Why sexual abuse goes unnoticed

Hidden abuse

Nobody wants to think they would ignore the signs of abuse. But they do. I did. Some always will. Abusers do not always isolate children to molest them. The world was shocked as survivor after survivor explained that Larry Nassar would penetrate their vaginas without gloves, for up to 40 minutes at a time, while their parents were in the same room just feet away. He would whisper in their ears, “How does this feel?” As I listened to an army of brave survivors describe how Nassar abused them in front of adults, I was not shocked in the least. My father is a pedophile. I wrote him a letter a couple years ago asking if there was anything that consistently surprised him all of the times he successfully molested children. He wrote back from prison, “The one thing that always surprised me is how easy it was to fool adults. Oftentimes, after abusing kids right in front of them, I had to pinch myself and ask, ‘Are these adults really this stupid?'” I’ve personally listened to countless survivors tell me how often their abusers would molest them in front of adults. All of them have wondered, “Why did nobody protect me from my abuser?”

All of my research began to focus on what techniques abusers use to molest children in open spaces. As the son of a pedophile, I obsessed over the fact that we all missed it with my father. I was one of those adults who didn’t protect kids from their abuser–my father. But I genuinely did not recount a single time where I remembered him abusing them either. I learned that pedophiles are not just manipulative. They are literally using the same techniques magicians use to keep adults blind to the abuse. I was fascinated with this finding. I learned that, in order to see the abuse from pedophiles in real time, we need to stop looking for them and instead start looking for us! As Nassar molested his hundreds of victims and my father his dozens, how did they see those of us who were standing in the same room? How did they know that we were not catching on to them as they groped, caressed, and violated these children while looking at us? What were their exact techniques? I began growing increasingly frustrated with the “red flag behavior” that experts share about abusers. These signs are so generic that it tells us nothing about how abusers abuse and get away with it. By the time anyone notices “red flag behavior” it’s too late. Children have already been abused.

Should we assume, then, that parents and adults are just naive? Or that they don’t care? Rachael Denhollander gave a heart-stopping statement where she named victim after victim who told adults that they felt uncomfortable around Larry Nassar. Each and every time, the adults, including investigators, excused the abuse away. It’s inconceivable for most untrained people to believe that a child can be molested in the same room as an adult–especially a parent–and that adult not see it. So when children tell their stories, they are told that they must have “misunderstood” what really happened. Children who are molested, especially when their parents are nearby, have no understanding that the abuser is using very specific techniques to fool the adults into believing they’re not seeing the abuse. Rachael described brilliantly what every little child experiences when adults fail to protect: “As Larry was abusing me each time, I assured myself that it must be fine because I thought I could trust the adults around me.” Nassar knew that every one of these little girls was thinking this, and this is one of the reasons why it’s important for the pedophile to molest a child with their parent just feet away.

But again, should we assume that the adults don’t care? Kyle Stephen’s parents, who radically defended Nassar for years and repeatedly made Kyle apologize to Nassar, certainly cared. When Nassar had charges brought against him, Kyle’s father did what he could to make amends for not believing her. He was so riddled with guilt and shame for not believing his little girl that, in 2016, he committed suicide.

So why did hundreds, if not thousands, of adults fail these children, including their own parents who were in the same room as they were penetrated? While there certainly were some adults who didn’t care, we cannot assume that the majority of them just didn’t care. We’ve got to stop assuming that all adults don’t care and instead look at the techniques abusers use to keep us blind. I recently discovered a brilliant book by the husband-wife team of neuroscientists Macknik & Martinez-Conde called Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everyday Deceptions. This book was my “aha!” moment. They say, “The spooky truth is that your brain constructs reality, visual or otherwise. What you see, hear, feel, and think is based on what you expect to see, hear, feel, and think. In turn, your expectations are based on all your prior experiences and memories.” Every word inside of this book juxtaposed with the hundreds of letters from prison by my father began to reveal a very clear picture. We are all incredibly “hackable” and abusers intuitively know it. I glossed over the apostle Paul’s words for years and now they jump off the page at me: “. . .evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).

