Why church abuse scandals must prioritise the voices of victims, not perpetrators


For the last two weeks, the problem of abuse in Christian culture and within the church have been making daily headlines – from the Christian press to the tabloids. Josh Duggar – eldest son of fundamentalist Christian celebrities Jim Bob and Michelle Duggar, stars of the US reality TV series 19 Kids and Counting, – has admitted to sexually assaulting five young girls in 2002-3, when he was a teenager. He made the confession after he was named as the subject of a 2006 police report by a celebrity magazine.

At the same time, receiving less attention from the secular press but also a key topic of discussion in Christian publications and the blogosphere, is the case of Karen Hinkley, put under discipline by The Village Church, a megachurch in Dallas, Texas, for having her marriage annulled following her husband's admission of addiction to child pornography and paedophilic urges. On the other hand, her ex-husband Jordan Root while having been supposedly subject to disciplinary measures by the church, has been commended for 'entering a process of walking in repentance'.

In Josh Duggar's public statement, he barely mentioned the impact his actions may have had on others, using the word 'I' repeatedly as he confessed to the abuse and explained how he had opted not to continue down a 'wrong road' for fear of ruining his life, asking for forgiveness and thanking God for His mercy. Many Christian leaders have rallied to his defence, emphasising forgiveness and grace and playing down a year of sexual abuse, positioning it instead as a youthful mistake, a long-ago slip-up that we should all forget about.

And in the wake of the revelations about The Village Church's mishandling of Karen Hinkley's situation, the discussion of controlling and spiritually abusive practices in churches has led to criticism of those speaking out. Criticism of bloggers has featured highly, as have calls to not speak about the issue publicly – labelling such actions as gossip and slander.

When I began blogging in 2008, it didn't take long before I found people who were speaking out online against the damage wrought by the Christian Patriarchy movement. Often in the format of blogs and forums run by women who had managed to exit the movement, they detailed painful stories of spiritual, emotional and domestic abuse.

In the years that have followed, we've witnessed the momentum build as more people started to find their voices –tentatively, often using pseudonyms – warning about the Quiverfull movement, about Bill Gothard, about Doug Phillips and Vision Forum. And before long, it wasn't just the hardline fundamentalists being discussed. Groups of people came together to speak out against varying forms of abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries and Mark Driscoll's Mars Hill churches long before these churches began to make headlines. I've been aware for some years that sexual abuse allegations involving Josh Duggar have long been discussed on internet forums – sadly proving completely correct in both the details and the way they were handled by the Duggar family.

Many Christians chose – and still continue to – dismiss such blogs and forums as the ranting of bitter people with an axe to grind against Godly people and ministries. In a culture that looks up to those in power – the church leaders, the successful superstars seen as irreproachable men of God – it's easy to do so.

Granted, it has never been difficult for most people to believe the accounts of abuse within fundamentalist groups, but often these have also been dismissed as the mildly ridiculous practices of extremists – worthy of mockery, with little real concern displayed for those whose lives have been left in tatters.

And that's what has stood out most starkly about the controversy surrounding Josh Duggar, around the scandal at The Village Church and all the other tales of disgraced leaders and churches in meltdown: the victims are often forgotten. In the rush to highlight a good redemption story; a tale of a life turned around, people continue to focus solely on the perpetrators of abuse.

When people issue calls not to talk about what is happening, when they implore us to 'wait until we have all the facts' even as websites and blogs share legal documents and email screenshots, when they dismiss sexual abuse as 'a youthful mistake' they make it clear that their heart is not for defending the marginalised but for protecting the powerful. As they seek to maintain reputations and write off systemic oppression as isolated incidents, they show that they have little concern for making the church a safe space.

Dismissal of bloggers and 'watch' sites further minimises the experiences of many and the communities the internet has offered them the chance to build. I've lost count of the times I've seen people write about their relief on finding people online who have had the same experiences, realising they are not alone and that they can come together to advocate for change. When Christians silence discussion of church abuse, they make it less likely that people will feel able to speak up about things they have endured and been forced to keep to themselves.

We must not forget the power of repentance and forgiveness. But at the same time, we must make sure that when these stories break, we centre the voices of the victims and those who continue to be hurt by abuse and patriarchy in the church rather than simply maintaining the status of powerful men and pushing yet another heartbreaking problem out of sight, keeping up appearances.

Writing about The Village Church's handling of Jordan Root, pastor John Pavlovitz said:

"No matter how you spin this, what it boils down to is a self-preserving cluster of male peers policing themselves and determining what constitutes fairness for them and for those they oversee, with little real accountability beyond what they have set in place."

Time and again, when the same networks of powerful church leaders stay silent and recommend keeping silent about abuse within their communities, victims are let down and given the impression that their voices don't matter. When the internet as a tool for community-building and advocacy is belittled, the value of the support networks that scores of Christians have built up over the past few years is denied.

"It's absolutely crushing to see how many Christians do not take abuse seriously," wrote blogger and author Elizabeth Esther, who has been writing about her experiences growing up in a fundamentalist cult since 2006. Her most recent blog post implores Christians to look at these current 'scandals' as part of a much wider problem and has, heartbreakingly, led to her receiving threatening and deeply unpleasant comments and messages.

As I was writing this, the news broke that The Village Church has issued a full apology to Karen Hinkley as a result of the outcry surrounding her story. In a statement sent to church members, elders have admitted poor handling of the situation, saying that adherence to membership practices were prioritised over love and care for Karen.

"Sometimes it takes a difficult, unique and trying situation to help us realize our mistakes and move us to change. Naturally, these situations also bring more feedback to the table, and we have sought to humbly hear that feedback, be willing to see the log in our own eye and repent where necessary," they wrote.

The elders should be commended for their actions, and other conservative churches would do well to follow their example in responding to public feedback. In issuing this apology to Karen Hinkley and indicating a desire to change their culture, their focus has moved to the wellbeing of someone hurt by all that has happened and preventing such situations arising in the future.

It is vital, as Christians, that we examine the motives of the powerful when they urge silence and implore us to forgive and forget. Those they seek to silence must be at the centre of discussions on abuse within the church. Without them, harmful structures will never be dismantled and there will be no hope and healing for the enormous numbers of people whose lives have been affected by abuse in a Christian context.

Hannah Mudge writes about feminism and faith and is one of the founders of the Christian Feminist Network. She works in digital communications and fundraising for an international development organisation. Follow her on Twitter @boudledidge