When you know of sexual abuse in the Church

For obvious reasons I can’t go into the details of the child sexual abuse case that’s deeply affected some friends of mine. It’s been utterly ghastly and I’m only on the outside looking in. Having worked for a charity that supports young people facing sexual exploitation, I thought I’d heard enough gut wrenching stories to be prepared for what was coming. But I wasn’t.

The drawn out intrusion into one of the darkest moments of someone’s life brings unimaginable turmoil. For those brave enough to report a heinous crime such as rape the driving motivation is justice, but the enraging reality is only 1.7% of rapists are prosecuted. That’s assuming every rape is officially reported; the Government estimates only 17% of rapes are. 

The justice system is broken. The statistics show it emphatically favours abusers. Intrusion, fear, expensive lawyers and underfunded policing all play their part in giving rapists over 99% chance of getting away with it.

As you might imagine from my tone, as usual the prosecution was unsuccessful in this case on all but a couple of completely-impossible-to-deny charges. 

It wasn’t because of a lack of willing and credible witnesses. Yet only a couple were allowed to take the stand, and the jury was denied the opportunity to hear people’s testimonies to ensure the case finished on time. I could only find expletives for words: how can time pressures outweigh justice?

The justice system is failing exactly the people it should protect. Another friend told me of their time being a juror where a gang was clearly guilty. The gang walked free, all because the police made a simple technical error gathering the evidence. That family now face ongoing intimidation from the perpetrators the jury were forced to find innocent. Like the courts, the police fail us.

It’s true the other way. The underlying outlook of the young people from my South London estate is that institutions are against them. Many of them don’t trust the police because they get racially profiled and believe the education system isn’t going to get them anywhere.

I could go on. But my point is simple: these failures span every institution, with devastating consequences, despite there being countless people working to make them just and fair. 

In the sexual abuse case, the failure wasn’t limited to the courts – there was a church at the heart of the case. That is really hard to come to terms with as a Christian, and even more so for my friends who grew up in that church. But given the widely-reported gross failings of church institutions to confess and address the sexual abuse of children, it’s depressingly unsurprising. 

It hurts so deeply because the Church claims to be your family – a diverse mix of people from all walks of life where the greatest value is love. Sacrifice and service are the norm; forgiveness, honesty and reconciliation are imperative; wrongdoing is challenged and evil is rooted out. Christians are called to humbly imitate Jesus by valuing others above themselves. That’s the week in, week out teaching of the Church. It’s a beautiful vision. 

Yet, people testified in court about the abuse carried out by a member of their church family. The vision and the reality of the Church could not be further apart. How can we cope with this chasm in our institutions?

Anger and grief are a natural first step: ‘Weep with those who weep; mourn with those who mourn’ is a biblical instruction. That’s what I’ve been doing with my friends – I couldn’t help but shout and cry. Yet, it’s not a healthy long term state; victims can end up more imprisoned than perpetrators.

We can reject institutions – that’s easy. The problem is, who can we trust? Nine times out of ten the victim already knows the abuser, which was true in this case. The rottenness goes far beyond institutions. We are left with a bleak, unjust and hopeless world if we can’t even trust people who claim to love us. 

Throughout the case, we held out hope that justice would be served. The verdict extinguished it. The bitter solace I’ve found is that if the abusers of this world do not recognise the gravity of their evil and repent, I believe God will deliver the justice they deserve. Justice beyond the grave is something no human or institution can deliver. I’m left praying ultimate justice is not beyond the divine’s capacity.

Yet, my response feels insufficient and acrid. The ray of hope I’ve found is from some of the people I should be supporting. It would be so easy for them to give in to pessimism and despair but they haven’t – they are fighting it. It’s a daily challenge not to lose the love, hope and belief you had when you’ve been shaken to the core. 

It’s even more surprising that some of the people affected by the case still go to church. 

It’s not been easy or straightforward but they go because their faith was never in an institution. Their faith is in a person: Jesus. Someone who was an outspoken critic of institutional religion, swift to publicly call out the Church’s flaws and warned that in the Church there would be ravenous wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing. If only Jesus wasn’t spot on. The depravity of humanity, inside and outside the Church, comes as no surprise to those who’ve read Jesus’ teachings. 

But to my friends, Jesus is far more than a religious critic. He was willing to suffer and die for them. Jesus is their saviour and friend, even through the valley of the shadow of death. After all, what good is a friend – let alone a God – who deserts you in your hour of need? 

I think the God they’ve always believed in is exactly who they need. They follow a God who weeps with those who weep, burns with anger at injustice, and fights for the oppressed. Why did God allow this abuse to happen? There is no easy answer. But they follow a God who is big enough to invite emotionally-charged rants that ask why on earth he allowed it. A third of the songs in The Bible are dedicated to expressing deep sorrow, doubts and even anger at God. 

They also go because they have found there are churches that give everything to try to live out that beautiful vision. They experience a diverse loving family where people give sacrificially and love one another to the best of their ability – a community where evil is challenged and rooted out, and a place of hope and healing.

All of this does not detract from the evil in the Church today – nothing will. We live in a wretched and broken world. No faith, or lack of it, can stop the pain of suffering

Either we allow the evil of the world to crush any belief in goodness or we hold on to what we deem most precious and true. My friends inspire me because in the darkest times they choose to fight and to hope. All because they believe one day the sun will rise and banish the darkness.

Photo by JOHN TOWNER on Unsplash

Ben Palmer

Ben Palmer
Ben works for a mentoring charity in London, but boasts a CV that includes a year of living as a monk.

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