The subject of this “All Around Us” article is sexual abuse in the realm of the church, a topic about which it is difficult to write and to read. However, it is necessary to do so because, in the first place, we must have a certain level of knowledge that the terrible evil of sexual abuse is present in the church. For a member of the church of Christ to think that sexual abuse only occurs in the world is wrong. Not only does such a mentality cause the church not to take the necessary protective measures to prevent sexual abuse from making inroads in the church, but it also very easily leads to a wrong or inadequate response to revelations of sexual abuse. Closely related, a second reason is that the church must seek to grow in her understanding of the dynamics and damage of the sin of sexual abuse. There are so many helpful resources available for doing so, and I encourage the readers of the Standard Bearer to avail themselves of them. Regardless, we will be better equipped to prevent this evil in the church as much as possible, protect the vulnerable, and provide true help to those who have walked in this sin by learning from the stories of sexual abuse that are present around us.
The Roman Catholic Church
I begin with recent reports concerning the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Sadly, the storyline here is not new. On several occasions, the RCC has been exposed as harboring extensive sexual abuse of children by priests. Of particular note is the work of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe, which uncovered the abuse of hundreds of children by dozens of priests in Boston, the largest city of Roman Catholic members in the United States. The investigative work of the Boston Globe opened the floodgates of more revelations in the coming years, not only in the U.S. but throughout the world.
One of the more recent stories to break in this regard concerns the RCC in France. A two-and-half-year independent inquiry commissioned by the RCC in France revealed a staggering amount of sexual abuse that had occurred over the past seventy-five years. The report’s information was based on court records, police records, and church records and speaking first-hand to abuse victims and witnesses. The results were staggering: an estimated 3,000 priests abused some 215,000 children. When considering the broader organization of the RCC, particularly its system of schools, the actual number of abuse cases is likely much higher.
Next we consider what has recently been documented regarding the RCC in Nebraska. The Attorney General of the Nebraska Department of Justice issued a report on sexual abuse in the three dioceses in the state (Lincoln, Omaha, and Grand Island), going back to the 1930s. The investigation revealed 258 credible allegations of sexual abuse and misconduct by fifty-seven church officials. Because of the statute of limitations, most of these abuse cases could not be prosecuted.
I conclude this section regarding the RCC with two quotations from the two men who lead the aforementioned investigations. Both touch on points we do well to consider carefully. Jean-Marc Sauvé, the head of the inquiry into the French RCC, commented regarding the church’s response to the presence of sexual abuse in the church, “There was a whole bunch of negligence, of deficiency, of silence, an institutional cover-up.”1 And Douglas Peterson, the attorney general of Nebraska, wrote the following in the cover page of his report regarding the RCC in Nebraska:
The most troubling finding from this report is the fact that on numerous occasions, when there was an opportunity to bring justice to the victims, those in authority chose to place the reputation of the church above the protection of the children who placed their spiritual care in the hands of those in church authority. The depth of physical and psychological harm caused by the perpetrators, and the decades of failure by the church to safeguard so many child victims, is unfathomable.2
Let the church be warned not only against the sin of sexual abuse itself, but also against the evil of an institution proudly covering up such abuse in her midst.
The name Ravi Zacharias may or may not be familiar to the readers of the SB. Ravi Zacharias was a well known Christian apologist, leader of a ministry called Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), author of more than thirty books, regular contributor through speaking and writing to Ligonier Ministries (the Christian organization founded by R.C. Sproul, which has since removed all of Zacharias’ material from their website). Diagnosed with a rare cancer in his spine in March of 2020, Ravi Zacharias died on May 19, 2020. Toward the end of his life in 2017, a woman brought accusations against him regarding sexual misconduct. Zacharias denied the allegations, apologizing and accepting responsibility only for being a “willing participant in an extended communication with a woman not my wife.”3 This 2017 statement concluded with these words regarding his marriage to his wife: “In my 45 years of marriage to Margie, I have never engaged in any inappropriate behavior of any kind. I love my wife with all my heart and have been absolutely faithful to her these more than 16,000 days of marriage, and have exercised extreme caution in my daily life and travels, as everyone who knows me is aware.”4 Upon his death in 2020, however, the sad reality of his life came to light. Ravi Zacharias engaged in sexual misconduct and sexually abusive behavior for many years, often under the guise of receiving massage treatment for chronic lower back pain. His comments in 2017 quoted above about marital faithfulness were patently false.
The purpose of the above paragraph is not to drag through the mud the name of man now deceased. The objective, instead, is to learn from this heart-wrenching story. And there is much to be learned from it, which can be summarized by two words: accountability and deception. Leaders in the church and persons in positions of authority must be surrounded by others who hold them accountable. A humble leader who knows his sin and sinfulness will not question, but ask for, high levels of accountability. But even with levels of accountability in place, such sinful behavior may still be present because a fundamental characteristic of those who engage in sexually abusive behavior is the ability to deceive. To reflect on the above story of Ravi Zacharias is to see how a man can gain the unquestioned trust of so many people for such a long time. Those deceived by such conduct are not only those who are themselves the objects of sexual abuse, but also others who surround the perpetrator. The manipulation extends to the community and institution of which one is a part, which is one of the reasons it is possible for one to walk in these sins for an extended period of time.
The Southern Baptist Convention
The final example that demonstrates sexual abuse in the realm of the church is that of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC). The SBC is the largest Baptist denomination in the U.S. A recognizable name from these churches is Albert Mohler, current president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the denomination’s flagship seminary. The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News ran stories in 2019, revealing hundreds of cases of sexual abuse by pastors, church leaders, youth leaders, Sunday school teachers, and church volunteers. Some of them even remained in positions of leadership in the church. The denomination continues to deal with the effects of these stories. After their publication, the delegates to the annual meeting of the SBC mandated an independent third-party investigation into the response of the SBC’s Executive Committee (the committee that acts on behalf of the convention when not in session) to cases of sexual abuse over the past twenty years. The annual meeting of the SBC this past June revealed division over this investigation, mainly because the Executive Committee had refused to waive attorney-client privilege for the inquiry. In response, churches and leaders in the SBC put pressure upon the committee to do so. Several weeks after the annual meeting, the Executive Committee voted to waive attorney-client privilege, thus opening the door for Guidepost Solutions, an independent firm contracted by the SBC, to begin its investigation. The results are yet to be known. The firm is planning to make its report and findings public before the June 2022 annual meeting of the SBC.5
This is a troubling article to write and a distressing article to read. Such is the nature of writing and reading about sin, especially the horrible and damaging evil of sexual abuse. Nevertheless, my hope and prayer is that this article is edifying. May God use it to make us aware of what is present in the realm of the church and to help us understand that no Christian community is immune from this evil. And consequently, may we be better equipped to respond to the sexual abuse that may be present among us in a way that honors God and shows genuine love for the church of Jesus Christ.
1 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-58801183. 2 https://ago.nebraska.gov/sites/ago.nebraska.gov/files/doc/Report of Clergy Sexual Abuse - November 4 - 2021.pdf. 3 https://churchleaders.com/news/383717-the-story-behind-the-ravi- zacharias-allegations-part-1-lawsuits-ndas-and-email-threads. html/5. 4 https://churchleaders.com/news/383717. 5 https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2021/october/executive- committee-investigation-privilege-vote-sbc-abuse.html.