Magicians make a living off of hacking our belief system. They are masters at deception. They know what the audience expects to see, hear, feel and think. They hack our “want to believe system” and show us exactly what our brains expect to see, hear, feel, and think based on past experiences. Kyle Stephens’ parents wanted to believe the best in Nassar. Put another way, they didn’t want to believe that their 12 year old daughter had be sexually violated for 6 years by Nassar. He was a family friend. Larry Nassar knew this, hacked their belief system, and made it their new reality. When confronted by Kyle’s parents, Nassar was not nervous because he already knew exactly what conclusion they expected to hear from him. And he delivered the rehearsed response with eloquence. Kyle recounted what Nassar said in that meeting: “I listened to you tell me, ‘No one should ever do that. And if they do, you should tell someone.'” Nassar knew that making it appear as a “misunderstanding,” combined with the fact that the Stephens’ wanted to believe that “no one should ever do that” was a guarantee that his audience would latch on to this expectation and make it their new reality. The power of this technique can’t be overstated.

I see this happen over and over and over again. Church leaders, when presented with the facts, will choose to believe that the person they love and respect is not capable of abuse. Or that he is remorseful and repentant and will never do it again. It’s not that they don’t believe the child. It’s that they don’t want to believe the child. Abusers hack this belief system and make that a new reality for the church leaders. Leaders almost always soften their approach to the abuser when face to face with him in a confrontation. I’ve studied this phenomenon for the past 7 years. I began to get increasingly angry with church leaders who defended abusers at the expense of their victims. As a minister, I wanted to get into the minds of people like me from the perspective of an abuser. The abuser knows exactly what church leaders expect to see, hear, think, and feel–what they want to believe–and so he delivers. Every single time.

Until we start teaching people the specific techniques abusers use to keep others blind, we will never be able to prevent abuse effectively. When I train people, I do demonstrations. Seeing is believing and is way more powerful than another lecture on abuse. It’s a way to “pull someone up on stage” with the abuser–to allow my audience to see us the way abusers see us. A couple years ago I started doing a facility walk through where I demonstrate just how easy it is to exploit people, their belief systems, and their buildings. Last year I was asked to train staff at a Christian camp. I had 5 volunteers–none of whom were abuse survivors–and I asked if I could touch them in benign ways throughout the day to see if others on staff noticed the behavior. What stunned me was how blatantly I could touch them (hugs, petting hair, breaking them off from the rest of the group, etc.) and at first nobody noticed. The first encounter was an exaggerated hug with a volunteer. We counted 9 people who made eye contact with us. I later asked the group how many people saw me hug this male staff member. Only 2 said they saw anything and neither of them thought it odd that I was embracing one of their staff members right in front of them.

These techniques aren’t a checklist that I can put down into a blog. It’s something that people need to experience. And what I’m seeing is that once others know the techniques pedophiles use to abuse kids in front of us, they can see things in real time and intervene before the abuse happens. There is no reason why Nassar, or my father, or any other pedophile who uses sleights of mind, shouldn’t be intercepted and stopped before they can carry out these egregious and horrific crimes. The following video is one that forever changed the way I understand pedophiles. When I first watched this, I shouted at my computer, “That’s it!” Apollo Robbins’ question at the end is more prophetic than he knows: “If you could control someone’s attention, what would you do with it?”

4 Suggestions for preachers to broach the subject of abuse

Bible

With so many churches covering up abuse or ignoring it altogether, its vital that we be serious about tackling abuse. The reality is that many, many people don’t trust the church anymore. I’ve heard survivors vow to never grace a church building again. Sadly, we’ve given them plenty of reasons not to and it breaks my heart. With that said, there are things that we must do if we are ever going to truly be a shelter for the oppressed. These are my suggestion, and I’d like to hear what others would add.

#1 Confront the issue head on
We preachers like to tip toe around uncomfortable subjects. I used to be so worried that I would offend someone and they wouldn’t come back. I don’t intentionally offend people, but I’m no longer afraid of doing so either. We have to to quit sanitizing our language. I’ve literally heard preachers say, “There are people out there doing bad things.” Seriously. We’ve got to stop intentionally keeping people naive. I still get requests when I speak places not to say anything that is “offensive.” My response usually is, “With all due respect, adults raping children is offensive to me. If you’re not willing to get offended for their sake, how can I trust that you will actually protect them from their rapists?”

