John 3:16. According to the popular Bible app YouVersion, that timeless verse ranked #2 for the most searched verse in 2018. And according to Christian Post, of the top ten trending Bible searches on Google in early 2018, John 3:16 ranked #3, Forgiveness at #8, and Love #10. It only takes a quick glance at my inbox to realize that survivors of abuse know all too well that church leaders have fully embraced a theology of love and forgiveness–at any cost. And these leaders demand forgiveness for abusers, including themselves. This poor theology has eroded God’s foundation of justice and righteousness (Psalm 89:14) and replaced it with a laid back Jesus who is carefree and embraces all equally (unless you are a victim of oppression, of course).
I’ve not taken the time to count the number of e-mails and private messages I received over the past few years from survivors who were rebuked by church leaders, but my best guess is that I have gotten at least a couple hundred. So what are they rebuked or thrown out of the church for? The answer is that they’re not forgiving or loving enough of their abusers–that Jesus was a free spirited, kind model of turning the other cheek no matter what. The irony is not lost on me that the church leaders who rally around real abusive criminals–men and women who habitually strike, humiliate, rape, or verbally assault their victims–are the same leaders who bar the victims of these crimes from coming to church for speaking up about their abuse.
I’ve written before that the number one question I get asked by church leaders who know of an abusive person in their congregation is, “How do we surround this ‘brother’ and encourage him to continue to be a part of the church body?”. Bad theology leads to bad practices. I’ve been saying this for years.
Last January, Rachael Denhollander was interviewed for Christianity Today by Morgan Lee for a piece titled, “My Larry Nassar Testimony Went Viral. But There’s More to the Gospel Than Forgiveness.” The article was a response to the religious community’s gushing over Rachael’s one liner about forgiveness. They chose to focus on the forgiveness aspect even though, in her 37 minute testimony, she mostly spoke about God’s justice and the need to repent. In the interview, Rachael rightly said that “the church is one of the worst places to go for help.” Rachael also rightly pinpoints the problem of bad theology leading to bad practices:
One of the dynamics that you see in a Christian church that is particularly devastating is poor theology. The reason that most institutional cover-ups happen in the church is not simple institutional protectionism. When you’re dealing with something like MSU or USA Gymnastics, they’ve got medals and money and their institutional reputation on the line.
You have that dynamic with evangelical churches where you have the reputation on the line and the perceived reputation of the gospel of Christ. But often, if not always, people are motivated by poor theology and a poor understanding of grace and repentance and that causes them to handle sexual assault in a way where that a lot of predators go unchecked, often for decades. When you see a theological commitment to handling sexual assault inappropriately, you have the least hope of ever changing it.
So was Jesus really all warm and fuzzy towards all people or did justice demand a more protective approach for the abused? John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus Christ, could have introduced him a billion different ways. John could have spoken about love, peace, acceptance. . . anything! Instead, listen to John’s introduction of the Messiah. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV). He continues: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. . . he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (vs. 10-12).
Now that’s an introduction to Jesus! When is the last time any of you heard Jesus introduced this way to anyone ever? John’s message was inseparably rooted in God’s foundation of righteousness and justice. John’s message was good news to the oppressed and offensive news to the religious leaders who were oppressing their victims. Yet today we have invented a false Jesus who welcomes the abusers and shuns the abused.
Lest you feel that I’ve left the reservation, let’s listen to Jesus himself. He constantly and consistently warned people of the religious frauds. “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. . . A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15, 17-20 ESV). Notice that false prophets are just that-people who are prophesying but who are frauds. Jesus doesn’t tell his followers to give them a second chance, to give them food or water, to clothe them, or to turn the other cheek. For the class of fraudulent, abusive leaders Jesus says to beware. Warn others. Nowhere is there a hint of extending grace and forgiveness (and certainly not fellowship or a platform to keep preaching!) to these abusive wolves. Why? Because they are ravenous. They are bad trees who produce bad fruit. They don’t change because they don’t want to change.
To be clear, Jesus isn’t talking about sinful people who have fallen into a trap. He’s talking about false prophets who willfully, intentionally, and habitually deceive others in order to abuse them for their own selfish gain. These are religious leaders who know better. They are people who have been tasked with guarding the flock but instead are preying on them.
Again, the irony is that the soft Jesus we’ve created has produced a sea of oppressed people who have either fled unsafe churches or they’ve been banned from them. At the same time, abusive leaders have grown in power and influence with the full protection and blessing of their fellow leaders. The reason I write and speak about this so much is not to prove I’m right and others are wrong. The real reason is to plead with my fellow church leaders to have an ounce of humility and to revisit the scriptures with a heightened awareness that their bad theology is ruining the very lives of the people Jesus came to rescue.
We need to do better. I will shout this from the rooftops. We need to teach better. We need to study better. We need to pray better. And, most importantly, we need to pray for the wisdom to discern who the ravenous wolves are and take action to remove them while protecting those who are like sheep without a shepherd.
Hillsong Church, known across the globe for its worship music, has been in the spotlight recently. To be honest, I never knew much about Hillsong until 60 Minutes Australia did a special on Frank Houston’s victim, Brett Sengstock, on November 18th. What really caught my interest was that, like me, Brian Houston learned of allegations of abuse against his own father, a pastor who was preaching at the time Brian Houston heard the allegations. I reported my father, a former preacher, to the police. Brian Houston did not report his. I wanted to learn more about this story that keeps making waves across the world because the world is watching those of us in church leadership. How we respond to allegations of abuse matters. It especially matters to victims and their families.
I watched the 60 Minutes story on Brian Houston’s response and also read “Hillsong’s legal response to misleading statements by 60 Minutes.” I found it interesting that Hillsong wasted no time in releasing a statement defending the institution and its founder by correcting statements made in the 60 Minutes episode that aired three days prior. To Brian Houston’s credit, he has spoken in public interviews in the past regarding his father and his story has not changed much. Brian did not, for whatever reason, interview with 60 Minutes and I think he missed an important opportunity to express his sorrow for his father’s victims and to take ownership of his mishandling of his father’s abuse allegations.
