Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers

He was the principal of the Christian school which met at the church. His dad was the Senior Pastor. He had four years of teacher training and all the obligatory certifications, internships, and education needed. He added a Masters Degree in Theology and another Masters in Educational Administration. He was fully qualified to do the job he was doing.

During the five years he had been principal, his dad’s church had grown from 200 members to almost 1500. In that medium-sized town, the church dwarfed all the others. The main draw for newcomers was the Christian school.

And that’s when the accusations started.One 8th grade girl told her teacher she wasn’t going to detention any longer. (Note: The school practiced corporal punishment and a very difficult regimen of consequences for even the smallest infractions. Detention often meant at least an hour of menial labor, supervised by a teacher or administrator).

The teacher lectured this girl on how rebellion was like witchcraft. The girl still wouldn’t go to the detention as long as the principal was there.

The teacher probed for more explanation and the girl blurted out that during her last detention the principal had touched her in private places. The teacher knew she was a mandated reporter, but decided to report it to the school instead of the police. She told one of the vice-principals. He was also a mandated reporter. But he decided to tell the elders of the church about the accusation. They told the Senior Pastor and the investigation was on.

Two weeks later, the elders board concluded the following:

  • The young girl misunderstood a harmless action
  • She was histrionic and wanted attention
  • She had become a problem for the school and would be asked to seek education somewhere else.
  • The family, who were members of the church, were discouraged from talking about this incident to anyone else, including law enforcement.

The church assumed the matter was settled. The young girl was frightened of what the church could do to her family, so she said nothing.

Two years later, two sixth grade girls came with their parents to an Elders board meeting. They independently told similar stories. The principal had been in charge of disciplining them for breaking the rules. During sessions with each of them, he had fondled them sexually. The fathers wanted him removed immediately from the school or they would go to the police.

The Elders board met with the Principal and his dad the Senior Pastor. They met a total of five times to discuss what should be done. This was before I became involved. They decided the principal should resign and immediately go into counseling for his “problem”. The Elders thought they had handled it correctly and they assumed the matter was closed.

They had not handled it correctly. They should have gone to the police.

And the matter was certainly not closed.

First,  the church should have immediately called the police and reported the sexual abuse. They should have done it with the first girl. Second, instead of trying to cover up the matter, they should have let the entire student body and their parents know about it. They should have asked if there were more victims who would be willing to come forward. Or, they should have allowed the police and the District Attorney to do it instead.

But as a result of messing this up so badly, the situation quickly went beyond their control. A month passed, and the principal still had not tendered his resignation. When the board members asked him about it, he told them his father would not accept his resignation. They approached the Senior Pastor who suggested they call a congregational meeting to deal with the situation.

At that meeting, the Senior Pastor was given a special privilege.  This man was a master manipulator. In a long diatribe, he castigated and smeared the reputations of these girls and their families. He told stories about them which could only have come from their classmates. By the end of the meeting, he called for a vote to have all the family members of the victims thrown out of the church!

He failed to get the congregation to back him on this. That’s when the organization I was part of was called in. At the meeting, the Senior Pastor had also suggested the board should resign for believing these horrible rumors being floated by hormonal teenagers. The board didn’t resign. But they also didn’t know what to do.

We held several meetings with the young girls and the families involved. At the first meeting, I walked the leadership team through the process they should have done. Then I introduced the ADA to them who explained what was about to happen. He explained that uniformed police had taken the principal into custody. They were doing what should have happened years before.

And here is the real point of this article. The principal never did admit he had done anything wrong. He continued to call all of it lies, even though four more victims came forward with corroborating and damning stories of abuse. And his family continued to back him up. None of this should surprise anyone reading this.

Here is the shocker though. With all the evidence we compiled, MOST congregation members still defended him. MOST congregation members felt that a grave injustice had been done against the principal.

In addition, students held all-night vigils in prayer so the devil would be bound and the principal set free to resume his leadership over the school.

Even 27 years later, I shake my head at the gullibility of those people. But I have seen this pattern over and over. When Ted Haggard was found guilty of hiring gay prostitutes, few people in the church would believe it. Even when he finally admitted parts of what he did, there were people who felt he was just being kind to the church and falling on the sword by accepting false blame.