I’m not at all suggesting that we use gory details and traumatize our audience. But our language needs to be direct and strong. “Abuse” is way too generic. Acknowledge that both adults and children are being raped, neglected, beaten, and verbally assaulted.

#2 Recognize that you know that some in the audience are currently being abused
Every time I speak at a church, there are multiple survivors of abuse who speak to me afterwards. There are no exceptions. Many survivors I’ve spoken with feel emotionally invisible. They wonder why nobody within leadership has ever seen or acknowledged their pain. Jesus publicly said, “He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus was quoting from Isaiah 61 and he simply summed up his mission. Why did the poor and oppressed feel safe to speak to Jesus and not the other religious leaders? It was because Jesus was crystal clear that his mission was to set them free. He never pretended like everyone had it together. Quite the opposite. Jesus routinely acknowledged, embraced, and protected the poor, the sick, and the oppressed in every town he went to.

#3 Be ready to respond to allegations of abuse
Have a plan for how you will respond if your message empowers survivors to speak up. Most importantly, have a plan for how to respond if one of your fellow leaders is the abuser. I cannot overstate the importance of this point. Of the dozens of churches I’ve consulted with, over 80% of the alleged abusers were in some form of church leadership. Take it from someone who had to turn in his own father, reporting someone you love, respect, and admire is one of the most difficult things you will ever have to do. Be prepared and make no excuses. If someone in your congregation discloses that a church leader is abusing them, be prepared to take action immediately. If it is with a minor, assume that you are a mandated reporter and report it immediately to law enforcement. Talk with the parents and hold their hand through the entire process. Assure them that you will not protect the abuser, no matter who he or she is.

If an affair is uncovered or if there was spiritual abuse, be prepared to take action to protect the person who discloses the abuse. Removing someone from leadership and keeping quiet about the abuse is immoral and unethical. Let the church know the reason why the person had to be removed. I get nauseated every time I find out that a minister was fired for misconduct and the church leaders lie to the church and say he “resigned.” Then the person moves to another city or sate and reinvents himself. Pennsylvania and Texas have “Pass the Trash” legislation that prevents school administrators from turning a blind eye to teachers who abuse students then seek employment in another district. We churches need to stop “passing the trash” too.

#4 Come up with a plan to bring healing to survivors
One of the fair criticisms of my church leaders has been that I preach a lot about oppression but don’t offer enough solutions. Survivors especially need to know that we are going to do more than just preach about it. Jesus didn’t just protect. He provided hope. He believed in the oppressed and admired their faith. I recently began working with local agencies to network survivors in the community with our church. They need more than just sermons. They need to know that people believe in them and that there is hope and joy.

If all people ever hear is that there are tons of evil people out there and that churches keep perpetuating abuse, they’ll get discouraged real quick. Offer a tangible solution to the problem and cast that vision to your church. Invite people to join you in this mission to help the oppressed. But be sure to have a clear plan.

Do you have any suggestions?

My letter of apology to survivors of abuse

Apology letter to survivors

A few years ago I was asked to write a letter of apology on behalf of church leaders who’ve mistreated survivors of abuse. This was a tall order and I had to dig deep into my soul. I didn’t want to write a letter that was shrugged off by those leaders who actually perpetuate abuse. I wanted it to come directly from my heart but also call leaders to repentance. We all need to repent and do a much better job of caring for the oppressed who Jesus poured out his compassion on. Here is my unabridged letter to survivors:

Dear survivor,
We church leaders across the world need to repent and beg for your forgiveness. We have often ignored your cries, criticized you for your “lack of faith,” and have not loved you through the eyes of Jesus.

First and foremost, know that you are loved. God loves you exactly where you are and he gave his Son to die for you. . . yes you! He made you in His image and you are his sons and daughters. You may be wondering why God failed you and allowed you to be abused. Truth be told, God didn’t fail you–sinful people did. Despite what you may have been told, the abuse was not your fault. It never was. You are worthy of God’s love, and you are worthy of the love of mankind. Yes, You. Are. Worthy!

