Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Abuse Thrives in a Culture of Shame and Silence (Advocating for the Vulnerable #9)

Dear friends,

I sit at my computer and I don't know quite what to say.

But this...


Oh, there is more. I'll wing it as I go. My heart overflows with grief and indignation.

I read two things yesterday and today, which, when heaped atop everything else I've read and heard over the past several years, has put me into an increased state of holy disequilibrium.

One, the news of an amended lawsuit against the church organization, Sovereign Grace Ministries, of which I am a former longtime member. I have known about some of the charges for quite some time, and also read the original lawsuit brought by three victims last year. Now a total of eight victims in Maryland and Virginia made allegations of decades long sexual abuse and cover-up within the churches, some on church property and by church staff, and all involving shaming and silencing of the victims by pastors and other church leaders. According to the suit, families were ordered not to call the police, and pastors impeded police investigations while covering for the predators. Many of these cases happened in the church that was pastored at the time by C.J. Mahaney, the president of SGM, and the suit alleges that he and other SGM leaders were aware of the abuse and failed to deal with it appropriately. Apart from the lawsuit, there have been countless other accusations made about mishandling of domestic violence and child "discipline" abuse cases.  (Note on May 14, 2013: the lawsuit has been amended again and is absolutely sickening, with allegations of church leaders repeatedly molesting young children on church property.  You can read the newly amended lawsuit here.  I will warn you, this is GRAPHIC and you will be nauseated and/or triggered.  Most of the lawsuit has been dismissed because of the statute of limitations, but that does not mean the issues goes away.  Some of the perps have already served prison time, and more criminal cases are being investigated.  My most recent post, which contains over 20 links to articles related to the amended lawsuit is Sovereign Grace and Saving Face.) How could this happen?  How could these children, in a few of the cases, go for years without reporting the abuse?  How could parents be duped into not pressing charges for molestation crimes?  Unfortunately, this is not just a problem in SGM, but in a host of other religious organizations. It is the culture of shame and silence -- and women, especially young ones, are the most vulnerable to both sexual abuse and domestic violence.

It goes like this -- and I'm translating it into as plain language as I can without being snarky. In both this lawsuit and my extensive research on abuse of authority (especially gender-based) these are some of the pastoral sentiments I've heard about...
  • "We're all sinners. Yes, he might have hurt you, but think of how you have sinned. You have no right to complain." (I call this phenomena "psychological socialism" and I've written about it here.)
  • "You must have been asking for it. Were you dressing modestly enough, or were you causing him to stumble?"
  • "You are a woman. Women are easily deceived like Eve. Are you sure this really happened or were you fantasizing?"
  • "He said he was sorry. You need to meet with him face to face so he can apologize. Be reconciled with your brother in Christ!"
  • "He has apologized to you!  He's really sincere! Now you can forgive and forget! You must not gossip or slander him by telling anyone else about it. If you tarnish his reputation, he'll never be able to get on with his life, keep a job, continue his ministry, and provide for his wife and children."
  • "Yes, he molested you, but he is still your father. You need to respect and obey your father. See, the verse is right here..."
  • "Yes, he molested your daughter, but he is still your husband. You need to respect and submit to your husband. And make sure you give him sex more often so he won't be tempted by your daughter anymore. And you might want to lock her door at night. And while you're at it, you might want to lose some weight."'
  • "Yes, he pushed you around and hit you in the face and left bruises all over your kids, but he is still your husband. Just go home, pray for him, turn the other cheek, and look for better ways to keep your house cleaner and make your children obey immediately. A happy husband whose wife is loving him this way would never abuse her!"
  • "Counseling?  Sure, come right into my office. Oh, you mean from  professional counselors?  Don't bother. They'll only give you ungodly psychobabble and lead you astray."
  • "Call the police?  No way! Are you crazy? We don't need to bring another believer before the law. This is something the church should handle, not the worldly and godless secular government system. He just needs to see the light and repent. Jesus is enough."
  • "Oh, you don't want to tell anyone that anything has happened at this church! What sort of reputation will that give to our ministry -- and to God? We must protect our gospel witness!"  
  • "And you don't want anyone to know you are damaged goods, do you? You know how important virginity is to godly young men looking for wives!"
  • "You are a woman. A woman is not supposed to teach or have authority over men, but to quietly support and follow them. How dare you usurp my authority and question how I run my church [or this family]?"
  • "Your husband told you to tell a lie? Well, he was just asking you to be on the same page and agree with his perspective as the God-ordained leader of the home. You need to be united with your husband, not be subversive and self-willed. A house divided against itself will surely fall! Just go out there and say what he wants you to say. Then you can make a godly appeal to him privately so he can consider changing his mind. Stand by your man!"

I could keep going.

I really could.

But that is enough of that for now.

What we need now are real men who truly man up and put an end to this tragedy -- not men who will pull rank, make excuses, and cover each other's hindquarters.

And what we need now are strong and wise women who will stand up to this abuse, whether for themselves or for others, and not be passive in the face of injustice. (If you have been abused in any way and not been able to do enough about it for yourself, please don't take this statement as shaming. I know this is hard. But please don't let someone beat you down so much emotionally that you feel like you have to take it. Find a safe place for you and your children. Ask for help from someone who will truly understand and help you take action.) You might like to read my post Women's Voices Rising. 

