I instructed everyone in the congregation not to hug him, not to tell them they loved him, not to make him feel overly welcome. There were tears, angry outbursts, and much sadness. But after I had explained why we were doing this, everyone reluctantly agreed it was what God wanted.
Yes, God wanted us to be cold and unsympathetic for a season.
Our town was only 1500 people. The church had grown considerably, largely because of an influx of hippies and drug addicts who found a place at God’s table and a group of loving Christians who didn’t judge them.
It really was a way-station of Grace. But grace can have its problems too. We were about to discover what that looked like.
This couple took in a 13 year old foster girl. They had fostered two boys before and this girl seemed the most broken of them all. She had been abused both physically and sexually by her mother and father. The province of British Columbia where we were living wanted an experienced foster home to place her in. This couple had passed all the tests and were exemplary candidates to host her.
I was the only counselor in that town, and I had only started trauma therapy training that previous year. But because I had some training, the province used me to do intervention work with families and children in unsafe environments. They sent me to several training events and I became acquainted with all the laws regarding child abuse. This was in 1983 and I had no idea the torrent of abuse revelations which would begin to surface that decade.
I had no clue that North America was at the beginning of a wave of sexual abuse revelations.
After the foster girl had been with them for about 6 months, the congregation had come to know and love her. They felt protective of her, even though she could be quite challenging in her acting out. She could get angry at the drop of a hat. As I learned more about the trauma associated with abuse, I instructed people on how to help her. We learned together.
One horrible incident shattered my learning environment and brought me into the real world. An RCMP officer who attended our church told me that the girl had disclosed to the police that someone in the church had molested her.
It was the man in her foster home. By the time I found out, they had already arrested him and he had made a full confession of his crime .
Of course, this devastated the congregation. We were about 140 people and every one of us knew the young girl and her foster parents. This man went immediately into the jail system and because he did not contest the charges, he was sentenced quickly. He spent the better part of a year in jail for his crime. (Note: That was the mandatory sentence at the time. Fortunately, the sentence for child sexual abuse/assault is much greater, as it should be).
But when he was due to get out, several members of the church wondered how we were supposed to act toward him. We had rallied around and supported his wife financially while he was in jail. We paid for the young girl to get therapy (while she was still around…they removed her of course and put her in another home and we lost touch with her). That congregation was my learning community. Everything I learned from my professors about helping a community deal with sexual assault I applied with them.
They all did wonderfully.
But now he was coming back to live at home and wanted to start attending church. He first told me about this and I asked the Elders board what they thought. They were all in favor of showing grace to him. One of the elders suggested we have a potluck to welcome him back.
I completely disagreed. I felt then–and now–that this was the wrong thing to do at that moment. Let me explain.
Churches make two grand mistakes with those who sin publicly. We sometimes castigate them and shame them to the point of morbidity. We can be so cruel as Christians at times. We are especially hard on those who get divorced, have had abortions, use drugs or alcohol, or have affairs. We often do not accept their repentance and we shove them rudely out the door of our lives.
But we also make the opposite mistake. We may indeed love the offender so much they might believe we don’t really object to what they did. We say “We’ve all made mistakes” and “God forgives, so should we” or “David committed adultery and Paul was a murderer, so how can we judge?”. These are not helpful approaches however, especially when children are involved.
(Sigh. Another note: David did not commit adultery. He raped Bathsheba by virtue of having all authority as King and having her brought by armed guards to his house. Please never call it adultery again.)
Jesus was pretty clear about his attitude toward someone who causes a little child to stumble. It would be better for them if a millstone was hung around their neck and that they be thrown into the sea. I believe he is saying that the person and their victim will have to live with this crime forever. It would be easier to just end it all than face the knowledge of offending a child. However, there are many offenders who have learned how to ignore what they have done by blaming the victim.
This man tried to do this initially when he told me what happened with the foster daughter. He talked to me about her seeking to seduce him the first time. I taught him that it doesn’t even matter if a child is seductive or flirtatious. If they are, they learned that behavior by the way other adults assaulted them.
No child is responsible for the act of molestation in any way.
I finally got through to this man that he was minimizing and rationalizing his behavior. He agreed with me and it began the long, painful process of working through his shame and remorse. He finally arrived at a place where he was willing to start making amends.
I will leave that part of the process for another blog entry.
But now he was leaving jail and coming back to church. I didn’t want us to overdo the grace aspect. He needed something from us and we needed to give it. He needed the hear the Truth. And we needed to learn how to speak about our outrage.
Here is what I asked the congregation to do. When he came to church that Sunday, I was going to tell everyone what happened and what he had paid as a price for his sin. We were not going to give him a chance to speak. Afterwards, he and I would be in the community room and anyone who wanted could come in and talk to him. I instructed them to tell him how they felt about what he did. I told them they could get angry or sad or disappointed all they wanted. I put this limitation on it. No extreme name calling. No violence.
The people adhered to that guideline. There were several F bombs dropped, tears shed and some pretty angry people.
I warned him this was necessary to get it all into the open. He and I prayed together for many days prior to that Sunday. I told the congregation he and I would do that for three Sundays. After that, I asked them not to bring it up again. I informed the man he would never be in leadership again. He would never be allowed to be anywhere in the church building except the sanctuary. He could not hang around in the foyer afterwards where there may be children. He could not attend any church event where children might be present.
He agreed to all these terms. And I believe in the long run this is why he never re-offended. Over time, people began to express to him that there was forgiveness and love. But it didn’t come at once. Some people never really had much to do with him after that. This is okay.
I kept his victim informed of all we were doing. I asked her if she would like us to do anything else on her behalf. I will keep private what she wanted, but suffice to say we agreed to everything she said.
As I engage more and more churches who face the reality of their pastors being accused of these same sort of crimes, I advise them to treat the offenders the same way. Be harsh, Be swift to condemn the sin. Do not allow them to victim-shame, to minimize or to rationalize their behavior. It passes on the concept that the victim should not have “brought down” the man of God like this.
There is a time to be angry and a time to be gracious. Learn the difference.