Recently the nation found out once again that a church body, in this case the Archdiocese of Baltimore, was being accused of decades of sexual abuse and physical torture. Yet as seismic as the Maryland Attorney General’s revelations are, it’s hard to say terrible news like this shocks anybody anymore. Thanks to the bravery of scores of victims and whistleblowers from all faith backgrounds willing to come forward, the past decade has been marked by long-kept church secrets finally coming to light, including not only sexual abuse but also abusive and bullying workplaces, financial misconduct, and, on top of it all, lying to cover it all up.
As an ordained pastor who has served the church for more than 20 years, and as someone who has been connected to Christian churches in one way or another for most of his life, I know that too often the faith community’s response to abuse and misconduct falls short. Even when faith leaders rightly believe victims and take action, we repeatedly treat these acts as isolated events and label the perpetrators as “bad apples.” All too quickly the church chooses to move on without looking at what else might be going on. In doing so church and denominational leaders fail to do the difficult yet necessary work of examining honestly what roles the systems and structures within our denominations and faith institutions, not to mention the desire to protect those organizations, play in allowing and perpetuating abuse, misconduct, and cover-up by leaders and members.
This cannot be an option moving forward. At a minimum, those charged with stewarding churches, denominations, and other faith organizations must take ownership of the ways our institutions have allowed and perpetuated abuse and misconduct. This includes a thorough review of policy and compliance, and establishing clear standards for ethical behavior and abuse prevention. Taking ownership also includes clearly committing to holding all leaders accountable, and prioritizing the safety of past, present, and potential victims no matter the cost to the institution.
But this doesn’t just fall on the shoulders of church leadership. There’s something anyone who is part of a faith community can do. Often when someone looks for a church or other faith community, they go to the organization’s website and look for a statement of beliefs. It’s time to start expecting and demanding more as members. It’s time to call upon all of our faith communities to publicly post their standards of ethics and abuse prevention policies and conduct mandatory abuse prevention training every three years. Whether we attend multi-site megachurches or we know the name of everyone in our faith community, members must not wait for the next report to come to light to demand these basic standards of accountability, ethical behavior, and transparency for our organizations and leaders.
The Rev. Benjamin Park is an ordained Presbyterian minister and member of the Presbytery of the Twin Cities Area. He leads Today for Tomorrow dedicated to stewarding the next generation of churches of their leaders.