It is troubling to me that the church attorneys are so defensive of Brian’s response to the allegations when the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse paints a less flattering picture of how those events unfolded.
Brian Houston did not report the matter to police in 1999 when he was informed that his father had produced a victim in the late 60s/early 70s
Neither did Pastor Taylor, who first was made aware of the abuse in 1998 by the victim’s mother. Though, to Barbara Taylor’s credit, she worked incredibly hard to get other leaders to respond to the allegations. Nor did evangelist Mudford report, or Pastor McMartin, who was at the time a member of the New South Whales State Executive, or Pastor Alcorn, a member of the National Executive who was called by Pastor McMartin for advice on the matter, or George Aghajanian, the Business Manager of Hills Christian Life Centre who personally told Brian about the allegations against his father.
In fact, on December 22nd of 1999, Brian Houston called a Special Executive Meeting of the Assemblies of God in Australia where 8 were present, including the National Secretary of the Assemblies of God in Australia. None of those present made a report to police. Furthermore, the minutes from that meeting state: “the Assemblies of God in Australia movement would not be notified of the disciplinary action” (against Frank Houston)
In 2000, Frank Houston met with his victim “AHA” (identified now as Brett Sengstock) at a McDonald’s and wrote a figure of $10,000 on a napkin for Brett to sign. Brian Houston mailed the check to Brett in an envelope only containing the signed check and no correspondence. This was because Brett had contacted Brian to say that his father never sent the money he had promised. Brian did not report the payment to anyone within the Assemblies of God and claimed in a public statement in 2014 to Hillsong Church, “There have been reports of money being paid to the victim. Again for clarification, this was between my father and the victim. It had nothing to do with me or Hillsong church.”
Brian, who was the national president of the Assemblies of God in Australia, revoked his dad’s credentials for preaching but never removed him from the church, as far as I can tell. In fact, according to the report Brian and his dad continued to have weekly meetings where they discussed ministry together
Hillsong released a statement in 2015 in response to the Royal Commission report. They said, “The perpetrator, Frank Houston, was immediately removed from ministry by Pastor Brian and church leadership and never ministered in the church again, ensuring no child was placed in danger. He is now deceased.” The reality is that, by not reporting him to police, by not removing him from the church altogether, and by having conversations about restoring Frank back to ministry, they placed every child in danger. The Royal Commission states, “The minutes also record that Mr. Frank Houston would be invited the ‘Assemblies of God [in Australia] restoration program.” This program was a rehabilitation program designed to restore pastors who had been removed back into the ministry. Fortunately, Pastor Ainge said at that meeting that Frank would not be approved because the “Administration Manual prohibited rehabilitation of paedophiles.”
Though Frank Houston repeatedly raped AHA and multiple other victims, he only “confessed” to one instance of fondling AHA to his son Brian. Pastor Taylor wrote in minutes from their November 28th, 1999 meeting concerning this “confession,” “Frank Houston had confessed to a lesser incident than the truthful one but it was further than I had been able to get.” Though they all knew Frank minimized the abuse to one petty incident of fondling to which Pastor Taylor said, “I did not and do not believe,” nobody ever questioned Frank any further, reported him to police, or made him stand before the church to be publicly held accountable for his crimes
Even though Brian testified that he was aware in 2000 of 6 additional victims in New Zealand, Frank was still permitted to “retire” from his church in Australia with “a simple statement concerning Frank’s retirement” that was made while he and his wife were on vacation in New Zealand in January 2001. He was paid a retirement package, “which included financial support for him and his wife.” The Royal Commission concluded: “Despite having knowledge that Mr. Frank Houston admitted to sexually abusing AHA, the National Executive allowed Mr. Frank Houston to publicly resign, without damage to his reputation or the reputation of Hillsong Church.”
I could fill many more bullet points. I walked a similar path as Brian Houston when an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor was brought to my attention by one of my father’s victims. As a minister who has walked this path, I struggle to make sense of how the allegations of Frank Houston were handled. Brian testified in 2014 that Brett was 35 or 36 years old when the abuse was discovered, that he was in a brittle state, and that he did not want Brian to report for fear of his story going public. Hillsong Church brought themselves to a new low in their 2015 statement by saying, “The victim was a 36 year old adult when this abuse became known and could have taken the matter to police himself at any time.”
What Brian and Hillsong attorneys omit in their public statements is that the very next month after Brian found out about his father, Pastor Barbara Taylor wrote Brian a letter stating that Brett (AHA) was “so very, very soft” and that “there was a complete change in attitude. . . He wanted to know if I had told you he was thinking of legal proceedings.”
Why, given this new information, did Brian not report? Why make the argument that the victim was in a brittle state and why pay him a sum of $10,000 the following year when you knew he was thinking of legal proceedings? Brett specifically wanted Pastor Taylor to let Brian know that he was ready for legal proceedings, which meant Brett was willing to talk to whomever he needed to seek justice and bring about closure.
It’s important to note that the victim of my father who disclosed to me was not a child. She was an adult in a brittle state and I never expected her to report her own abuser. Furthermore, I too had victims who came forward just days after the first victim disclosed to me and begged me not to report my father, their abuser. It was too late. I wasted no time in reporting it to the police. But that wouldn’t have changed my decision to report anyway. When my father was arrested, those same victims thanked me for standing firm and reporting. When it comes to the sexual abuse and exploitation of minor children, we ministers can’t play judge and jury. Sexual abuse of a minor was a criminal offense in 1999 in Australia and it is still a criminal offense today. We ministers can’t pick and choose which crimes we wish to report, no matter who the offender is.
Brian Houston frequently talks about the day he found out as “being the worst day of my life.” I can’t be critical on that point. I don’t think Brian is exaggerating and I believe him to be sincere on this point. The day I found out I was floored. Devastated doesn’t even come close to how I felt. Brian rightly talks about how difficult it was to navigate as a pastor, a father, as the leader of a church, and having to confront his own father. But what I felt on July 29, 2011 and what Brian felt in October of 1999 pales in comparison to what our fathers’ victims experienced time after time after time when they were raped and humiliated. Nor does it compare to what they still experience each and every day of their lives today. When Brian and I found out our fathers were abusers on the worst day of our lives we both still had an obligation and a mandate to report to the police.
