Mission Lab

Moving forward: Sexual assault and the church

October 16th, 2018 / By: Bonnie Pritchett | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

Moving forward: Sexual assault and the church

During the ERLC national conference Oct. 11-13 in Grapevine a panel discussion on sexual abuse and assault included (second from left) ERLC's Trillia Newbell, Kimberlee Norris and Gregory Love of Ministry Safe and author Jen Wilkin. Photo by Karen Race

Almost 20 years ago, a husband and wife missionary team serving in Mexico made the rounds of their sponsor churches in Texas. They reported on their work. They took up an offering. And, before leaving one church, the husband took a child’s innocence.

Alyssa Morgan was about 10 years old then. She didn’t tell a soul.

Christians intuitively understand churches should be safe places, particularly for children and women, who seem most susceptible to sexual predation in a fallen world. But, paradoxically, because Christians believe that should be the reality, they act as if it is and then fail to act on behalf of the vulnerable or advocate for the wounded. That was the contention of experts and lay leaders during an Oct. 12 Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission panel discussion on sexual assault and the church.

In the wake of very public, high-profile accusations of sexual assault, sexual harassment or rape, Christian women with similar stories have found their voice, told their stories and hold onto hope that the church will redeem the situation.

“There are more women who have experienced this—and men, and children—then you would even imagine. So we need to take away the shock, remember we live in a terribly broken world and be prepared to hear these hard stories,” said Trillia Newbell, ERLC director of community outreach, during the panel discussion on sexual abuse and assault at the ERLC national conference Oct. 11-13 in Grapevine.

While the event’s theme, “The Cross-Shaped Family,” dominated discussions, the topic of sexual violence and how it impacts the family and church flowed naturally from those conversations. Newbell’s fellow panelists included author Jen Wilkin and the co-founders of Ministry Safe, Kimberlee Norris and her husband George Love. The company equips churches with safeguards for preventing child sexual abuse.

Citing a Lifeway study, Baptist Press reported Sept. 18, “One in eight Protestant senior pastors say a church staff member has sexually harassed a member of the congregation at some point in the church's history. One in six pastors say a staff member has been harassed in a church setting. Two-thirds of pastors say domestic or sexual violence occurs in the lives of people in their congregation.”

If only two-thirds of senior pastors believe child sexual abuse is an issue in their congregations, “they are seriously misled,” Norris said. She believes child sexual abuse has left no church unscathed.

Stories like Morgan’s are ubiquitous.

Three years after the assault, Morgan confided in a friend. That friend’s mom discovered the secret and told Morgan’s parents, who reported it to their church. Support for the missionaries ended as rumors of another assault surfaced, Morgan told the TEXAN.

The adults never contacted the authorities but the perpetrator’s wife pressured him to call Morgan and apologize—a moment then-15-year-old Morgan found “really hard.”

Sexual assault, harassment and rape are not only sins, they are crimes. Reporting laws vary by state but Texas requires every adult to report suspected child abuse. Yet too many churches try to handle abuse and harassment in-house, believing “a Bible and the Holy Spirit is what they need” to rectify the situation, Wilkins said.

“I don’t mean to diminish the importance of the Bible and the Holy Spirit,” she said. “But just by virtue of being ordained in ministry doesn’t mean that you know how to handle every situation.”

Pastors should be prepared to direct people to professionals who can help. Often those resources are sitting in the pews.

Morgan and her co-workers Kimberly Fisk and Jessica Russo at Embrace Grace often hear stories of abuse from the women with unplanned pregnancies they are helping. The international ministry connects women to churches trained to give the emotional, physical and spiritual support the women need.

Redeeming the #MeToo moment must come from the church, Julie and James Turner told the TEXAN. The Grapevine residents are members at MacArthur Boulevard Baptist Church in Irving.

Julie Turner empathizes with the cultural anger of the moment. Sexual harassment forced her to leave a previous job she had enjoyed. But repercussions from unresolved cultural anger concerns her and her husband, James, as they raise their 3-year-old son and 18-month-old daughter.

How do they raise godly children in such an environment? Could their son lose a job at the mere accusation of sexual impropriety? Will society tell their daughter that all men are sexual predators and she is a victim?

Resolving conflicting narratives is essential to redeeming the process, the Turners said. Some Christians too easily dismiss the #MeToo movement as a “feminist” crusade capitalizing on “unbiblical” attitudes toward men.

“It’s [become] man versus woman and that can’t be,” she said.

Christian men shocked by the extent of the problem have had enough time to process it and must partner with women in finding solutions, James said. Having women in visible, respected leadership roles within the church, with the exception of pastor, is paramount, according to conference participants who spoke with the TEXAN and the panelists.

Morgan’s story exemplifies how victims of sexual assault say they want to be treated, especially in the church. Morgan’s parents wept with her after discovering the secret their teenage daughter had buried for years. Wanting to respect her privacy, the family told only a select few of the small church’s leadership.

In a perfect scenario the assault would have been reported to the police. But Morgan’s knowing that her parents believed her and hurt for her mattered.

“It definitely makes me feel 'backed.' Like there are people on my team,” she said. “I think even when it was revealed, when I was 15 or 16 years old, that I had peace in my heart that the Lord had my back. I did not have to worry about justice; I could trust Him with that.”

Editors note: Bonnie Pritchett randomly selected five people to discuss how the church must address sexual assault in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Of those five, one had been molested as a child at church, one had been sexually harassed at work, two others knew women who had been abused.