Somewhere along the line, we church leaders got it badly wrong. We began to shift our focus away from the wounded and started to protect the church’s image. The sheer number of children who continue to be abused and ignored by the church clearly demonstrates this sad fact. The apostle Paul once boldly wrote, “If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I AM NOTHING.”

The beloved Paul went on to say that love always protects. By very definition, love cannot allow people we care about to continue to be harmed. And I acknowledge and affirm what the Bible and psychologists both agree upon—Children need trustworthy adults to protect them. Yet many of you have deep scars that evidence you were not protected.

The most common cliché I hear from churches who insist on not taking any precautions to protect their children is this—“We have a group of volunteers we trust so why would we upset them by demanding background checks and watching over them every time they want to serve?” Great question. Let me tell you about a story of a man who trusted his own father. . . who happened to be a well-respected father and preacher! My dad has dozens of victims who all have heart-shattering stories of shame, pain, and humiliation. He was able to gain access to children precisely because everybody trusted him. Let me also tell you about hundreds of other people who have shared similar stories with me as I listen to their painful stories. They all tell a similar story: “Nobody questioned my abuser because he was the guy everyone loved and trusted.”

The reason churches remain among the highest risk for sex offenses to occur is that, through denial, resistance, and victim-blaming we have created the perfect place for innocent people to get hurt. As the famed Dr. Anna Salter once told me, “Churches are such inviting targets.”

I have prayed and wept with survivors of abuse who have told me stories of not being believed, of being forced to publicly forgive their abuser while the abuser gets off without having to say a word. I’ve heard stories of adults still wetting the bed and attempting suicide. I’ve helped survivors battling drug and alcohol addictions and others who suffer from recurring nightmares, depression, and anxiety. I’ve wept as I listened to the trembling voices of survivors talk about how desperate they were for Jesus but were kicked out of churches for their “sinful” attitudes as they struggled to find a shred of self-worth. I’ve listened to pretty women who tell me how ugly they feel on the inside and others who cover up their scars with makeup each day.

I’ve heard others tell me how they will never trust in God again because his people have hurt them time and time again. And I’ve had church leaders mock me, ridicule my theology, and tell me that I am inflating numbers and shining light on a problem that doesn’t exist.

The Good News is that Jesus spent his entire ministry surrounded by both sinners and marginalized outcasts. He became indignant when his disciples kept children from coming to him. Jesus shielded an adulterous woman from rocks and spoke mercy and grace into her tender soul. Perhaps he knew what led her down her path of shame. I don’t know.

But what I do know is that we church leaders across the world need to repent and beg for your forgiveness. Our words, though, are empty without action. We will right the wrongs that are being inflicted upon survivors each and every day. We will welcome the broken and protect the innocent from abusers.

For those of you sitting here, and across the globe who have been treated poorly by church leaders, we’re sorry. For those of you who hated yourselves and were desperately looking for love and acceptance but didn’t receive it, we beg your forgiveness. To those of you who were forced to continue to be near your abuser and face him or her day after day, have mercy on us. For those of you who told your stories and were told not to ever tell anyone else, there are no words to make up for that injustice. God expects better from us.

We pastors vow to do a better job listening, believing, and protecting. We promise to listen to your hearts and walk beside you in your pain. We promise to strengthen the weak and heal the sick. We will bind up the injured and bring back the strays. We will seek the lost. In the words of our Savior, Jesus Christ, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Let’s march forward together in this spiritual war that’s being waged. Fellow soldiers of Christ, arise and fight! The devil may have won some battles, but I promise you that by the grace of God, he will not win this war! Amen

–Letter of apology to survivors by Jimmy Hinton

5 Things church leaders should do to treat the wounds of survivors

In my last post, I gave 5 reasons why church leaders don’t treat the wounds of abuse survivors. It’s one thing to continually point to the deficiencies of the church (which could go on forever!), but I like to instead offer tangible solutions. Really, God offers the solutions. We just have to put them into practice. That’s it. Jesus offered very real solutions to some very real problems. There are two things that will cause harm to people who turn to the church for help–inactivity and the wrong activity. I used a hospital metaphor the last time, so I’ll use it again here. We should be aware that there are some hospitals that are in decline. They will continue to fail until someone takes the lead and begins offering tangible solutions and actually follows through! The church is no different. We need to talk solutions and actually find people willing to lead the charge and make changes. If the church is really going to be a hospital for sinners and if we are serious about healing, then we must have a clear plan. Here are my top 5, in no particular order of significance.

