Updated: Jan 16
Christian Leader Scandals and Grooming from the Pulpit
The last few years have revealed a hideous underbelly within Evangelical culture - sexual harassment and sexual abuse of children, teens, and women. Scandal after scandal have inundated our social media feeds and news sources.
Big names such as Bill Hybels, Andy Savage, and Tullian Tchividjian, were accused of a range of sexual abuses. As if this isn't horrific enough, other popular leaders, like John MacArthur, Chris Conlee, and Matt Chandler mishandled assault and abuse allegations. In fact, when the Houston Chronicle ran a three part expose on sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches, we learned that the Southern Baptist Convention has a sexual abuse and cover-up problem to rival the Roman Catholic Church.
So, how did these leaders respond to the victim-survivors' disclosures?
Some publicly denied the claims against them, and others publicly apologized.
On the surface it would appear that those that apologized are repentant and that they are owning their behaviors. After all, they are humbling themselves for all to see, right?
Not so fast. They are also doing something insidious during their public apologies.
First: They are seeking abuser allies from the pulpit.
Second: They are re-victimizing the victim-survivors.
Let's unpack this a bit so that I can show you what I mean:
Dr. Anna C. Salter - an expert in treating both victims and sexual offenders - has a chapter in her book Transforming Trauma: A Guide to Understanding and Treating Adult Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse that is focused on apologies from adult male offenders of children.
Hilary Eldridge and Jenny Still, the authors of the chapter, cover the pros and cons of abuser apologies. Now, to be fair, they are referring to an individual abuser writing, recording, or speaking an apology to his victim(s), not a public figure apologizing to a community of people.
Even so, their knowledge can help us discern authentic public apologies from sex offenders, as well as other types of abusers.
For example, how did Andy Savage's congregations respond to his apology? With a standing ovation of course.
Think about this for a moment: a pastor apologizes publicly for sexually assaulting a teen under his spiritual authority and his congregation responds by applauding him. How is that an appropriate response? Why would they do this?
The simple answer is that they applauded Savage - an unfortunate name for a sexual offender - because they have been communally groomed to do so. They have become abuser allies.
So how does this happen and what does it mean?
Often abuser allies are simply those that are ignorant of abuse dynamics. This is possible even for abuse victims. For example, years ago I was an abuser ally. I was naive and trusting and others paid a terrible price for my lack of knowledge. Thankfully, once most people learn the facts about abuse they quickly change their stance to support victim-survivors and to hold abusers accountable.
However, there are abuser allies that are more entrenched in their views, and therefore have greater difficulty accepting & understanding their role in welcoming, supporting, and protecting abusers - especially in churches.
Plus, abusers with positions of authority & public platforms, like pastors and leaders, will groom - or guide- their communities to trust them, believe them, support them, protect them, and therefore, disbelieve victims-survivors. The standing ovations are evidence of the success of their grooming techniques.
Now, please understand that many abusers are not self-aware that they are grooming victims, families, and communities. It is simply the way they interact with others. And without significant progress in specialized treatment it will be the way they continue to communicate with others (Salter), even when they are apologizing.
This means that someone like Savage - a leader that groomed parents and youth to trust him 20 years ago - will still, to this day, interact with others by grooming them to trust him. Abusers communicate "Trust me" but do not do the work of being trustworthy.
In other words, image management is the priority of abusers, while character building does not even enter the equation.
So, how are abuser allies gained and /or reinforced through public apologies?
When an abuser uses their platform to apologize publicly they have the opportunity to control the narrative surrounding their abusive behaviors.
They use specific techniques to spin the truth.
For example: Abusers spin the truth by minimizing the abuse they committed. Instead of naming the abuse correctly, they use softer words. Savage called his abuse of Jules Woodson a sexual incident. The shift to the phrase "sexual incident" implies that he did not behave criminally, that there was no abuse of power, and that there is no victim.
It also shifts half the blame for the "incident" to Jules. It suggests the abuse was an incident they experienced together, not an act of violation perpetrated upon a teen by her adult spiritual leader.
Another technique Savage used was to mention how long ago the "incident" happened. No less than four times during the apology, he mentions that it took place 20 years ago. The effect of this is to distance himself from the abuse. This implies that it was an act of impulsive immaturity, as opposed to his planning an opportunity to abuse Jules.
This distancing also suggests that he is not the same person he once was, since he has grown so much since then and would never do such a thing now.
Even more insidiously, the "long time ago" defense places blame on Jules by suggesting that she should have healed and gotten over the incident considering how long ago it occurred. Abuser allies will believe that her lack of "healing" is due to her spiritual immaturity, bitterness, anger, or whatever other victim blaming sin the apology suggests, and not due to the long term effects of Savage's betrayal and assault of a minor.
Most redemption stories of an abusive person portray
abusers as changed individuals,
instead of as continuing dangers to the vulnerable.
In fact, Savage's choice to pray for Jules' healing during his apology is an arrogant act of slander against her. Someone that is authentically concerned with the health and well being of the person they victimized would not portray themselves publicly as a gracious humble individual, while simultaneously portraying their victim as being broken and in need of help and healing.
It screams "look how good I am and look how damaged she is", as if he is not the one that needs help, consequences, and accountability.
This is shaming and silencing.
It illustrates to the survivor - and to all victims and survivors in the community - that the abuser will always be supported and believed and the victim-survivor will at best, be pitied, and at worst, be blamed for both the abuse and the long term harm the abuse causes.
Now, most likely, much grooming has already been done from the pulpit. Every sermon the congregation has heard that tells a redemption story of an abusive person, whether a biblical character or a contemporary person, has shifted their perspective to see abusers as changed individuals instead of as a continuing danger to the vulnerable.
So, Savage's tactics of distancing with time, minimizing with soft language and denial of harm, deceiving with narrative spin, and slandering through subtle contrasting of the survivor's "sinfulness" with their own "godliness" are effective tools abusers use during apologies.
Through these means abuser allies are gained or recommitted, and victim-survivors...well, we sit stunned at another communal betrayal.
When told two conflicting versions of the same event how do you discern which one holds more truth?
How comfortable are you with questioning or challenging those in positions of authority over you?
If you are a victim/survivor, have you ever felt that your sacred community is not a safe place to disclose your experiences and/or to name your abuser? If so, why? If not, what do they do that makes you feel safe?