tried – so I am not unfamiliar with the terrain of religion. But I was shocked by the similarities in function between other fundamental religious groups and my background. We are not the only ones structured to protect top leaders.
At first I questioned if it was actually structured that way (on purpose) or if it was merely the inadvertent and inevitable outcome of ultimate power given to bishops and leaders. But after a bit of digging and searching for answers, I concluded some are intentionally structured to make leaders untouchable. Why? I am not certain, beyond the need to make the religious culture look perfect and maintain image. (To see how this plays out in the Orthodox Jews, read Michael Lesher’s: Shonda and Concealment). And then there is this notion that those called to ministry are just a bit more sacred and holy than the rest. Here I would propose that the calling itself may be entirely holy, but the human executing that calling is entirely flawed, completely human and particularly vulnerable to corruption when placed at such a level.
Someone said, “power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”, or something close to that. I would echo that. Power that is accountable to no one is absolute power, and it absolutely is corrupt. No human gets to play God, be untouchable by those they lead, and still stay human and flawed in their own mind. That kind of power leads to grandiose thinking, narcissism and idolatry. When people who follow such a leaders start believing they have a special kind of ‘in’ with God, and maybe it’s okay for them to do things others can’t, rather than exposing leaders’ crimes, we have a real problem. And these were the testimonies of some of the women in the studies I read; rather than exposing crime they saw leaders are having ‘special permission’ from God. This matches what I’ve heard from victims I’ve worked with.
Every spiritual leader and person in ministry I’ve known is prone to failure and sin, myself included. We all have to repent. Every last one of us. Knowing many others, and knowing myself, I have concluded we are all the same. All human, just like you. All sinners saved by grace. We, like the Apostle Paul, do the things we don’t want to do and don’t get done what we want to do. But true leaders do not justify sin and crime in their own lives.
Do away with the pedestals. They are not stable and only stay up as long as people are willing to hold them up. On a pedestal repentance is difficult, as is facing consequences for sin and crime. There’s the fear that if people discover how broken and human we are they will be destroyed by our imperfection and lose their faith in God. Even in this we raise ourselves to a God-like-status. But it’s not truth. They’ll be fine, believe it or not, if they see our humanity. And if they aren’t, the perception of perfection is better crushed. It’s their one hope of replacing leaders with God, and giving God His rightful place.
So how do leaders rise to that place in the minds of (their) people? Because, let’s face it, none are ‘all that and a bag of chips’ once you get to know them. They may be wonderful and nice, and all, but they are human. And I’ve not met one that isn’t somehow selfish, no matter who they desire to be. Me included. We are all human; you and I, and on the same level.
I can’t speak to the ‘how’ of every religious community, but it struck me in my readings for the research I did, that it is a taught and controlled path to the top. A path carefully laid out in the constitutions and rule books, including Anabaptists and Orthodox Jews among others. Of course my ‘knowing’ from experience and observation also gave me insights other ‘outsiders’ wouldn’t see. (Regrettably, I cannot use the material from that research publicly at this time, t is also part of my PhD application package.)
Some church constitutions state that charges or allegations can only be brought against a church leader if there are several witnesses. If there is one thing sex offenders and child molesters know, it is to never leave room for witnesses. The lengths to which they go in planning and scheming, or their skill at taking advantage of the vulnerable person at hand, would leave room for little chance of ever having even one witness, let alone two. They are opportunistic, and have an uncanny ability to sniff out the vulnerable ones who have no voice.
Now take those skills, give them to a revered church leader who knows who is who, and what church families struggles with, and who is vulnerable, insecure, abused (by parents, spouse or teacher etc), and you have a perfect storm. When sex offenders and molesters become preachers and bishops, or ministry leaders, and especially if they have that lovable personality, they have access to victims with a reputation that is well fortressed. Offenders in church leadership are often very charismatic leaders who ‘love’ people, and are loved and worshiped by their followers. They have no need to defend themselves, because they have built their empire so that no one will believe the allegations, and the people will rise to their defence so they need only to sit back and watch as their voiceless victims scramble for someone, anyone to hear them.
These offenders will likely have made certain to have enough trusted relationships with the demographic of their victims who can vouch for them as respectful and safe, to ensure that allegations sound foolish and far-fetched. (For example, students are often shocked when the teacher is caught molesting because the teacher was respectful to most students. The ministry leader or minister who violates the vulnerable wives of the abusive men they help may have the respect of many of the wives of these men, having never made moves or crossed lines, thus making the rest sound ridiculous when they bring forward their allegations. And the leader who molests girls may leave his own daughters untouched, so that the whole family can vouch for him. You get the picture.)
These are skilled criminals, not people who ‘fall’ into affairs in leadership. These are not pastors, bishops and ministry leaders; they are wolves. They are predators. They are power-mongers with lust issues; lust for power and lust for sex. They excommunicate and ostracize those who fail to live up to the constitution, and excuse their own sin. They have no regard for the sacredness of sex and God’s laws, not to mention the laws of the land. They rape, overpower, molest and lust… and excommunicate victims for not being silent. (In any case, if a leader molests or abuses someone, he/she should be removed and dealt with, even if only a one time offence. They are not safe in positions of power.)
The more these allegations against church and ministry leaders come to light, in various communities and churches, the more certain I am that one of the key sources of the larger problem is the result of corrupt leadership. Be that 20% of the leaders, or 50%, or 5%, it’s too many. And, unfortunately, those leaders who are pure of heart genuinely struggle to grasp that a fellow-leader would/could do such a thing, and they too write things off as false allegations made by a troubled church member. This needs to change.
And that leads me to the the next thing in the constitution… The word of a member in good standing, according to some constitutions, is to be taken over that of those who are not in good standing. It takes little imagination to see that sex abuse victims are often very troubled and don’t do ‘constitution following’ very well, making their testimony easy to write off. And those victims who are faithful constitution followers are silent, because that’s what the constitution sets up. Some state that members are to first attempt resolving issues directly with those who wronged them, before going to leaders, meaning victims must first face their offender before seeking help. They further state that once communion has been observed and peace is expressed, a matter is to be considered forgiven and done.
The way these things are structures make church leaders – especially bishops, but also prominent ministry leaders and lay members of good rapport – almost untouchable. And that perpetuates the crimes both at a leadership level and among the people. Almost untouchable…
But God is not done. He will expose. He will bring to light. And He will give voice to victims so that these wolves will be stripped of their facades, and they will stand naked in their sins. And more than giving them a voice He will be their voice and He will speak boldly. And then there will be no constitution to manage damage control. There will be no hiding. The truth will be revealed.
What excites me is that God is raising up leaders ‘among them‘ who will not be silent. Leaders who will not look the other way, and who will hold them accountable and turn them over to the law. These leaders and their wives have reached out to me, internationally, and encouraged me to never quit, never give up… And God is also raising up a network of law enforcement workers across USA who are listening. They are seeing the patterns, the cover-ups and the crime in the name of God.
Reckoning day is coming…
And that doesn’t even begin to account for standing before God with these sins exposed, their covers blown.
Victims have long been brutalized by organized religion, and have been silenced. But God…
(To be continued…)
~ T ~