I grew up in the church. Some of my favorite memories come from the time I spent there — Sunday school, AWANA, VBS, youth group, and fellowship meals. For hours we would play hide-and-seek, run up and down hallways, and occasionally sneak a peak at the baptismal pool hidden under the front stage. I was surrounded by people who knew my name, cared about me, and taught me a lot about the Bible and Jesus. With childlike innocence I never had any reason to suspect someone in the church would want to hurt me. It was a place where I felt comfortable and safe.
When I was six years old I escaped the church service one Sunday morning. Admittedly, I often did this when the pastor began his message. It was a convenient way to try and get the minutes to pass by a little quicker. While I was making use of the restroom a man from the congregation came in. He stood in the corner and I figured he was waiting his turn. When I had finished washing my hands he told me to come over to him. With naïveté I did. As I moved close to him he put his hands down my pants. He smiled at me…he smiled. I promptly returned to the pew to sit with my parents.
At six years old I had no frame of reference for what happened to me. I knew that I felt very uncomfortable and awkward — and I was so embarrassed. I tried as best I could to forget about it. In fact, it would be more than thirty years before I would tell anyone in my life that it happened. I don’t want to make too much of the experience. In my own estimate it was mild and I wasn’t left with anxiety or trauma. But I also don’t want to make too little of it. What happened to me is without excuse and completely inappropriate. It should never have happened. Far worse, it was evil in the sight of the Lord and God’s only response to that sin will be crediting it to Jesus’ account on Calvary’s hill, or causing the perpetrator to bear his guilt forever.
Being a dad to five little people and having the immense privilege to pastor the children in our church has caused me to reflect on my experience in different ways. It was easy to try and brush it aside before I had been given these responsibilities. One of the questions I have turned over in my head is how the leadership of the church would have responded if I had talked to them. Would I have been believed or disbelieved? Would they be concerned or dismiss it? Would I have been met with sympathy or doubt? Would they have pursued it to the bitter end or tried to cover it up? Would they have protected me or themselves? The question I can’t escape is always: what if they had known?
Sadly, we live in a church culture where the answer to a question like that can’t be assumed in a lot of congregations. I wish wherever something like this happened — or where the darker and far worse happens — we could have an implicit trust that those appointed with shepherding the flock would do the right thing. After all, the Great Shepherd guards his lambs with a rage of a jealous kind: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matthew 18:5-6).
But how unlike this Shepherd are many who claim to serve in his name. The tragedy is repeated over and over. I’m so tired of hearing one story after another of the failures of leadership to respond to sexual abuse in the church. I'm also angry. Alongside a mother’s womb and the home, the church should be the safest place on earth. The church should be a pasture where the littlest lambs are loved and protected, safe and comfortable. It should be a place that mimics the tender and gentle watchfulness of Jesus, and where our youngest members feel as cared for by Christians as they are by Jesus.
Unfortunately, many pastures have become hunting grounds where children are preyed upon, and where shepherds turn their back to the wolves that would devour them. Across the spectrum — Roman Catholic to Protestant, evangelical to confessional, well-known to obscure, urban to rural, big to small — these so-called shepherds are more concerned for themselves than they are for the flock. Victims aren’t heard or cared for. Perpetrators are given a long leash or quietly moved to the side. Situations go unreported to civil authorities, and cover-ups eclipse the terrible reality. Men who are more concerned about their reputations and influence; who are more concerned with keeping up appearances than doing what needs to be done aren’t worthy of the name “shepherd.” They’re cowards, they’re fearful, and they’re weak.
That’s a very dangerous place to be. Leaders or congregations who refuse to oppose and deal with the evil of sexual abuse will find themselves in a quarrel with God. Saul on the road to Damascus learned an important truth. Jesus himself owns the suffering of his people: “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:36). To abuse the sheep is, in a sense, to abuse the Shepherd. While earthly shepherds may neglect or ignore, this Shepherd kills the wolves. After all, he’s still the God who told Pharaoh: mess with my son and I will kill your son (Exodus 4:22-23).
Shepherding through sexual abuse is hard but it’s necessary. Victims need to be given a voice and listened to, they need to be deeply cared for and fiercely protected. Perpetrators need to be dealt with honestly, and brought to acknowledge their sin and to true repentance unless the judgment of God should meet them. Advocates — parents, siblings, and spouses — need to be supported and encouraged. Professional law enforcement and counselors need to be consulted. Wolves need to be exposed and driven off even at the cost of reputations and successful ministries. Every resource available needs to be used to minister mercy and justice. Above all, Jesus needs to be honored and glorified in shepherding people through sexual abuse.
So, the question continues to echo in my head: what if they had known? I don’t have an answer to that question because I don’t know what would have happened back then. But I know what needs to happen now. The church needs do better. Pastors and elders must do better. “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them” (Ezekiel 34:8-10).