I really don’t doubt that Brian struggled, and is still struggling today with what his father did. Our lives are never the same after finding out our heroes are guilty of such heinous crimes. But I just can’t understand why Brian failed to report to the police. A thousand pages couldn’t contain all the thoughts that went through my head when I was sitting in the police station with my mother making a report about my father. Even still, failing to report never entered my mind. Obviously for Brian it did. In the December 1999 meeting, the minutes state that Brian “said he had spoken to a barrister who had told him that if it goes to court his father would surely be incarcerated for the crime.” I didn’t have to speak to an attorney to know the implications of my reporting my father. In fact, I didn’t have time to consult with an attorney before I reported. My father was incarcerated a few short weeks after I reported him. He will spend the rest of his days on earth behind bars. That doesn’t bring me joy, but neither was the reality of his incarceration a reason for me to keep the information I had from police.
For the life of me I can’t comprehend why Brian and the other leadership misled the church about Frank’s “retirement,” or why he was given a financial retirement reward for his crimes when he earned prison time instead. Nor can I understand why all the other people who were in the know besides for Brian failed to report to police. I don’t get why they had a conversation about restoring Frank to the church just days after Brian was made aware of the allegations. Or why Hillsong keeps putting up these horrific statements defending the church instead of expressing their brokenness on behalf of the victims. A better statement would express their sorrow over all that has been lost for the victims and would apologize for the mistakes that were made in the way leadership in 1999 handled the allegations. They should share in the pain, anger, and frustration of Franks victims, including Brett. But instead their attorneys released a statement with bullet points of all the “misleading statements” of the 60 Minutes episode.
In the end, I think it’s important for churches to know that how you respond to abuse allegations matters. It matters to survivors. It matters to police. It matters to the church as a whole. Brian Houston is learning that past failures are today’s problems. We’re never going to get everything completely right. There are too many variables and our judgment is clouded by the shock of knowing the abuser is someone we love and respect. But this is a case where not much went right at all. Brian Houston and Hillsong Church have to be willing to admit that. They have a very bright spotlight on them right now. They can either choose to humbly admit their failures and fully side with the victims or they can keep releasing their defensive media statements that make it sound as if there weren’t any bad decisions that were made.
I honestly want to see them take the right steps. For the sake of victims everywhere. And for the sake of Christ and his church.
*Feature image courtesy of CC BY-SA 3.0, via Creative Commons license, some rights reserved.
Pedophile abusers are not intimidated by church policies or accountability partners and will not refrain from abusing kids simply because a handful of people are “keeping an eye” on them. When they are in the church, they are primed for abuse and will strike again. Churches have made a fatal theological mistake by not calling wolves by the proper name and this, in my opinion, is a leading reason why churches continue to be one of the most dangerous places for our youth. Churches mistakenly accept wolves as if they were sheep and give them exactly what they seek to devour. The Bible rightly distinguishes wolves from sheep because wolves are inherently intent on feasting on their prey. A wolf does not get better–he or she gets smarter. Wolves do not convert into sheep. They are, by nature, predators and predators blend in to the flock of prey exceptionally well.
Peter says, “They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their deceptions, while they feast with you” (2 Peter 2:13 ESV). Peter never has a nice, forgiving, or accommodating word for them. Never does he talk about reconciliation; never does he refer to these false preachers as “brothers.” Quite the opposite. Peter says, “What the true proverb says has happened to them: ‘The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire'” (2 Peter 2:22).
What about Paul? Is he any softer in his approach? Not even close! Paul says that they are “reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:4, 5). In the very next sentence Paul says that they “creep into households” and capture weak (vulnerable) women who are “burdened with sins and led astray by various passions.” Importantly, Paul doesn’t prescribe religious community to bring these impostors to repentance or to hold them accountable. Instead he warns Timothy and recommends Christians in the Ephesian church avoid them! Why? Because, according to Paul, “evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived” (2 Timothy 3:13).
Surely Jesus, who died for mankind and told people to love their enemies and turn the other cheek, has more compassion on abusers who masquerade as righteous people? Jesus himself sternly warned, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruit. . . A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15, 18-20).
I find it extremely relevant that Jesus never asks us to pray for, encourage, heal, or embrace the false prophet who masquerades as a child of light. In fact, no author of the Bible does. Rather, we find a trove of passages throughout the Bible–passages that have been conveniently ignored or glossed over–which tell us to warn others about oppressive, abusive, and deceptive people. Why should we warn and not encourage? Because impostors have evil intentions, they love to revel in the daytime, they are fueled by deception, and they will always go from bad to worse.
After my own dad was exposed as an abuser, I had to deconstruct all the twisted theology I’d been taught my whole life. It takes an incredible amount of humility and honesty to admit that much of what we thought we knew about God could be flawed. But I wanted to know what God had to say about evil in light of his justice and, particularly, what he says about deception. The vast majority of churches I’ve come into contact with re-frame deception as “stumbling,” “getting caught up in sin,” etc. and argue that the Bible implores us to embrace all sinners and reintegrate them into the fold. The sheer irony is that seldom is this same principle applied to victims of child sexual abuse (or abuse of any kind). Clearly we need more accurate training in our seminaries.
I have studied pedophiles and their deception techniques a lot. Actually, that’s an understatement. I’ve lived and breathed it for the past seven years. The more I observe, the more I realize that the Bible speaks with precision when it comes to deception and that impostors, unlike other sinners, are always calculated, intentional, and purposely intend to intimidate and inflict harm on innocent victims. Impostors really do revel in the daytime. They thrive on the adrenaline rush they get from oppressing the innocent and vulnerable. They love using religious speak and sound very convincing. And they always go on from bad to worse. I’ve waded through thousands of pages of documents and have spoken with hundreds of people trying to grasp the gravity of it all. I’ve asked pointed questions of pedophile offenders and the people who work beside them in prisons.
