Where Are The Voices? The Continued Culture of Silence and Protection in American Evangelicalism

This past week, I have fluctuated between anger and tears as I read about Christian leaders who proclaim the Gospel with their voice, but remain silent and/or defensive about the horrors of child sexual abuse within the Church.  These leaders have once again, and perhaps unwittingly, demonstrated the art of marginalizing individual souls for the sake of reputation and friendships.

Earlier this week, I read the second amended complaint filed by eleven plaintiffs against SGM, two churches, and a number of individuals, including a man named CJ Mahaney.  I won’t go into the factual details of this complaint here (if interested, you can read it here), but it is one of the most disturbing accounts of child sexual abuse and institutional “cover up” I have read in my almost 20 years of addressing this issue.  Besides the horrific accounts of child victimization (some of which allegedly occurred on church property), what struck me most about these allegations is the systematic efforts by these churches to discourage and sometimes prevent the families of children who had been victimized by church officials from speaking out and reporting to law enforcement.  Another aspect that struck me as I read (and re-read) through this complaint were the myriad of common threads related to the efforts made by these SGM churches to silence these survivors.  As a former prosecutor, much credibility is given to disclosures made by more than one person that have distinct and unique similarities…these did.

I think it is fair to mention at this point that besides being one of the founders of SGM, CJ Mahaney was the senior pastor at one of these two churches during the period of this horrific abuse.  CJ Mahaney is a founding member of an organization called “Together for the Gospel” (T4G) and close friends with the other founding members who are evangelical leaders.  Let me be very clear, I have never met CJ Mahaney and have not at all followed the internal “issues” that have been written about concerning SGM.  I have absolutely no personal animus against Mr. Mahaney or anyone else related to SGM.  I am simply expressing grave concerns regarding the manner in which some in the Christian community have handled this very dark matter.

After reading this complaint and doing a little bit of additional research, I searched online hoping to find statements by Christian “leaders” speaking out about this case or at the very least expressing grave concerns regarding the very disturbing facts alleged in the lawsuit.  I was never looking for, or wanting, anyone to throw CJ Mahaney under the proverbial bus.  I was simply hoping to hear statements that expressed horrors about child sexual abuse and with institutions that are not transparent about such offenses.  Initially, all I found was silence from these leaders.

What I did find was a lot of statements by Christians claiming that all of these individuals were innocent until “proven guilty by a jury”.   Sadly, that is not the only time I have heard such a response from the Christian community when allegations of child sexual victimization are brought forward.  What is ironic, or better yet, down right disturbing is that these same individuals don’t approach any other sinful crime in such a distorted manner.  For example, so many Christians will cry about against abortion doctors who have been alleged to have killed babies outside of the womb (horrific), but when a person alleges child sexual abuse by someone in the Church, these same Christians cry out that a person is innocent until proven guilty by a court of law? Of course a person or institution can only be held legally responsible under civil law when that has been determined by a court of law.  I don’t think anyone has suggested otherwise.  However, does this mean that a jury is required in order to determine the existence of evil?  Seriously?  Think about the ramifications of such a distorted viewpoint.  Does that mean that since a jury acquitted OJ Simpson of murder, he is factually innocent?  Is that what we heard from the Christian community at that time?  How about a person who commits first degree murder but the crime is not discovered until after the expiration of the statute of limitations and thus case is subsequently dismissed by the court. Does this mean they are factually innocent? In fact, most Christians who advocate such a viewpoint don’t apply it in any other areas of sin.  Adultery? Gossip?  Are you beginning to see the fallacies of this perspective?  Such an approach to sin is incredibly damaging to so many precious individuals who were sexually victimized for years and manipulated by perpetrators and church leaders into remaining silent.   It tells them that their voice and experience doesn’t matter nearly as much as the voice of a judge or jury.  It tells them that the reputation of the institution is more important than the beauty of their soul.

The silence from Evangelical "leaders" regarding the issue of child sexual abuse within the Church was deafening and spoke volumes.  Why no statements about the horrors of child sexual abuse and the apparent horrors of the abuse that occurred in these two churches? Why no statements from Evangelical leaders that express grave concern that there is even a possibility that these church leaders instructed victims and their families to embrace the horrors of silence?  We are now told by some that the silence was because of pending litigation.  Really? Since when have Christians allowed pending civil litigation to silence them over sin?  How does pending litigation prevent Christians or anyone else for that matter, from making a generic statement denouncing child sexual abuse or those who cover it up?

