Evangelicals have a sexual predator problem. Josh Duggar is the most recent Evangelical superstar to be exposed, but his case is not an isolated one. Duggar’s case is getting national attention because he is a celebrity. Other sexual predators like Jeffry Forrest, an Evangelical youth pastor sentenced to 99 years for molesting boys, or Pastor George Swain, who was indicted, arraigned and held on $225K bail for child rape charges, barely make the local news.
Why are Evangelical churches a breeding ground for sexual predators? The answer: it’s the Evangelical church culture. Let me give a few reasons why I think Evangelical church culture has become the accomplice to the crimes of sexual predators.
Churches Are Natural Hunting Grounds
A famous apocryphal story told about infamous bank robber Willie Sutton is when reporter Mitch Ohnstad asked why he robbed banks. Sutton replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” Why do churches attract so many sexual predators? That’s where the victims are. Children’s ministries and Youth groups are especially vulnerable.
Children’s ministries are often staffed with unqualified volunteers whose main job is to babysit children while the parents are in church. The volunteers are rarely screened. Anyone volunteering to help out in children’s ministry is assumed to be a good person because they are willing to sacrifice their time and energy to serve.
Youth ministries provide a place for church parents to drop off their teenagers under questionable, unscreened, volunteer supervision. I remember teaching Sunday School; our youth room was on the second floor of the classroom building. During the Sunday School hour, I could watch the teens come upstairs to the classroom and watch, through the upstairs window, the adults drive out of the parking lot for their all-adult gabfest at the local bagel shop. Add to that, many teens in youth ministry who come to the mid-week activities or large-scale events have parents who don’t attend the church. Parents assume that allowing their kids to go to church is safer than allowing them to hang out in a mall, arcade, or street corner. No one seems to ask the important question: who is watching my kids?
Churches Fear Exposure
Evangelical churches live inside an alternate reality. The outside world is evil and corrupt, and the only safe place is inside the church. Send your kids to the church-run school. We can protect them from Pre-K through High School. Evangelical churches like to believe that they are different from the corrupt world. Part of their allure is providing a safe harbor from society’s evil. When you are at church, you don’t have to worry about pornography, sex, gays, or predators.
Safe harbor is, of course, an illusion. I know many Elders, Deacons, and Pastors with pornography addictions and sexual kinks that would cause a dominatrix to blush. When a leader is accused of inappropriate sexual behavior, the church leadership will circle the wagons to protect the church’s image.
I’ve witnessed victim-blaming. “She’s a troubled kid, she’s probably making up the story because. . .” I’ve seen whitewashing, “I think it was just a misunderstanding, Pastor is just very gregarious and doesn’t mind showing his affection for people.” Former Pastor and now de-converted Christian, Bruce Gerencser describes one cover-up technique used by churches to protect the safe harbor illusion. He calls it the “Hyles’ Rule” The “Hyles’ Rule” is simple: If you didn’t see it, it didn’t happen. If there are no witnesses, you must assume the victim is lying. After all, the accused is a MAN OF GOD!
Churches cover up for sexual predators to protect their image. They involve themselves in a conspiracy of deception to keep an illusion intact. I find it strange that Evangelicals who hold truth near and dear can’t admit to the truth of their predator problem.
If you are unfamiliar with the term sin flattening, it’s a common dodge to excuse horrific behavior. Should we fire Pastor because he was caught in a compromising position with a fifteen-year-old girl? Well, we are ALL Sinners, and if it were not for the blood of Jesus, we would all be going to hell. Romans 3:23 says, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” What just happened is sin flattening. When you lied to your Auntie Grizelda about your work schedule to avoid her annual lutefisk party, you are just as guilty as Josh Duggar, who had child pornography depicting children as young as eighteen months. Sin flattening is the magic wand that waves away the serious consequences of rape, molestation, and child pornography. This pernicious teaching that all sins are equal in the sight of God provides cover for predators in the church. It ignores the serious consequences of the action on the life of the victim. If I cheat at Candyland by stacking the deck, that in no way impacts the life of a child, like raping them.
Evangelical churches may claim all sins are equal, but ask the congregants if this is true. Women who are divorced are treated harsher than men. Members of the LGBTQ+ community will be banned from serving in ministry, but the hardcore BDSM porn addict gets his sin flattened.
Predators in power positions use forgiveness as part of their playbook to continue devouring the sheep. Jim Bakker, Ted Haggard, and Ernest Angley, along with a host of non-celebrity church leaders, have all proclaimed that God has forgiven them and given them the green light to keep on ministering. Forgiveness, for a predator, is misrepresented as “It never happened.”