And one thing that keeps capturing my attention is this: Abusers get a rush from getting caught abusing victims in plain sight. Some of you may know that my expertise is in deception and abuse in plain sight. I’ve written many posts about this and now collaborate with neuroscientists Dr. Stephen Macknik and Dr. Susana Martinez-Conde. Their data on visual illusions and what they’ve coined “sleights of mind” is earth-shattering, in my opinion. Their research on deception has opened up a whole new world for me and helped me unlock a host of ideas and concepts that were long floating around in my head. It’s well known that many abusers (possibly the majority of abusers) intentionally abuse their victims in plain sight of others. What’s not as well known is that they consciously use sophisticated techniques that they practice in order to hack belief systems and hold the adults’ spotlight of attention. Just like close up magic, these techniques are used to keep adults blind to the abuse that’s happening right in front of them.
But there is an additional thrill that comes when they are caught. Several years ago, when discussing specific techniques used to abuse victims in plain sight of adults, my dad had this to say about getting caught:
“If it all comes out, how would you prove any of this? So nothing happens except the pedophile is now emboldened to explore more brazen abuses and win the acceptance/trust and secrecy of the child.”
I think the world was shocked in January when many victims and their parents described how Dr. Larry Nassar would digitally penetrate and massage the bare breasts of his victims as he was casually talking with the parents who were in the same room. The Bible says this type of impostor who revels in the daylight will go on from bad to worse. He had everyone fooled in spite of the many times he was reported. Nassar is an important case study because he is exactly the type of abuser that churches long to embrace. He masterfully fakes remorse and his abuse techniques are common to most abusers. His demeanor is kind, grandfatherly, and respectful. He convincingly appeared to be broken over the uncovering of his sins at Judge Aquilina’s sentencing. But I wasn’t buying his facade for a second. I know that abusers like Larry Nassar thrive on abuse in plain sight. I also believed that Nassar was like the typical abuser my dad described in countless letters to me from prison. So I did some research.
I discovered that Nassar was in fact caught many times. And each time he was caught, with the exception of the final interrogation in 2016, Larry Nassar responded exactly how my dad described abusers in his letter–it only emboldened him to explore more brazen abuses and win the acceptance/secrecy of the child. The following is a case-in-point with a victim named in a suit as Jane C. Doe. Nassar had a medical assistant in the room who asked him where his hand was as he was digitally penetrating his victim. It did not deter Nassar in the least. In fact, he dismissed the assistant from the room and continued to penetrate his victim:
Over the years, several little girls reported that Nassar had touched them in a way that was not right. It made them very uncomfortable, caused physical pain, and even urinary tract infections. One victim, named Larissa Boyce, told coach Kathie Klages about the abuse. Klages, who was later indicted herself, brushed it off and told Larissa that she was mistaken, that Larry was a “good friend.” If you believe, like I once believed, that a little girl reporting to another coach would make an abuser like Nassar nervous, you would be wrong. The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire. Evil people and impostors go on from bad to worse. Here is what happened the next time Larissa was sent back to Larry Nassar for “treatment” after reporting to Klages:
The next time she went to visit Larry, he closed the door, pulled up a stool, sat down, and looked at her. “So,” he said, “I talked to Kathie.”
The abuse continued. Many argue that I’m unfair to abusers “who have a past” and that once they spent time in prison we have no business “airing their dirty laundry” to the church. But I’ve waded through hundreds of pages of documents just on Larry Nassar alone. He did this over and over again, victim after helpless victim. When he suspected or knew that a victim told on him, the abuse always intensified and progressed to more blatant techniques in front of their parents. This is not unique to Larry Nassar. It’s what abusers do. There’s a thrill of the hunt, but there’s a bigger thrill of getting caught and talking their way out of it.
This is why I will never recommend a church create limited contact agreements (aka “accountability covenants”) for convicted pedophiles who were released from prison. Never assume that prison somehow transformed them, or broke them down, or that they are not skilled enough to find a way to abuse a child right in front of your eyes.
When I watched the Nassar sentencing live, I cheered Judge Aquilina on when she read part of Nassar’s letter. Nassar had just read his statement to his victims and he said that hearing his victims “has shaken me to my core.” Again, I wasn’t buying it, and neither was Judge Aquilina. I’ve seen this dog-and-pony act that abusers give to churches when they are released from prison. They are incredibly convincing with their words, body posture, and crocodile tears. Yet the Bible demands that we beware. God’s word tells us that deceivers and impostors are waterless mists, born for destruction, and they revel in the daytime while they feast with you.
After Nassar’s apology to his victims, Judge Aquilina read part of Nassar’s letter that he wrote a couple months prior. She said, “The reason I’m going to do that (read parts of the letter) is because I’ve considered it in sentencing as an extension of your apology, and whether I believe it or not.” Nassar berated the Attorney General, the Federal Judge, Judge Aquilina, and even the victims when he claimed “what I did in the state cases was all medical, not sexual. . . The media convinced them (victims) that everything I did was wrong and bad. They feel I broke their trust. Hell hath no fury like a woman’s scorn.”
In a recent interview with TODAY, Hoda Kotb asked Judge Aquilina, “Do you think it registered to him that he did something wrong?” Judge Aquilina immediately answered, “No. That’s why there’s the meme of me tossing the letter. I tossed it because there’s a bunch of junk in there and the primary problem I have with the letter is that he still thinks he’s a doctor and he still thinks he was performing medical (treatment).”
I beg church leaders to study this. Read the court dockets. Listen to Nassar’s victims as they recount the trauma and pain. Listen to Nassar’s lame apology, and listen to the letter he wrote a couple months prior. Then ask yourself if you think he’s remorseful now that he’s in prison, if he’s haunted by what he has done to hundreds, if not thousands of victims. Remember that Nassar learned that one of his victims committed suicide and he heard another victim, Kyle Stephens, describe how she lost her father to suicide because of the abuse.
Nassar was not remorseful on the day of sentencing and he is not remorseful now. In fact, he already appealed his sentence three times since January! This is what wolves do. Nassar appealed. Sandusky appealed. Jared Fogle appealed. Bill Cosby appealed. My own father appealed just two weeks ago. Pick any abuser. They are entitled. They believe the system is rigged and they will do whatever it takes to get out of prison so they can go back into our churches where they will be embraced and protected. I will say it till I’m blue in the face–keeping an eye on abusers is not effective. If abusers can full on molest victims in front of trained medical staff, be questioned on it, and return to abusing the same victim seconds later, believe when I say that an accountability covenant won’t deter them. Extra windows on doors won’t deter them. We need to realize that abusers are wolves, and our theology of warning and protecting others needs to match it.
I strongly believe that we need to focus our attention on learning and understanding specific techniques abusers use to abuse their victims in plain sight. These wolves are banking on our ignorance. They expect to be able to talk themselves out of it because most of us would never believe that someone could molest a child within inches of us without our seeing it. It sounds absurd. And the abusers know it.
It’s important to note that what finally made Nassar crumble was when Rachael Denhollander, one of Nassar’s victims, took the time to study Nassar’s abusive techniques juxtaposed with proper pelvic floor treatment. Though she didn’t necessarily study the techniques Nassar used to keep her mother blind to the abuse, she was thorough in her research of pelvic floor techniques. She did her homework and armed the police with enough information that they could begin, for the first time ever, to poke holes in Nassar’s explanation of his fake methodology. Rachael said:
“And I brought with me to those reports, my medical records showing that Larry had never charted penetrative techniques. I brought medical records from a nurse practitioner documenting my graphic disclosure of abuse way back in 2004. “I had my journals showing the mental anguish I had been in since the assault, a catalog of national and international medical journal articles showing what real pelvic floor treatment looks like. I brought a letter from a neighboring district attorney vouching for my character and truthfulness and urging detectives to take my case seriously.”
If we are going to ever stand a chance of detecting deception, we must begin with studying it. Another important step is to have a proper theology where we name wolves and warn congregations that they are near. The Bible instructs us to warn others and to avoid wolves, not because it is archaic and judgmental. Rather, the Bible expects us to tap into wisdom and to use discernment so that we can recognize when impostors have crept in among us. Children will never stand a chance if we fail to identify wolves and keep them at bay.
“Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you” (Ps. 89:14 ESV)
If we get the foundation wrong, everything we build upon it will crumble. God’s foundation is righteousness and justice. Yet inevitably any time I post about holding abusers accountable, someone (usually a preacher) throws in a jab about whether I believe in forgiveness and redemption and completely ignores the righteousness and justice of God. To be clear–I believe fully in forgiveness and redemption. I also believe that the Bible is clear when it comes to God’s righteousness and justice. To forgive an unrepentant wolf cheapens grace, places many at risk, and makes a mockery of God’s justice.
I asked my congregation Sunday how many of them have ever heard that forgiveness is for their own sake and not for their abuser or the person who sinned against them. Nearly every hand went up. Then I asked how many of them actually experienced increased anxiety and ongoing inner turmoil as a result of putting that principle into practice. All but 3 or 4 hands went up. Let me say that again. All but 3 or 4 hands went up. We blindly tell people that forgiving the person who wronged them is for the victim’s own sake (a concept that I have yet to find in the Holy scriptures) and that they must forgive their abuser even if the abuser is unrepentant. Ironically, at least in my own congregation, that instead created confusion and actually increased their level of anxiety.
Several things caught my attention with this story. For one, Longaker takes no responsibility and instead accuses Kelly of attempting to “destroy him”.Here is an excerpt from an e-mail to Dee at The Wartburg Watch: “Since this is not the first time that Kelly has tried to destroy me by contacting different people in my church, there are many people who are aware of my past and have accepted me.” Furthermore, while saying he “paid the price,” Longaker never admits to any wrongdoing. I got the impression that the price he feels he paid was for what Kelly did to “destroy” him and not for his own wickedness. In fact, he said, “My fear is that my denial of the accusations is just going to stir up the #metoo people all the more.” It’s worth noting that, in addition to Kelly, two more victims have now spoken up about their abuse. Longaker would allegedly rub his erect penis on one of the victims and digitally penetrate her while working at a Christian book store. This happened over a period of a year after his release from prison! This happened, according to one victim, during a time period where his Parole Officer was stopping up at work to check in with him.
But what really caught my attention was Mr. Longaker’s horrifying response in that e-mail just a few weeks ago to Dee Parsons:
“Even if I did all the horrible things that Kelly said I did, I’ve been forgiven.”
When people ask me, “What about forgiveness?” I ask them, “What about justice?” It’s tempting for Christians to assume it’s their Christian duty to believe abusers like Longaker really are innocent, or remorseful, or repentant. Or that a victim remembered events differently than they really happened. Or that it was all a big fat misunderstanding. Or that an abuser served their time and is now fit for ministry or the church. And I always urge people to look at records. SO many churches balk at this idea and deem it “unfair” when I explain that this should be standard procedure with sexual predators of minor children. Looking at records is not about “digging up the past.” It’s about using discernment to see if the abuser is being honest with you today. A repentant person has no secrets about their past. Is Longaker really suffering from a case of a madwoman who falsely accused him? See for yourself what Longaker admitted to and compare it with his statements today:
When I saw Longaker’s delusional response about forgiveness, my heart skipped a beat for Kelly. It skipped because this is what victims are told everywhere. They can’t escape it. Their counselors tell them they must forgive their abuser in order to heal. Their pastors tell them they must forgive or they won’t be forgiven by God. Heck, their own abusers tell them that they need to forgive them. Their family and friends–everywhere victims turn they hear that they must forgive or there is something wrong with them, that they are “holding on to bitterness.” Take the high road. Forgive or you can’t heal. At some point, victims begin believing it. And the abusers know it. Then they make statements like the one Longaker made just a few short weeks ago–Even if I did all the horrible things that Kelly said I did, I’ve been forgiven.
Make no mistake, this message was for Kelly. What Longaker meant was, Nobody will believe you, Kelly. All these years have passed and you won’t let it go. You don’t know how to forgive, and now the world knows it.
Kelly was kind enough to speak with me this week and I wanted to ask how that horrible comment about forgiveness by her abuser affected her. Here was Kelly’s response:
“It unhinged me. The whole forgiveness thing has me so confused and distorted. I’ve been told that I need to forgive my abuser and myself. What am I forgiving myself for? I was 14. It makes me feel responsible when I hear that. . . The forgiveness thing has been thrown in my face a million times. It’s easy to tell someone to forgive their abuser when they’ve not been abused by him. By forgiving him I feel like I’m enabling him.”
God agrees. Part of the problem is that we confuse (un)forgiveness with bitterness. They are not the same thing. You can withhold forgiveness yet release bitterness towards a person. Forgiveness releases the debt (from sin) that someone has accumulated. If a bank forgives your debt, you no longer need to attempt payment. Why in the world would one banker forgive the bank robber who is still robbing other banks? The Bible doesn’t direct us to extend forgiveness to unrepentant wolves. In fact, Paul is very clear on this, as in the case of the man having sex with his own mother in the Corinthian church: “Let him who has done this be removed from among you. . . you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh” (1 Cor. 5:2, 5 ESV). Paul doesn’t tell the mother and the church to forgive this man. To the contrary–he implores them to remove him from the church and hand him over to Satan! And why should they hand him over to Satan? “So that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (vs. 5).
What’s interesting is that this man who was shamed actually repented as a result of the church alienating him! Only after he repented did Paul urge them to forgive him and receive him back. Paul said, “For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him” (2 Cor. 2:6-8). Paul urges the church to remove the unrepentant sinner, hand him over to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, then expresses the success from a “punishment by the majority.”
What happens when we teach the unbiblical concept of unconditional forgiveness? Exactly what Kelly describes. We enable the abuser to keep abusing and we shame his victims in the process. I asked Kelly what was the most hurtful thing that she read from her abuser. After describing to me the relentless insults and threats she’s receiving from Longaker’s faithful followers, Kelly said, “When he said, ‘She’s tried to destroy my life.’ That was the hardest thing for me. My life has been destroyed by his abuse. He’s still abusing me with the support and help of his church.”
This is a far cry from what Paul prescribed in Corinth. We release people from the debt they owe us when they make attempts to pay back their debt. For most of us who have insurmountable debt, it can never be repaid. That’s why mercy and grace are so beautiful. Paul is a prime example. Paul could never pay back what he owed. And he didn’t receive mercy just because. Rather, “I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly and in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 1:13, 14).
Acting in ignorance and unbelief is a far cry from acting with intention and deceit.
We need to expose liars and predators who are unrepentant as well as the churches that rally around them. Shame on Mr. Longaker for accusing Kelly of “destroying him.” Shame on him for not owning up to his sins, both past and present. Shame on him for creating more victims after his release from prison and for worming his way back into ministry where he himself claims to be counseling sexual abuse victims today. And shame on Fellowship Bible Church for receiving a wolf and shaming their wolf’s victim. To quote Fellowship Bible Church elder Don Wood when NOQ Report reporter Paige Rogers called: “Tell Kelly to stop the nonsense. Okay? Goodbye. And don’t call again. Otherwise, I’ll report you.”
Well Mr. Longaker, you may believe you’ve been forgiven but I, for one, will not join the chorus of voices who demand Kelly forgive you. You have some soul searching to do. Your church itself needs to repent and hand you over to Satan so that your spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord. They are enablers of the worst kind.
I asked Kelly what she would like to see happen as a result of her abuser being exposed. Here is her beautiful response:
“I want people to not be blinded to just trusting everyone who walks through the church doors. I couldn’t go to church Sunday. This brings up so many emotions. Parents need to wake up to the fact that many in the pulpit don’t have your best interest in mind. This is because we are taught to be a forgiving people. These people are responsible for relationships. Don’t walk around with your head in the mud. The church will do what the church will do. But we need to know that churches aren’t safe. Stop leaving your kids to the wolves. Just because the pastor says it’s safe doesn’t mean you accept it blindly. Even if my abuser is not leaving his church, I just want parents to have an awareness.”
Churches who replace justice for cheapened forgiveness are cracking the foundation of God’s righteousness and justice. Let’s do a better job of holding sinful people accountable.
To be honest, I’ve been exhausted, sad, and angry since the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report was made public on August 14th. I’ve read the 887 page report. Every word of it. I’ve also had a growing number of messages from church members across the United States asking for help because their church leaders are covering up abuse. There have been nearly twenty different people from twenty different churches reach out to me since the release of the Grand Jury Report. All of these cases involve registered sex offenders who attend church with the full protection and blessing of the leaders.
Not only have these church leaders failed to inform their congregations, but in most cases, the registered sex offenders were volunteering at their churches. Some are teaching Bible classes and leading small groups. Others are leading the singing in worship. In a couple cases the abusers are volunteering with children. In every case, leaders were asked if they were aware that a registered sex offender was at their church. Not only did all of them know, but the members who brought it to their attention were lectured or threatened. Several of these members have since left their churches after these horrific exchanges with their leaders.
I personally contacted one congregation because I pulled up the offender’s record and quickly found out that he is a very dangerous predator of the worst degree. He doubled as a minister and youth minister and was raping 14-15 year old girls in his youth group. He molested five victims that police are aware of. He humiliated his victims and taunted them as he was raping them. His new church, which boasts a membership of over 1,000, intentionally continues to keep it quiet. The child rapist was recently released from prison and has made this large church his new home. I was assured that the elders are “keeping an eye on him.” Unfortunately, none of the parents of the hundreds of children in that church can help their elders keep an eye on this sexually violent predator because they don’t know that he is one.
