Stop me if you've heard this before: A deeply religious man, beloved by his church/community, targets and grooms a young child for sexual abuse. The child tells an adult and they report it to the elders of the church. The church investigates the abuse and then sweeps it all under the rug. The deeply religious man is never reported to the police, the victim is blamed for seducing the man, and the man goes on to molest many other children, leaving a trail of scarred families in his wake.
Your first reaction, naturally, is to assume that I'm talking about a Catholic priest because we all know the Church has a long and sordid history of covering for sexual predators. But, as the title of the article probably clued you in, this is far from a problem with just the Catholic Church.
Kathryn Joyce of The Nation published an article last week detailing the cycle of abuse and cover up in conservative Christian communities:
This burgeoning crisis of abuse has received far less attention than the well-documented scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. That’s in part because the evangelical and fundamentalist world, unlike the Catholic hierarchy, is diverse and fractious, composed of thousands of far-flung denominations, ministries, parachurch groups, and missions like ABWE. Among Christian evangelicals, there is no central church authority to investigate, punish, or reform. Groups like ABWE answer only to themselves.
The scale of potential abuse is huge. Evangelical Protestants far outnumber Catholics in the United States, with more than 280,000 churches, religious schools, and affiliated organizations. In 2007, the three leading insurance companies that provide coverage for the majority of Protestant institutions said they received an average of 260 reports per year of child sexual abuse at the hands of church leaders and members. By contrast, the Catholic Church was reporting 228 “credible accusations” per year.
Why do the most pious always seem to be the most prone to this kind of problem? Two reasons come to mind. The first is that they tend to be incredibly authoritarian. Conservatives defer to those in power and conservative Christians even more so. Add to that mix the fundamentalist demand for blind obedience and you have all the ingredients for disaster:
Like Catholics, fundamentalists preach strict obedience to religious authority. Sex is not only prohibited outside of marriage, but rarely discussed. These overlapping dynamics of silence and submission make conservative Christians a ripe target for sexual predators. As one convicted child abuser tells clinical psychologist Anna Salter in her book Predators: Pedophiles, Rapists, and Other Sex Offenders, “Church people are easy to fool.”
In other words, the religion itself does not breed sexual predators but some variations of it create the most fertile ground for them to flourish. Like any other predator, they gravitate to bountiful and safe hunting grounds. Despite my own hostility towards religion as a militant atheist, I feel it's important to make this distinction because all too often, people equate the religion with the crime which is not really fair. On the other hand, it's perfectly reasonable, responsible even, to point out that it's the "conservative" part of "conservative Christianity" that lends itself most to creating those hunting ground which is why you don't see this kind of abuse proliferating in more liberal institutions:
Over the past five years, in fact, it has become increasingly clear—even to some conservative Christians—that fundamentalist churches face a widespread epidemic of sexual abuse and institutional denial that could ultimately involve more victims than the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. In 2012, an investigation at Bob Jones University, known as the “fortress of fundamentalism,” revealed that the school had systematically covered up allegations of sexual assault and counseled victims to forgive their attackers. Sovereign Grace, a network of “neo-Calvinist” churches, has been facing multiple allegations of child molestation and sexual abuse. In 2014, a New Republic investigation found that school officials at Patrick Henry College, a popular destination for Christian homeschoolers, had routinely responded to rape and harassment claims by treating perpetrators with impunity, discouraging women from going to the police, and blaming them for dressing immodestly.
Despite the sexual abuse of women and the sexual abuse of children coming from very different kinds of darkness, the way these religious organizations respond is almost identical and that is not a coincidence. The reputation of the institution or group or even one man is considered far more important than the harm being inflicted on the victims. Justice is not even a consideration, especially when it's a woman that was "asking for it." At that point, it's not really a crime. If you think that's repulsive, these pious men can even convince themselves that little girls were asking for it, too.
In Joyce's article, she recounts how Russel Ebersole and Russell Lloyd, two of the higher ups in the Association of Baptists for World Evangelicalism (ABWE), investigated claims by a 13-year-old girl named Kim that she had been molested by a respected member of the community. It did not go well for Kim:
As Kim struggled to answer their questions, the Russes became convinced that she was telling them the truth about Ketcham touching her. What they couldn’t believe, given fundamentalist precepts about the nature of sex and women, was that she was an innocent party. “It was lust in its most base form, uncontrolled in the body of a spiritually immature woman,” Lloyd wrote of the 13-year-old in his diary. Ketcham, he wrote, had become Kim’s “secret lover.”
The Russes “strongly encouraged” Kim to sign a statement, styled as a confession, in which she apologized for her role in a “relationship” that “transgressed God’s word.” She didn’t understand much of it, but she signed it anyway. “I did exactly what I was told,” she says.
Think about how warped and sick your worldview needs to be that you can consider a 13-year-old to be an equal partner in a sexual relationship with a 58-year-old man. Now think about how broken it would have to be to cover up the abuse and allow the man to continue molesting children for the next two decades. Now you have some tiny understanding of how twisted the mind of a Christian fundamentalist can be.
The worst part about all of this is that it doesn't have to be this way. If religious leaders would go after sexual predators with both barrels blazing (metaphorically), they would be applauded for protecting their flock. Even I would go to the mat defending a church that exposed a predator as quickly as possible and helped bring the full weight of the law to bear. It's nigh-impossible to weed them out before they hurt someone (unless they have a prior history, of course) but that's true everywhere, not just for religious institutions. It's not the crime that defines your institution but how you respond to it. So far, conservative Christians desperate to protect their reputations have succeeded only in covering themselves in shame and putting the lie to their claims of virtue.
Kim's story doesn't have a happy ending. Yet. Following 22 years of self harm and deep psychological damage, the full story came out in an extensive investigation. After years of being lied to by their church, Kim's parents didn't understand why their daughter was so damaged. Even Kim still blamed herself for the actions of a monster as well as her parents for not helping her. Now that it's all out in the open and Kim finally understands that she was a victim like so many other women, there's a chance for her and her family to heal. If only all of the victims of conservative Christianity were so lucky...