There may be minimal accountability, such as counseling or an accountability group, but these are scams. Christian counseling and accountability groups are facades that make it look like the church is dealing with issues that they want quickly swept under the rug. Going to counseling or setting up an accountability group prevents church members and outsiders from holding the predator responsible for their actions. Don’t ask what consequences the molester is facing; the church is handling it.
Forgiveness is only a prayer away for the predator and is demanded from the victim. In my years of ministry, I’ve heard horror stories of how church leaders demanded that victims “forgive” their abusers and reconcile with them. Forced forgiveness is the equivalent of handing a hungry wolf one of the sheep.
Several years ago, when my church was in the middle of a Pastor search, one applicant failed the background screening. He was a registered sex offender. We informed him that he was eliminated as a candidate. He went directly to the predator’s playbook, “God has forgiven me, and by holding that against me, you are sinning by being unforgiving.”
The unfortunate truth is that forgiveness in Evangelical church culture is really just a lack of accountability and boundaries. It is a cover-up that says everything is OK and move along people, nothing to see here. By offering this twisted form of forgiveness and demanding victims offer it, Evangelicals perpetuate the cycle of abuse.
Evangelicals love the Patriarchy. To maintain the Patriarchy, churches preach that men and women have different but complementary roles and responsibilities in marriage, family life, and religious leadership. The MAN is the head of the house. The Woman must submit to her husband’s authority. Children must submit to their parents, and especially to the father. Throw in some purity culture, where a daughter belongs to the father until he gives her away, and women and children become an object to be possessed by the man. A man’s family becomes his possession, and since he is the head of the household, he can do what he wants with them. This movement from equal to object gives him the rationalization needed to act on his predatory impulses. If he gets caught, his authority demands silence and even further acquiescence.
Sex Education and Sexual Sin
Evangelicals love them some abstinence-only education. Couple that with purity culture, and you have a recipe for sexual exploitation. Rather than safeguarding our children and teens with education about acquaintance rape and how most molestation happens with someone the child/teen knows, we teach them about “Stanger Danger.” We warn them about the creepy old man hiding in the bushes or the bathroom, but not the children’s minister who does puppet shows. Sexual sin is preached frequently and loudly from the pulpit and in the youth groups; so, if a child or teen is raped or molested, they often feel it is their fault and have sinned
Consider a teen boy being molested by his youth pastor; the predator may have sensed the young man questioning his own sexuality and take advantage of this vulnerable youth. The Evangelical churchs’ teachings on human sexuality are based on a twisted interpretation of a handful of Bible passages describing ancient concepts of sexuality instead of a modern and more accurate understanding. Having heard almost weekly that gays are immoral, degenerate, vile, sub-humans, this young man will never admit to the molestation because he would have to admit to having gay sex. Even if that sex was forced on him. Sad to say, even if the young man did report, victim-blaming would immediately follow.
What To do?
Predators like Josh Duggar, who admitted to molesting his younger siblings, are allowed to have high profile “ministries” because the Evangelical church refuses to confront their sexual predator problem. My dear Fundagelicals, it’s time for you to stop worrying about the culture war. The enemy isn’t outside your gate; it’s inside. Churches are a hunting ground for predators, and we need to admit it. Here are three things I suggest that would reduce sex abuse in the church.
Every Pastor, deacon, elder, and volunteer should have a background check. When someone is in charge of our most vulnerable, a background check needs to be done. The church should budget to pay for these and make the arrangements for them to happen. At the bare minimum, the sex offender’s registry should be checked. (For California residents such as myself use the Meagan’s Law website) Too often, churches, in desperate need of volunteers, rush new attendees or whatever warm body they can find to fill positions in children’s and youth ministry. It is far better to have no children’s or youth ministry than to have a predator using your church as a hunting ground.
Any inappropriate sexual contact between a leader and a congregant, especially a child or teen, ends their leadership position. Yes, we forgive you. However, there are boundaries. If someone tells you that you are unforgiving because you remove them from a position of trust, RED FLAG!!!!!! You got a predator on your hands, and you are being manipulated.
Don’t Fear the Truth.
No more internal discipline from the church. Predators count on this. The guilty person should be reported immediately to the police for investigation. Churches are not equipped to investigate. The police and Child Protective Services are. Are you afraid of how it might make the church look? What’s wrong with looking like a church that takes this issue seriously and deals with it seriously? If the illusion of being a safe harbor in the land of happy, holy people is more important to you than the safety of our children, shut your door, please. Stop sin flattening. Yes, we are all sinners, but some sinners destroy lives.
These are just a few thoughts from a former fundie. I’d love to hear yours.
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