At the American Bible Society, where I work, those of us involved in trauma healing often say that what gets us up in the morning is our mission to equip the church to be a safe place, a place of hope and healing, for traumatized individuals. I think most Christians want to believe that the church is a safe place for the most vulnerable among us.
But this has not been the case for far to many who report child or adult abuse and harassment.
Now, as a son of a pastor, I am well aware of the challenges pastors and church leaders have in leading their congregations. Frequently, the leaders need the wisdom of Solomon, especially in cases of life and death conflict. The work of pastoring through abuse allegations is never easy. Don’t let your love of the church stop you from reading the rest!
I imagine we all believe that the Church can do so much better. And we ought to be asking ourselves, why have we failed as much as we have? In theory, we are always against abuse and always for protecting the vulnerable. But it does not always play out this way.
Consider what responses might be given to these three “first meeting” vignettes:
- A woman comes to church leadership to seek pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-known to be antagonistic to church and to the Christian faith.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. This man is well-respected in the community and has been a Sunday School teacher for the past decade. She is also known to be a wise and careful woman.
- A woman comes seeking pastoral support in light of her husband’s abusive behavior. The man is involved in the church and the woman has been known to be a bit of a church hopper.
Whether or not there is objective evidence supporting her allegations what response should these women receive? Will it be the same? Will the compassion and support offered be the same for each woman? Who will be treated with more compassion, who will be treated with more suspicion (or even just neutrality)? Will the amount of circumstantial evidence influence our response?
Minto, Hornsey, Gillespie, Healy, & Jetten (2016) have attempted to research (a) whether we are more likely to fail to support abuse victims when the abuser is one of our own and (b) whether circumstantial evidence will change our position. [You can download their full-text research essay here.] Their interest was exploring how social identity (what group you are a part of and have pride in) influences how we handle allegations of abuse by fell0w group members.
Study 1. 601 individuals read a vignette of an adult male alleging that a priest sexually abused him as a ten year old. The vignette included details of the alleged abuse and the rebuttal made by the defense attorney for the priest. Catholics, Prostestants, and non-believers all rated the assumed credibility of the victim and the perpetrator. Results indicate both Catholic and Protestant individuals with high church identity were significantly more likely to defend the accused and doubt the accuser. This was especially true if their faith was central to their core identity.
Study 2. 404 individuals also read the same vignette however the level of circumstantial evidence against the priest was manipulated. For some, the survey participants learned that church authorities were not defending the priest and that there had been a previous suspension for similar behavior (i.e., higher certainty of truth). The remaining participants learned that there had been no other cases and that this case was thrown out for insufficient evidence. The results for this study indicate,
ingroup participants were more likely to defend the integrity of the accused (and to cast doubt on the accuser) than were other participants, an effect that was exclusively driven by high identifiers. Interestingly–and somewhat surprisingly–this effect was not moderated by the subjective level of certainty surrounding the guilt of the accused.
In other words, those who highly identify with the Catholic church are more likely to defend the accused even when there is considerable circumstantial evidence against that person.
While this research was carried out examining responses to Catholic priest allegations, it appears that the problem does not lie only within the Church. Consider the obstructing responses of Michigan State to allegations of Dr. Nasser’s abuse of young female athletes over the years. The authors conclude,
Our data confirm that such highly identified ingroup members are the least willing to believe that the accusations are based on fact. This helps to provide psychological explanations for qualitative and anecdotal accounts of senior group members failing to adequately follow up allegations of child sexual abuse within their institution.
But why? The authors ask, wouldn’t the ingroup members be more motivated to purify their ranks by rejecting those who are accused of bad behavior? What is gained (or lost) by standing by accusers when the there is circumstantial evidence of abuse and no evidence of circumstantial evidence of lying on the side of the accuser? This is the challenge for those of use who listen to stories of abuse that happen in our own cherished communities.
Until we solve this problem, we will stand with the young women who accused Dr. Nasser of sexual abuse because he was not one of us but refuse to do the same when the accused is one of our own.
For further reading on reasons why we fail to act well in light of abuse allegations or reports of failures to act: