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:
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