And then these leaders spoke…(link)…which is what finally prompted me to write this response.

On May 23rd, a joint statement by the founders of Together for the Gospel was released. Some leaders of the Gospel Coalition released a similar statement this morning.  Without addressing both statements in detail, let me make four quick observations:

  1. Neither statement makes mention that the heart of this lawsuit is about a systematic church effort to discourage and eventually prevent the families of children who were allegedly (and repeatedly) sexually victimized by church officials from speaking out and reporting to law enforcement. A statement that fails to mention that this lawsuit is less about the abuse and more about an institution that took steps to protect itself and its reputation over the victimized souls and bodies of little ones. Omitting such fundamental facts from these statements speaks volumes about the inability of the authors to grasp the eternal significance about which they write.
  2. Neither statement mentions that CJ Mahaney was actually the Senior Pastor at one of these churches where all of this horrific abuse allegedly occurred AND where these families were discouraged from bringing this matter to the God ordained civil authorities? Including this would simply state a known fact without implicating Mr. Mahaney in any wrongdoing.  Omitting such a fundamentally important fact from this statement is extremely disturbing to me and very disheartening to so many others.
  3. The statement by T4G fails to mention that this lawsuit was dismissed for one reason and one reason only...expiration of the statute of limitation. Isn't it tragic that the reason why this suit was dismissed - taking too long to file - was the very objective of these church leaders allegedly had when they discouraged these individuals and families from stepping forward.
  4. The statement by the members of the Gospel Coalition says the following as it relates to the statute of limitations and the dismissal of the case:
    So the entire legal strategy was dependent on a conspiracy theory that was more hearsay than anything like reasonable demonstration of culpability. As to the specific matter of C. J. participating in some massive cover-up, the legal evidence was so paltry (more like non-existent) that the judge did not think a trial was even warranted.Does this sound like a statement that even appears to make an effort to be objective?

Many of these men have not hesitated to write (or tweet) on the Penn State horrors, homosexuals in the Boy Scouts, and universal healthcare, but have been conspicuously quiet on this issue. And when they finally speak, what is omitted speaks more than what is said.

Where are the voices? Where are the voices from the Christian community?  Where are the voices from other Christian and institutional leaders who should be stepping forward to unequivocally denounce such horrid abuse and anyone who encourages silence? Where are the voices from pro-life Christians? Where are the voices from pro-family Christians? Where are the voices?

The response of the Christian community about the horrors being perpetrated upon children by those who profess Jesus is perhaps the greatest horror of it all.  What these men and so many others don't realize is that their silence and failed responses are pushing a large group of precious souls farther and farther from our glorious and gracious God and his church.

On the T4G it states, “T4G is convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been misrepresented and marginalized in many churches and among those who proclaim the name of Christ.”  I couldn’t agree more.    The Gospel is all about a God who is approachable to the hurting.  He is approachable because He listens to the cries of hurting people and empathizes with their deepest pains.  The Gospel is about those of us in our darkest hours discovering an indescribably loving God who relentlessly pursues us, listens to us, empathizes with us, weeps with us, cares for us, and even gave Himself for us so that we can enjoy Him forever.

Ultimately, the Gospel is about a God who didn’t remain silent in the face of sin, but took self-sacrificial action in order to openly confront sin and redeem those He loves for His ultimate glory.   A Gospel-centered response to child sexual abuse begins with our understanding that silence is not an option.  We must be willing to openly confront abuse and its surrounding silence and give of ourselves so that those impacted can experience the healing and transformative power of Jesus.  This is a powerful framework for how the Church must willingly struggle alongside of survivors, even to the point of sacrifice.  However, this is not limited to just abuse survivors.  In fact, oftentimes it is the institutions that are in greatest need for healing and transformation.   It is only when Christian institutions and their leaders truly grasp the beautiful and powerful truth that God did his most powerful work when His son was vulnerable and transparent (naked on a cross) that the Holy Spirit will be able to breath new life into their core.  If we are unwilling to sacrifice our agendas, our finances, or even our reputation, on behalf of these precious souls, then we have failed to grasp the powerful countercultural reality of the Gospel.

May we all seek God’s daily wisdom and strength not to misrepresent the Gospel of Jesus Christ and marginalize the hurting children of the High King whose lives and souls are more than precious in His sight.