Sexual Abuse in the Church: What Role Does Forgiveness Play?
Dr. Chris Dorn
Last month the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) issued a report titled “Caring Well.” It addresses the sexual abuse crisis in the Southern Baptist churches and institutions that comprise the SBC. For those already familiar with the ongoing revelations of clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, there is nothing new to discover here: the shocking number of cases, the attempts at cover up, the releasing of leaders to move from one church to the next to harm others, the protecting of the institution at the expense of the victims—all tell a distressingly similar story.
How the SBC proposes in this report to handle the crisis is to prevent its recurrence. This means, among other things, instructing members of the churches in how to recognize signs, personal safety training for youth, thorough vetting of candidates for positions of ministry within the churches, maintaining “open door” policies at all times, and establishing guidelines for transportation to and from church events.
All these goals are commendable, but absent from the proposal is an extended consideration of the role of forgiveness. This is rather ironic, because through the centuries and around the world Christians confess their faith in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, in which is contained the formula: “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” But what do Christians mean when they recite this formula? How has it happened that forgiveness has apparently become so devalued, so meaningless that it receives little or no mention in a report such as this one?
No doubt the answer in large part lies in how the practice has been abused. In the churches leaders and even parents bring pressure to bear on the victims of sexual abuse to forgive their attackers. After all, is not forgiveness consistent with the teachings of Jesus? What would Jesus have them do? But far from achieving anything positive, this pressure succeeds only in re- victimizing the injured parties as well as presenting a barrier to the attempt to understand forgiveness.
Consider an act of sexual violence against an adolescent boy. How is it that this act can often prove to be so traumatic? It is an act in which a stronger agent overpowers a weaker one, subjecting him to something to which he does not consent, in which he does not willingly participate.
It is an outrage that church leaders trivialize this act by concerning themselves first and above all with the protection of the institution, the public face of the church. This act is life-altering. Trust has been shattered. The adolescent finds it difficult if not impossible to trust again. Severe behavioral problems are likely to plague him throughout his life.
The betrayal of trust is often cited as the root of these problems. But on closer analysis there is perhaps something even more fundamental. Consider that the adolescent boy is beginning to exercise his agency. If at this vulnerable stage in his development he discovers that he cannot resist a stronger agent, who uses his superior power to violate him, the boy’s trust in the effectiveness of his own agency is deeply wounded. He is humiliated. He appears to himself and then to others as weak-willed, ineffectual, or passive. He is likely to find it hard to exercise his agency throughout his life, lacking the confidence that any action he initiates will accomplish its goal.
In short, the attacker has deprived the adolescent boy of his agency. To pressure the boy to ex- tend forgiveness to his attacker is absurd, because this assumes a restored agency. To be in a place where it is possible for him to extend forgiveness assumes a prior transition from helplessness to power, from weakness to strength.
So how does the boy recover his agency? In fact, it is the attacker himself who holds the key. In acknowledging his offense against the boy, the attacker presents himself as one who stands in need of what only the boy can give him. In effect, he cedes to the boy the power to extend or withhold forgiveness. He thereby places the boy in a position in which to recover his agency.
The face to face meeting between attacker and victim can be profoundly healing. As the German theologian Geiko Mueller Fahrenholz observes, when forgiveness happens, there is a mutuality of defenseless openness that enables each to recognize in the other a human being in need of help. Forgiving is an exchange of pain. The result is a deepened understanding of oneself and the other.
Now it may be objected that this face to face meeting seldom happens. The attacker prefers to live in denial, rationalize his act, play it down, or blame others. He does not acknowledge what he has done, and therefore never approaches his victim to ask for forgiveness. Sadly, this is true. That is why it is said of the attacker that he wounds his victim twice: once in the act of violence and again in the refusal to acknowledge the hurt he has caused a fellow human being.
If the attacker is unrepentant, is the victim obligated to forgive him? It is a controversial question. Most will say that forgiving does not depend on the repentance of the attacker. The act should be undertaken in the heart regardless of the attitude of the attacker because it releases the victim from anger and the desire for revenge, which erodes psychological and physical health. But if forgiving has in view the goal of repairing the bond of humanity that necessarily unites victim and attacker, then it is hard to see in what meaningful way one can speak of for- giving in the first sense.
What then can the victim do? First, he should find peace in his identification with Jesus Christ, who was tortured and crucified by his enemies. Jesus desired—and still desires—the restoration of relationship with his enemies. From the cross, he expressed this desire when he cried out: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). The power of forgiving love expresses itself in its willingness to receive one’s enemies back into relationship. Drawing his strength from his identification with Christ, the victim can one day come to a place where he is willing to open himself to a gesture on the part of his attacker to make amends. Second, he should commit himself and his injury to God. The Apostle Paul reminds the Christians at Rome that vengeance belongs to God, that it is God’s to repay (12:19). Is this no more than a sublimated desire for revenge on the part of the victim who is powerless to execute it himself? No, it is rest in the justice of God. There is a common misunderstanding that justice and forgiveness mutually exclude each other, as if to forgive means to forget. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Forgiveness does not efface the right; on the contrary, it brings it out into the open and upholds it. Attackers have to face the truth of what they have done, if not in this world, then certainly in the age to come. And it would be far better for them to face this truth in this world, sooner rather than later.
In response to the sexual abuse crisis, it is always appropriate for the churches to implement policies designed to prevent abuse in the future. But as good and as necessary as this may be, it does not address directly the pain of those who bear the scars of what was done to them in the past. For this reason, the churches need to recover an understanding of what they mean when they confess, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.”