#1 Leaders need to know that triage is essential for people who are hurting
Every emergency room has triage nurses. They are trained to assess and assign, and are the first point of contact when a patient comes in. They assess the degree of urgency the minute a patient comes through the door. Every single patient’s needs are assessed and from there they are assigned to the proper specialist at the proper time. Certain patients are given priority over others due to the severity of their illness or injury. There is good reason for this. I’ve been in full time ministry for nearly a decade and have rarely seen this done in the church. In fact, rather than assess and assign, we most often assume and avoid. We assume everyone either is in their happy place or they should be and we avoid the people with the deepest wounds. Even if desperate people are lucky enough to find someone who will listen to them, it could be days until a scheduled appointment takes place. This is unacceptable for people in crisis.

Jesus and his disciples assessed and assigned constantly. Think about it. When they fed 5,000, they didn’t just happen to find a group of thousands hanging out one day. No, the reason they crossed the Sea of Galilee was because so many people came and went that the disciples couldn’t even find time to eat (Mark 6:31). They crossed the sea to escape people and find a desolate place to rest and recover. According to Matthew, this was right after John the Baptist was murdered and Jesus wanted to get away. But the crowds figured out where they were going and beat them there by foot (Mark 6:33). Exhausted from sleep deprivation and hunger, they saw a crowd of thousands waiting on the shore. Jesus “had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd.” He taught them and fed them that same day. When Peter and John went to the Temple after Jesus ascended, a beggar who was lame from birth cried out to them. Peter stopped, looked intently at the man, and said three words that changed his life forever: “Look at us” (Acts 3:4). Probably for the first time ever, someone was intentional about making eye contact with this man. Many of you know the significance of what Peter did for this man by uttering these three words in that moment. They didn’t give him money that day. But they gave him something far more significant. Peter and John let him know that they saw him. And they healed him. Not everyone received this level of care, and not everyone was treated immediately. Jesus taught us how to triage–to assess and assign.

#2 Leaders need to use discernment
The seeker friendly movement, in my opinion, has removed discernment from church leaders who once upon a time had common sense. Suppose a woman comes into the hospital with severe bruises. An intoxicated man is beside her yelling and cursing at her. Trained staff know how to read signs and act accordingly and immediately. The woman is immediately shielded from the man, police are called, and she is prioritized for treatment. Every hospital has procedures for how to protect people from abusers. Rethink this scenario. The battered woman comes in and the nurse begins asking her, “What did you do to provoke him?” “You really need to forgive him if you’re going to find healing for these wounds.” The man says he is sorry, that it was all a big misunderstanding. He is now prioritized, brought back to a room, and nurses begin looking at the cuts on his knuckles. They hug him and say how wonderful it is that he apologized to his wife out in the waiting room. He displayed what the model patient should look like. He took the “high road” when his wife was yelling and screaming about how he’s to blame.

This sounds ridiculous but I’ve seen this scenario play out over and over and over again. All the hundreds of biblical references to protecting the oppressed, caring for the needy, and ferreting out the wolves in sheep’s clothing get tossed aside in the name of cheap grace. We proudly proclaim, “All are welcome. . . come as you are.” That’s fine, but where is the discernment in this process? Not all sins are equal. Nor is the treatment of people who commit the sins. Sometimes Jesus flipped tables and made whips of cords. Other times he talks about it being better for people to have massive rock tied around their necks and to be drowned in the depth of the sea compared to what’s in store for them. Still other times, he is defensive and compassionate to prostitutes who scrub his feet with tears and hair, women who are caught in the act of adultery, and Samaritans who have had five failed marriages. Why? Because Jesus showed us how to use discernment and know the difference between oppressors and the oppressed.