What these churches are doing is reprehensible and is no different than what the Catholic church does when they pass pedophile abusers from parish to parish. Actually, what these churches are doing is worse! In the Grand Jury Report, none of the abusers had convictions since they were not reported to law enforcement. There were credible allegations, but no actual convictions where they were tried in a court of law. In the cases that came my way over the past few weeks, all of the offenders either pleaded guilty or were found guilty by a jury. In other words, we are positive that they are child sexual abusers. And the churches still can’t bring themselves to simply inform their congregants that they have registered sex offenders sitting in the pews and leading their Bible classes. I’ve read the correspondence between members and their leaders. The leaders believe it’s “unfair” to publicly call out someone’s sin that happened in the past. Much of the phrasing in the messages I receive are verbatim what was written by Bishops that can be found throughout the Grand Jury report.
The introduction to the PA Grand Jury Report states:
“We are going to name their (abusers’) names, and describe what they did – both the sex offenders and those who concealed them. We are going to shine a light on their conduct, because that is what the victims deserve.”
How is it that a group of 23 grand jurors gets it yet shepherds who are charged with protecting their flocks don’t? They’d rather see concerned members and their entire families leave their church than the molesters who’ve tortured their young victims. When these molesters are up front leading Bible studies, praying, leading worship, small groups, or even sitting in the pews, the leaders have given members every reason to believe that these men are trustworthy, upright, and safe people. Pedophiles, like the rest of us, make friends at church. Friends hang out in each others’ homes. It’s what we do. How in the world can these elders who are “keeping an eye” on the offenders possibly do so when the offenders are in and out of other members’ homes? It’s impossible.
If any church leaders are reading this, I beg you to take a different approach. Please, please pick up the phone and call an expert for help. Know that sexual predators almost never have just one victim. Spending time in prison does not make them stop. Making them sign a covenant doesn’t make them accountable. It only empowers them. Pedophiles are among the most sophisticated criminals. They are incredibly gifted at pulling the wool over our eyes. They are exceptional at hiding their abuse. Your failure to inform your church of known child predators makes you every bit as responsible as the Bishops who are named in the Grand Jury Report. I beg you to please inform your churches when you know you have a convicted sexual predator in your church. Parents can do what they want to protect their own children, but at least give them a fighting chance.
If you feel like I’m being over dramatic, I assure you that this is based on scriptures, experience, research, and conversations I’ve personally had with hundreds of survivors. I make my final plea by urging you to listen to the voices of survivors themselves. When I read the report, there was one abuser in particular who caught my attention and made me incredibly upset at what he had done. Five of his victims, who were written about in the report, chose to speak out publicly. My mother and I had the honor this week of meeting two of the five Fortney sisters. They are asking their friends to share the following video. Please listen to every word and reconsider when you think it’s “unfair” to inform your churches of child sexual abusers:
Since #MeToo and #ChurchToo have taken off, more and more abusers are being outed. Many of those abusers are in positions of power at their churches. The most recent story is with Willow Creek Community Church. Just this week Steve Carter resigned, followed by lead pastor Heather Larson and the entire board of elders. To say that the elders handled this whole process poorly from the beginning is an understatement. They radically defended founder Bill Hybels from the first allegations, which did unspeakable damage to victims everywhere. Frankly, abuse victims are fed up with churches that continually miss opportunities to side with the oppressed and instead choose to publicly defend and support the oppressors. Survivors, both Christian and not, were watching and waiting, hoping Willow Creek would get this right. Willow Creek failed and millions of survivors felt the sting all over again. Elder Missy Rasmussen issued an overdue apology this week to the brave survivors who came forward, stating in part, “We have no reason to not believe any of you. We are sorry that our initial statements were so insensitive, defensive and reflexively protective of Bill.”
This post is not meant to critique the church’s initial and subsequent poor responses that led to all these resignations. There are a number of reasons why well-intended churches keep getting their response wrong time and time again. Nor is this post meant to gloat and say, “we told you so” when we see an entire leadership crumble like it did this week. There are no wins when churches get it wrong. When churches fail, survivors are hurt. Victims who are currently being abused are invalidated, pushed further into the margins, and are almost guaranteed not to speak up for fear of being shamed or not believed. And, tragically, genuine defenders of justice like Steve Carter and Heather Larson step down when they are exactly the ones who survivors need to stay. I really just want to humbly share my experience seven years ago as a new minister who had to report an unlikely abuser in my church–my own father. I did’t get everything right, but my decision to put my pride aside and listen to the voice of the victim who sat across from my desk was vital for her healing and for the protection of many more victims.
It was a sunny July Friday in 2011 and I was only 2 short years into my role as a full time minister when I got the call asking if I could meet with a young woman whom I deeply respect and admire. She handed me a piece of paper and broke down in tears. I was holding in my hands a piece of paper that described her abuse at the hands of my father from when she was just a young child. That single piece of paper changed the course of my life forever. I have always had a very close relationship with my father. In fact, he preached at the same church I’m at for 27 years. I went into ministry because of his example. We’ve officiated weddings together, talked for hours at a time about the church, shared ideas about reaching out to our community, and I’ve always had the utmost respect for him. Make no mistake, based on who I thought my father was up the point of that Friday meeting, her allegations came as a shocking and devastating blow. Never had I suspected my own flesh and blood–my childhood hero–of molesting very young children.
Yet there I sat with a sobbing victim and a piece of paper with clear allegations of abuse. My entire life flashed in an instant. He was the man who held my mother’s hand when I was born. He was the man who taught me about God and life. He was the one who encouraged me when everyone else told me I was stupid for going into ministry. He taught me how to drive and brought me to take my exam. Twice. He was the one who gently informed me when one of my best friends was in an accident and passed away. Everything I knew about the man was good and I could have easily chosen to believe that she was mistaken and he was innocent. But I couldn’t ignore her cries and she had no reason to make up false allegations of that magnitude. I remember attempting to gain my composure. I took a deep breath, looked her in the eye, and said, “I believe you. I have no idea what any of this is going to look like. But one thing I know for sure–it stops now.”