8/1 10:30 A.M. Retirees/Travelogue
1-3 P.M. Prayer Shaw Group
8/3 9:00 A.M.-3 P.M. Trash & Treasure Sale at First United Methodist Church
8/4 10:00 A.M. Worship, Communion, Missions Offering, Scholarship Sunday, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship & Refreshments
8/7 9:30 A.M. Quilters
8/8 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
8/11 10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship & Refreshments
8/14 9:30 A.M. Quilters
8/15 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
8/18 10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship & Refreshments
8/21 9:30 A.M. Quilters
8/22 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
8/25 10:00 A.M. Worship, Sunday School
11:00 A.M. Fellowship & Refreshments
8/28 9:30 A.M. Quilters
8/29 1-3 P.M. Prayer Shawl Group
8/5 JoAnn Fuhrman 8/19 Faraiya Hubbard
8/5 Megan Ransom 8/25 Warren Thompson
8/8 Braxton Renucci 8/27 Lee Hunsberger
8/9 Susan Shaver 8/28 Patrick J. Folaron
8/15 Thomas Cox, Jr. 8/28 Sally Wilcox
Soup Kitchen August 15, 5:00 P.M.
St. Johns Episcopal Church
Prayer Shawl Group News
Just a reminder that blankets are available for all ages. Recipient does not need to
be a church member. If you know of someone who could use a blanket, please
contact Mary Williams or Evelyn Ransom.
Prayer Shawl Group
Please note: The “Presbyterians on the Go” will continue meeting the first Thursday of each month at 10:30 A.M. for a travelogue. Everyone is welcome to come, young or old.
Income and Expense Report for June
Income $5609.30 Expenses $3838.24
Monthly budget needs $5,437.08
August Worship Stewards
Liturgist: Lee Hunsberger; Communion Preparation: Judi Emlinger Communion Servers: Judi Emlinger, Linda Hood, Cindy Rozich Ushers/Greeters: Lavonna and David Hoover, Linda Steele
Liturgist: Perry Gregory; Children’s Message: Sue Thompson Ushers/Greeters: Keith And Lynn Sterner, Pat Gustafson
Liturgist: Kathy VanSyckle; Children’s Message: Judi Emlinger Ushers/Greeters: Duane and Judi Emlinger, Linda Hood
Liturgist: Shelly Reglin; Children’s Message: Lee Hunsberger Ushers/Greeters: Bill Robinson, Marcia and Ernie Ross
PRESBYTERIAN PENNY PROJECT
FPC will be collecting pennies (and other coins) for the next year. The money collected will help sponsor our children for Camp Greenwood in 2020. The cost in 2019 was $400 per child for 5 days and 4 children attended. The estimated value of one pound of pennies is $1.70. Let’s see how much money we can raise with our spare change. Our container is located in the Memorial Room.
Thank you for your continued support to the Christian Education Committee for their fund- raising efforts on behalf of our young people.
“FUN” FUNDRAISER FOR FPC SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 7th at 5PM
$20.00 PER PERSON
Catered dinner at 6pm by Devin Dowsett, BYOB if desired. Live auction with Perry Gregory, auctioneer. Event also includes silent auction items and raffles. All proceeds will go to the church with our session to determine needs.
Only checks or cash are accepted. NO credit cards. We are sorry for the inconvenience how- ever we are not set up for this type of transaction.
ALL ARE WELCOME to attend for a guaranteed evening of fun and entertainment.
Tickets are available from Perry Gregory, Norma Kilpatrick, Lee Hunsberger, or Sue Thompson. You may also contact the church office for information at 616-527-2320.
You may have noticed the extended absence of our church musician, Mike Kaufman. There have been some contractual issues that have been acted on by Session. He is expected to return to his position by the end of September. In the meantime, it is hoped that you will enjoy the diversity of musical talents that are on display during our worship services.
Keith Sterner, DVM Acting Personnel Committee Chairperson
Reserve Saturday, September 21 on your calendars!
Church leadership expert, Duke Gray, from Volunteers in Service, will be leading us in a process of clarifying our vision for ministry in our community. The program will begin at 3:30 PM in the fellowship hall. A light supper will be served afterwards.
Can you please help Carter?
Carter is a 14 year old boy who has autism and attends Saranac school. His grandmother is helping him by asking people to collect plastic caps/tops from bottles, laundry containers and any other item that has a plastic top. His goal is to obtain 250 pounds of these items to build a recycled bench by the time he graduates. He will begin the 8th grade soon and this is a class project.
He is very excited about this and I have permission from his mother to ask our congregation to help him reach his goal. Could you save any plastic top and put them in our shopping cart? Carter thanks you for your help.
I believe in the church in spite of its imperfections. The church will never be perfect in this world. It is made up of people struggling to do God’s will—but people who are still human with their weaknesses and sin. I believe in the church in spite of its limitations and handicaps. Sometimes the church is hindered by lack of vision and commitment. But in spite of all of this, the church is the only agency in the world that provides a place where people can gather to worship God. I believe in the church because it is an agency of God’s Spirit—an instrument of the Eternal. It has changed through the years, and it will continue to change. It will make mistakes. But the church is still God’s chosen vessel for carrying on His work of redemption in the world.
What kind of man was Boaz before he met Ruth (Old Testament)
What evidence is there in the Bible that Adam and Eve were noisy?
Answer: They raised Cain.
What do you get if you cross a praying mantis with a termite?
Answer: An insect that says grace as it eats your house.
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