#3 Leaders need to sit on the ash heap with people
Spending time with friends in crisis is not something that can be outsourced. I don’t know of a church leader who has not outsourced a church member to a professional therapist. While it’s wise to know our limitations and expertise, this needs to stop being the catch all response for every person in crisis. Not every person needs or is willing to see a therapist. Many people have been badly burned by therapists and are coming to church leaders because they need someone who will just simply listen. Let the words resonate from Job. He literally lost everything. . . everything. Then he gets painful boils all over his body. Listen closely: “And he took a piece of broken pottery with which to scrape himself while he sat in the ashes” (Job 2:8). While he’s sitting on the ashen remains of what once was his successful life, his wife told him to curse God and die. When Job’s friends showed up, they didn’t recognize him. “And they sat with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw his suffering was very great” (Job 2:13).

His friends were great companions until they opened their mouths. When Job was on his ash heap, he didn’t need advice. He needed to feel the presence of his friends. He needed silence. We cannot sprinkle some encouraging Bible verses on people who are on their ash heap and expect them to feel better. When people are in the middle of their ash heap, they don’t need Bible verses. They need comforters. They need someone who has the wisdom and willingness to drop everything, drive over to their house, and check on them. And leaders need to be sensitive and accountable. They need to know when showing up alone is a bad idea.

#4 Leaders need to know when to prescribe home time
Jesus often sent people away to be with their families. Many people were called to follow him and others were sent home instead. To the woman caught in adultery, he said, “Go in peace.” To the demoniac named Legion who begged to follow Jesus, he said, “Go home to your friends and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you” (Mk. 5:19). He often prescribed time at home for hurting people. Home is where some people need to be for healing to take place. Jesus spent lots of time in people’s homes. He was teaching in a home when the paralytic was lowered through the roof. He prayed in people’s homes, ate in them, taught in them, worshiped in them, and often just sent people back home even when they wanted to follow him. I feel like we’re so focused on “getting people to church” that we’ve lost sight of the ones who need to be with their family in their own home. Time and time again I hear survivors explain how they are shamed for not going to church. Many were sexually abused in the church buildings. For some, setting foot inside triggers them in all kinds of ways. Others have been spiritually abused. To shame them into “coming to church” or to speak of their lack of faith or lack of commitment when they are not able to come into a church building stands counter to Jesus’ example he gave us.

#5 Leaders should seek to improve the world, not just the church
Church leaders can easily experience mission drift. Mission drift is when we no longer know what our mission (purpose) is as a church. It’s always troubled me when I see churches pump millions of dollars into a building that gets used a few hours a week, but don’t have much time or money for helping the needy. Some church leaders are obsessed with improving the local church to the point that they fail to see that it’s the world that needs improving. The church should lead the way in changing the way the wounded are cared for. I’ve asked local churches what they are doing to help victims of abuse in our community. The typical response is, “Don’t you know that we have different child services? That’s what they’re here for.” I’m working closely with one of those services and was told that I’m the only minister in town who has volunteered to work with them. We have a great relationship and we envision together what it will take to make the world a brighter place. That’s a conversation that I don’t want to have with just my church. We need to network and join hands with others who have a heart for caring and nurturing others who are hurting.

I’m calling other church leaders to move into action. It’s time we start offering success stories for the oppressed. They need to know that church is a safe community where people care for their neighbors.

5 Reasons church leaders don’t treat the wounds of abuse survivors

The church is the last place survivors of abuse want to come for help. As a minister, it pains me to write that. But it’s true. Imagine a hospital where ambulances whizzed past because the patients were better off not arriving at that particular hospital. I’ve spoken with hundreds of survivors and have read even more of their stories. Nearly all of their voices echo through the empty chambers of the church’s callous heart. I believe as Jesus did, that “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Matt. 9:12). And there are a lot of sick people, desperate for someone to believe them–to listen to their pain and to expect nothing in return. Alas, we’ve become terrible at sitting on the ash heap with people whose lives have burned down around them. To be honest, I get impatient and even angry with church leaders who do nothing to validate survivors of abuse. Worse yet, many of them are unknowingly abusing survivors all over again. Your faith isn’t “strong enough,” you keep “holding on to bitterness,” aren’t “willing to forgive.” You get the point. But why is it this way?