There was nothing inside of me that wanted to believe, though. Believing meant that I had to report my own father to the police. It meant that there was a strong possibility that there would be more victims in my church. It meant that the innocent, happy days of ministering to a joyful, innocent church were short lived. It meant that there would be a possibility of my dad spending the rest of his life in prison. The questions without answers were endless. Hope seemed like an ambiguous fairy tale. The fear of what awaited my family and my church was crippling. I was grasping to know who my real father was. I was angry at my God for not protecting his little children. I had every emotion known to man hit me in a span of about ten minutes. It’s impossible to put into adequate words what was going on inside my mind and body at that moment.
An hour after receiving the worst news of my life, I was at a wedding rehearsal for one of our church members whose wedding I was officiating. I felt like I’d been swept along by a tsunami only to emerge into a parallel universe where people were celebrating the happiest day of their life. The next day I struggled through the wedding, which my dad attended. The following day I preached to my congregation, which my dad also attended. The next day my mom and I were in the police station reporting my father. It probably sounds strange, but at the time I felt like a Judas. As dumb as it sounds now, there was a part of me then that felt like somehow I was ruining his life. I wanted so badly to wake up and find out that it had all been a dream. But each new morning brought with it the reality that this was in fact more of a living nightmare.
My religious tribe does not have a governing body like most denominations. Each church is autonomous in its leadership structure. Because my congregation was small, we had no elders or deacons at the time so I really didn’t have any other leaders to share this burden with. I was the only person in an official leadership position. My wife and I had endless conversations about who we would tell and when. We found out quickly that he’d confessed to many victims and the worst was yet to come. My dad, not knowing I was the one who turned him in, told me the names of his victims a few days before his arrest. Several of them were young children from my church. In a feeble attempt to step into the shoes of the families, my wife and I decided that, if it was our child, we would want to hear about it from our minister before the police knocked on our door. I happened to be their minister and the abuser happened to be my own father. My wife and I made the short drive to their house and, through tears and audible gasps for breath, I told them that their children had been molested by my father.
It was a few weeks later until he was arrested. Every agonizing day that passed meant we were one day closer to announcing to my church that their former minister, my father, was being arrested for molesting dozens of children. It was a Friday when the detective called me. The call was short, to the point, and she graciously gave me the call as a courtesy: “Jimmy, we have your dad in custody. It will be in the papers Monday and the story won’t be nice. Now is the time to tell your church. Protect your family the best you can. I’m so sorry.”
My wife and I prepared a written statement that I would read to my church that Sunday. Though I did not save that letter, I remember the content fairly well.
Dear brothers and sisters,
This weekend my dad was arrested for molesting dozens of children. Initially a victim disclosed to me and my mom and I made a police report. He has since confessed to molesting dozens of children over a span of several decades. We are working with police to ensure we are certain who all of his victims are. I know what every parent is asking right now and I beg you all not to speculate or gossip for the sake of his victims. If you have any questions, please talk to me or the police directly. There is no question that is off limits to ask me at this point. I may not have answers to those questions immediately, but I will do my very best to find out. This has been a devastating blow to this church and my family. I’m so sorry for the pain that my father has caused us all. I promise to continue to minister to this congregation as long as I am able, but I ask for your patience and grace as we wade through this. I also ask that we all work together as a family to bring healing to those who’ve been injured and to figure this out so that it never happens again.
Were it not for my incredible wife, my mom, family members, and a few close friends who offered advice and support from the very beginning, things would have turned out differently. I spent countless hours weeping, praying, and seeking advice from the people closest to me. I never shut people out or acted as if I could turn a few Bible pages to get a clear answer for how to handle these allegations. Church leaders, hear me loud and clear–when allegations of abuse arise seek outside help. Seek the wisdom from people who have it. Don’t rally around the accused because you are friends with him or her and you think you know them well. Don’t minimize the allegations even if they don’t sound very serious at the time. Unlike seven years ago, there are invaluable resources out there today. There is no excuse not to seek outside help from people who specialize in cases of sexual or physical abuse. There are resources out there. Find them and don’t be stingy with your time or financial resources when it comes to getting help.
There are several of us who offer specialized consulting. Sometimes you may have to seek an independent investigation. Never investigate abuse internally. Know mandated reporting laws. Be prepared to go against the rest of your leadership group. They may decide not to report a case of abuse or to tell the church about an abusive person. If you’re mandated to report, report it anyway regardless of whether the rest of the leaders want you to or not. If it means you will lose your position or job, be prepared to lose it. I once responded to a minister who did not want to report his “very best friend” for fear of losing his job: “Jesus tells us to lay down our lives for one another. You’re not even willing to lay down your job.” Until we have people who stand up and do the right thing no matter the personal cost, the cesspool of abuse will continue in the church and the devil will win. Take it from someone who’s been there–reporting someone you love is terrible. There is no glamour in protecting the innocent from wolves. It’s not fun and it’s certainly not easy.
But when we do, we honor Christ and his church. We give a voice back to those whose voices have been stolen. When we stand up for the innocent and vulnerable we demonstrate that abuse won’t be tolerated and we pave the way for healing. We now have elders at my congregation who take abuse very seriously. We’ve made radical changes, have worked to train our members, and have a solid protection policy in place.
I close with this story that is one of the most powerful moments since this all happened, and one that makes all of my efforts to speak up worth it. I conducted a local training on abuse a few years ago and the father of some of my dad’s young victims came as a speaker. I showed up early to get things set up and the father arrived with his children whom I’d never met–a group of young sisters who were all victims of my father. He introduced me to them this way: “Kids, this is Jimmy. . . . (long pause and deep breath). . . Hinton. This is the man who stopped his dad from doing all those horrible things to you.”
They all looked up at me, came over, and hugged me. The oldest daughter, through tears, looked up at me and said, “Thank you.” Those two words are words that I cherish and will hold close to my heart until I die. Fellow leaders, we won’t get everything right. None of us ever do. But we need to be humble and honest with ourselves and others. When we don’t know the best avenue for handling allegations of abuse, we better pick up the phone and call someone who does.