So that was the first thing I read, actually in many places. The lawsuit story has hit the AP news service, Washington Post, Louisville Courier-Journal (where SGM is now based), and of course the watchdog blogs www.sgmsurvivors.com and www.wartburgwatch.com and www.spiritualsoundingboard.com.  For a more updated list of news articles, see here: Listing of Articles Related to Amended Sovereign Grace Lawsuit

See also:


The second thing I read is a little book I picked up from the clearance cart at Books-a-Million on Sunday night.  It must be a God thing.  I hadn't planned to go there, but I'd left my debit card in a copy machine at Staples next door the day before when we were making copies for a homeless outreach and fortunately some justice-minded person turned it in instead of stealing it. But I digress.  

The book is True Religion: Taking Pieces of Heaven to Places of Hell on Earth by Palmer Chinchen, a pastor, professor and missionary who grew up in Africa.  With all of the reading I've done on global justice in recent years, this book is right up my alley.  I've been in bed with the flu today, so I've managed to chunk through several chapters in between fetching pain reliever and peanut butter sandwiches for an equally sick child.  But I digress again.

Chinchen is making a case for getting out of our comfort zones and easy chairs, and going out into the big world outside the church walls to bring justice and mercy to the hurting and oppressed. He warns about cultures that are ripe for rape and gender-based violence. He speaks of the unspeakable places where children are stolen out of their beds (really, mats on dirt floors) and forced into terrorism or sex slavery. He mourns the children who have to trash pick the dumps to stay alive. He laments the ravages of malaria and other diseases when mosquito nets and clean water can be provided for a pittance if we care. You'd better believe his words have kindled a hotter fire in my bones.

I believe that God has given me a message and a vision for this season of life. Not the swirly spooky kind of vision in a deep gravelly voice and dancing angels.  The fire-in-my-bones kind that is called to speak up and speak out about injustice.  That kind which advocates for the vulnerable. That kind which says, "Stop! No more! You must not mistreat others!"  That kind which pauses to ask, "What can I do to help?"

To be honest, Chinchen has set his sights far beyond the suburban American life I inhabit. He writes about Cuba, Kenya, Malawi, and more far-flung poverty-stricken and/or oppressed countries around the globe. And it is Malawi that catches my eye. Always Malawi.  That has been my own "beyond" place for the past decade. That is where my extra money goes for Bibles and orphans. That is where I send care packages and Chichewa language tracts that I have produced for pastor Headson Makazinga. That is where my heart roams. That is where I have been repeatedly asked to come and but never yet gone. Some day, I say. Some day. Big dreams for a busy home schooling mom of 10. Big dreams are good.

Until then, I try to fan the flames of justice and mercy, right here and right now.

Until then, I speak and write and teach and give.  

Until then, I stand in between.

Until then, no shame and no silence.

For justice and mercy,

Virginia Knowles

Advocating for Vulnerable Series


  1. Wow! I'm very impressed that you wrote this intelligent post while sick with the flu! You make some excellent points here.

    In my own church, although we have never had to deal with sexual abuse, we are now recovering from many years with a pastor who had a tendency to cover up and delay resolving anything that had gone poorly. Dozens of people left our congregation because of hurt feelings too long neglected. This is a liberal parish in a denomination that allows female leaders--yet even outside the bounds of conservative churches, our larger culture has a tradition of teaching women to cover up and blame themselves. This was a woman pastor we had with these problems, and as frustrated as I am by her impact on the parish, I understand all too well her feelings of shame and fear.

    It is bad enough when people feel emotionally abused in church, which should be a place of unconditional love. It is bad enough when women question our own desires to seek justice. But when people are being physically harmed as well, and when their trusted authority figures belittle and shame them, that's even worse! I am so glad you're speaking up about this.

  2. Hi Virginia
    I am at the place where I know I have to start writing against the lie of religion. Thank you for speaking up! I nearly died from abuse that I received at church when I became I'll with a chronic disease! May our Pappa bless and lead you as you write and speak up what you need to write about!
    Blessings to you, dear sister

  3. As a "survivor" of multiple childhood sexual abuses by family members during one year of living in NJ, I can add a hearty amen here! My encounteres were swept under the rug and shushed as I was scolded not to make a mountain out of a molehill. We need advocates who are willing to speak out against the horrors that go on behind the scenes!

  4. It's shameful that other church leaders are not speaking up about this, because WELL he is a friend of their's. What kills me is some of them have endorsed this church - and founders - and continue to have them travel with them on speaking tours. No doubt they will say it is because these crimes are just 'alleged' at this point, but the bible asks them to step aside until these are cleared up.

    They ask men to 'man up' - I can't stand that term - and yet they themselves are the biggest cowards of all.


  5. Thank you so much for this. Your list is spot on.

  6. I have an outreach that ministers to and counsels victims of various forms of abuse as well. It is www.DelusionDispeller.com
    Great job on this article and so sad you and so many others have been abused. The spiritual part of it only makes it more intense!

  7. I am a new follower! Thank you for speaking out against abuse. I have been exposing abusive spiritual teaching and sharing my story not the most coherent since I'm in the healing process. I've been in a state of bewilderment because of silence. It's nice to meet you and I will add you to my blogroll. Blessings.