The more I travel, the more I realize that this isn’t a fringe group of churches. On the contrary, mistreatment of abuse survivors is the norm. As someone who, prior to turning in my own father for sex crimes against children, was completely oblivious to survivors, I offer five reasons why this is the case.

#1 Abuse and trauma are not even on the radar in our seminaries
Everyone I talk to says that they were never trained in seminary to handle cases of abuse. But the problem is much worse. Many seminaries are not even discussing abuse and trauma at all. Even worse, unless this has recently changed, there is zero screening to even get into seminary. Believe me when I say that many pedophiles are graduating from seminaries every year. I went to seminary for 4 years and I don’t recall ever talking about physical or sexual abuse in any of our classes. Rather, we were taught how to think–a skill that I am eternally grateful for but one that does nothing to awaken us to trauma. Church leaders are generally clueless when it comes to abuse. I was. It’s not that I didn’t have a heart for the abused. It’s just that I had no idea that so many people in our pews would be suffering in silence. Nor would I imagine that so many predators lead churches and sit in our pews. It wasn’t taught.

#2 We live behind the pulpit, not in the trenches of life
Let’s face it, Jesus tells us to lay our lives down for one another. The biggest threat most of us face is that the office air conditioner will quit. In all seriousness, most of the pain we ministers experience is the pain of disappointment and strained relationships. That becomes our focus. We don’t have a clue what it’s like to live in constant fear. Fear of being molested or raped. Fear of being beaten or shot. Nearly all of the survivors I’ve met are incredibly good at compartmentalizing their grief. What we see (and, frankly, what we want to see) are the smiles, good grades, and successful jobs. People who haven’t experienced trauma have a difficult time imagining that we are surrounded by a sea of friends and family who are struggling to make it through another day. As preachers, our weekly task is to dig deep into the Word and put a series of lessons and sermons together. Somewhere in the shuffle, we’ve forgotten that Jesus always preached in crowds out in the real world. His preaching was often interrupted with desperate cries for help. And he stopped everything to tend to the wounded.

#3 Our theology views wolves as the ones who need a hand and the oppressed as the ones who should “move on”
The number one question I get asked by churches after an abuser is outed is, “How do we surround this brother and help restore him back to the church?” Savannah Guthrie, after announcing Matt Lauer’s firing said, “I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear, dear, dear friend and he is beloved by many many people here.1 For the first year after my father’s arrest for molesting 23 prepubescent children, I lost count how many times I was asked, “How’s your dad doing?” I only recall one time where someone asked, “How are your father’s victims doing?” Our bad theology makes no distinction between the sinner who is tempted from the oppressor who takes pleasure in harming innocent people. Therefore, church leaders feel a need to “rescue the sinner,” as if they were just wrestling with some desire. Our bad theology doesn’t allow us to see that the Matt Lauers of the world are warped reprobates who are fully aware that they are harming their victims. They just don’t care. Yet leaders continue to dote over the abusers and either ignore or intimidate the abused.

#4 Because trauma is not personal to leaders, they don’t develop a desperation to intercede
To be honest, sometimes help can’t wait until the next elder’s meeting. I’ve personally met with some who needed their pain to be triaged and treated immediately. I’ve sat in offices as trembling women file protection from abuse orders against husbands who vow to murder them. I’ve patiently loved others as they enter drug rehab for the 3rd and 4th time. Trauma is horrible and people need someone who will listen in their darkest hours. And they need someone who knows how to respond. Saying that “I’m praying for you” is not enough. We need to weep with survivors. We need to believe them, to really hear them. And we need to intercede. It’s our job as leaders, whether we like it or not, to shield the abused from the abuser. What message does it send to victims when we surround the abuser with hugs and praise and talk about how “beloved” they were by so many?

