The True (and False) Persecution of the Church

Geronimo Aguilar, a Richmond pastor who recently stepped down after being charged with sexually abusing two children, recently issued a statement listing all the accomplishments of his ministry and noting “my family and I have been facing difficult trials and persecution.” Many of his parishioners have publicly expressed support for their “persecuted” pastor.

Another pastor, Paul Washer, delivered a message claiming that Christians “have a wrong idea of martyrdom” because we believe we will be persecuted for our “sincere faith in Jesus Christ. “ Although our faith is the “real reason” for our persecution, Washer contends the government will publicly claim the persecution is because we are “enemies of the state” or even “child molesters.”

Aguilar and Washer are not alone. In the 26 years I have worked in the field of child protection, I have routinely encountered accused clergy and their flocks who claim “persecution” as the real reason they are facing an allegation of sexual abuse. This is done even when the evidence is strong and the pastor has confessed to sexually abusing a child. For example, Pastor Jack Schaap pled guilty to transporting a minor for the purpose of sexually abusing the girl, but many of Schaap’s parishioners nonetheless wrote the judge pleading for mercy and accepting Schaap’s distorted logic justifying or at least excusing his criminal conduct.

The claim that the church is being persecuted whenever child molesters, or those who harbor them, are brought to justice contradicts scripture and common sense. It is true that Christ said persecution of the church will include instances in which “people falsely say all of kinds of evil against you because of me” (Matthew 5:11-12). In this same passage, though, Christ made it clear he was speaking of “false” claims of evil. In other words, a credible, truthful claim of child sexual abuse is not a persecution of the church.

Although there have been instances of false accusations, studies repeatedly find that false allegations of child sexual abuse are extremely rare. In fact, there is some evidence that allegations of sexual abuse within the church may be particularly credible. This is because studies find that most sex offenders are religious and that our country’s most egregious sex offenders are often active in churches. Ironically, the sex offenders themselves tell researchers the reason they like to go to church is because if they mouth the right words, and perform a mountain of good deeds, the church will almost certainly support them—including accepting their claim they are simply being persecuted for their faith.

Martin Luther said the “church is not to be assessed by the high or spiritual vocations in it, but by the people who truly believe.” Luther contended there would “always be such a people on the earth, even though it may be but two or three, or only children.”

When viewed as a company of believers, it is clear there is a widespread persecution of the church—though not the type of persecution Aguilar and Washer speak of. Instead of a false persecution of alleged sex offenders, there is a true persecution of the abused children sitting in our pews. This persecution of believing children takes place in at least two ways.

First, sex offenders operating in our churches routinely use religious or spiritual themes in the sexual abuse of children. Jack Schaap, for example, told his victim that the sexual abuse was “exactly what Christ desires for us” and said Jesus wanted Schaap and his victim to become “eternal lovers.” The preaching of this sort of twisted, false doctrine to justify sexual abuse is arguably the penultimate persecution of children.

Second, believing children face persecution in the aftermath of a disclosure of sexual abuse. This happens when a church discounts the child’s allegations, blames the child for the abuse, urges immediate forgiveness, and shields the child molester from any meaningful consequences. Under these circumstances, the child is often ostracized from the faith community and the offender is emboldened to strike again.

Sexual abuse in the name of God, and the church’s common, perhaps routine failure to support the victim often has devastating consequences on the child’s faith. Christian psychologist Diane Langberg writes:

The sexual violation of a child can have many spiritual effects. A distorted image of God coupled with a distorted image of the self creates several barriers to experiencing God's love and grace. When children are betrayed by those who were supposed to protect and love them, they find it very difficult to grasp that God loves them ... God is often perceived to be punitive, an impossible taskmaster, capricious, impotent, indifferent, or dead.

Jesus told us not to persecute children in this way. Indeed, Jesus had grave warnings for anyone who hurts children—telling his disciples that the angels of children have direct access to his Father and that being tossed in a sea with a millstone around their neck would be a better choice than to harm a child (Matthew 18:6, 10).

This is the persecution of the church, a persecution that values clerical charm more than children that Jesus unequivocally condemns. It is this true persecution pastors and parishioners alike should exert every effort in ending. Let that reformation begin with each of us.

Victor Vieth is a member of the GRACE board of directors.  He is a former child abuse prosecutor and a nationally recognized expert on child abuse.