#5 We church leaders are addicted to instant transformation
We’ve all seen the cardboard testimonies. On one side of the card there is a word or phrase for who the person was before Jesus transformed their life. On the other side is a word for phrase for who they’ve become after Jesus transformed them. Emotional music is played while a group of people are paraded across the church stage. It is a preacher’s fantasy lesson because transformations are powerful. This is not to knock cardboard testimonies. We should celebrate transformation and I’m happy that people do it in front of the church. But these instant testimonies are indicative of our poor theology. I often wonder how many people are agonizing over what in the world they would write on the back of their piece of cardboard. So many survivors are in process. And this frustrates church leaders. We want crave quick and powerful stories of radical transformation. Ironically, you know who offers just what the itching ears want to hear? That’s right, the abusers! Church leaders migrate to them because, how powerful a story is it for a man who once sexually abused children and has now found Jesus? The abusers know this about church leaders and they are playing them like the fiddles they often are. John says, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

In my next post I will offer solutions to my friends who are leading churches. This behavior is counter to the Gospel of Jesus and is doing nothing to help survivors find healing.

Three predictions for sexual abuse in the church for 2018

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I am no prophet who can predict the future, but I do pay attention to patterns. Patterns can be good predictors, and it’s my attention to patterns that has helped me develop some powerful insight into the mind of pedophiles. In my work with churches, I always pay attention to patterns–what are some universal responses to abuse, the most common questions, biggest concerns, etc. And I read and analyze news stories on abuse every day. So what are some of my predictions for how 2018 will play out?

#1 Churches will continue to be sympathetic to abusers
This is, by far, the biggest uphill battle that we will continue to face. The church has become a refuge for registered sex offenders. The dirty little secret is that I have yet to visit a church that doesn’t have at least one registered sex offender. This is no exaggeration. Sadly, the lay church members are rarely made aware by the leadership. This toxic pattern is driven by bad theology (no sin is worse than others) and is fueled by abusers building the ideal facade. When I train churches, I actively demonstrate techniques abusers use in churches to abuse kids. I used to get frustrated that, no matter how much or how convincingly I spoke, church leaders still believed that “keeping an eye” on the abuser was enough. It is not. Many of you survivors know how brazen your abusers were. Being in a public place is not a deterrent for them. At all. They will still molest children when others are within eyesight. So I shifted to demonstrations. Seeing is believing, so I demonstrate that we are not as perceptive as we think we are. Nevertheless, the vast majority of churches will continue to be swooned by dangerous child rapists in 2018.

#2 Child sex abuse will be a hot button topic
Ironically, many churches are talking about child sexual abuse and are coming out of of denial. Sadly, this is because it usually takes a personal experience to awaken us to the reality of abuse. I personally don’t believe that in most cases “silence is acceptance.” I was silent for years, until it happened in our church. I’ve always hated abuse. God knows, I turned my own father in. But I literally had no idea it was so common because I hadn’t been awakened to it. Many, many churches are being awakened to it because survivors are tired of living in silence while their abusers waltz their way through life, producing more and more victims. We are witnessing a radical cultural shift where churches have no choice but to address sexual abuse in all of its forms. Which leads me to #3.

#3 Survivors are outing their abusers like never before
This is the one that is most encouraging. Survivors are almost always made to believe that they are alone, that somehow the abuse was their fault, and that if they tell there will be major consequences. The Harvey Weinstein scandal opened the floodgates, flipped the script, and has activated an army of survivors who are ready to fight for justice. My opinion is that the Jerry Sandusky, Jared Fogle, Bill Cosby, and Anthony Weiner cases laid the foundation for survivors to become empowered. They were all high profile cases and the public was outraged as more and more details were released. When the Weinstein case broke, millions of brave survivors shouted, #MeToo! Just in the last 30 days, we’re seeing politicians, a host of Hollywood actors, news anchors, and comedians being outed as abusers, including names like Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Richard Dreyfuss, Steven Seagul, Sylvester Stalone, Al Franken and on and on it goes. Here is a partial list of recent accusations. And let’s not forget how public Corey Feldman has been, naming pedophiles by name and promising to out every Hollywood pedophile he knows. If you’re like me, you’ve not been able to keep up with the abuse scandals that broke in the past seven days. The list continues to grow, and will continue to do so in 2018. For the first time in a long time, abusers who go on to abuse run a very big risk that their closet skeletons will be brought out for the world to see.

Comment on some trends that you see.