Why do churches and church members doggedly defend Pastoral Abusers? What are the essential reasons this happens? Here is what I and other victims’ advocates and abuse consultants have found.

Familiarity Bias: Technically, Familiarity Bias is a financial term. When newcomers start investing in the stock market, they believe companies they are familiar with will make the best investment. They falsely believe they really know the company just because their name is recognizable. This is a dangerous way to invest.

And, this is what congregation members do when they assume they really know a leader. That leader has publicly revealed things about their life, so congregants adopt a false intimacy with them. Most people believe the story of someone they know more than someone they don’t. The victims are often people that very few members of the church know well. Or even if they know the victims, the pastor is often perceived as the best known person in the congregation. Because of this notoriety, the average person will automatically assume the person they know (pastor, principal, etc.) is more trustworthy than a victim they’ve never met.

Over reliance on Personal Experience: Abusers do not abuse everyone. They could not possibly do so. In a previous article, I laid out the blueprint for how pastoral abusers choose their victims. Only a small number of people are actually victimized by even the worst sociopathic offenders. That means the vast majority of people in a church have never known the pastor/principal/worship leader to abuse them.

Most abusers are Narcissistic and Machiavellian in personality. This means they can be tremendously charming to all people, even their victims. They appear as disarming, warm, confident, nurturing, and intelligent. It is virtually impossible for the vast majority who have never been hurt by the pastor to initially believe the story that the victim tells. It is simple: “Pastor X never treated me that way. I can’t believe what this victim is saying. The so-called victim must be making this up.”

A Theology of Leadership Protection: Many churches teach some variation of the idea that the leader of the church needs to be protected from outside attacks. The congregation members feel no compulsion to abstain from criticizing him privately, but as soon as someone brings the criticism into the public eye, everyone becomes his defender. You will hear Psalm 105:15 quoted often: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” This is interpreted to mean that no one is allowed to touch God’s leaders; they are above criticism from the outside.

Other people will hide behind Matthew 18 and the process for dealing with conflict among believers by saying that these victims should have confronted their abuser the “biblical” way. This implies they should have made their accusations in-house and never included outsiders. This adds to the problem, because the congregation already believes the pastor more than the victim. The church will rarely side with the victim without an outside entity directing the process.

He Who Controls the Microphone, Controls the Direction of the Discussion: The Senior Pastor is the voice everyone knows and most people trust. This person is afforded a platform to express his views every week. When the Senior Pastor is an abuser, he is also the one who controls the narrative of how the abuse will be viewed. When the Senior Pastor is not the abuser but wants to defend the person who is, they still control the microphone and they can subtly shift focus away from the offense. They can minimize it, shift blame, victim-shame, sin-level the offense, or call for unity to gloss over the offense. Anyone who controls the pulpit during the time of inquiry controls the most important place where the narrative of abuse can be discussed. If that person is the offender or a friend of the offender, then it is unlikely the average church attender is going to believe or sympathize with the victim until someone else is given the microphone. Anyone who has followed the process of recent disclosures of pastoral abuse will affirm that the pastors and elders of those churches have used the pulpit to do damage control. Very few churches use their public platform to help the victims. Most just pay lip service to the victims at best.

Retroactive Reality: The cost entailed with believing a victim involves believing the pastor has always been an abuser. This causes church members to have to re-examine their spiritual walk in light of this information. Victims are revealing to the congregation that the abusing pastor is a deceiver. Therefore, church members fear their own spiritual formation is tainted as a result. Some congregation members have spent their entire spiritual lives in that one church. They begin to think, “what does this say about me?” This comes out so much in one-on-one interviews I have done with congregation members.

I said it myself years ago. The man who mentored me in the Christian faith when I was 14, assaulted two other boys sexually. I was about six years into my faith walk when I heard about these accusations. I could not believe it. I would not believe it. If he did this, then maybe everything he taught me about God was wrong. It spawned an existential crisis of faith. Most people hate existential crises and will avoid them. The easiest way to do this is to discount the story of the victim.

Doubling Down: Once you have publicly declared you believe the pastor more than the victim, it is hard to change your story. It has been proven that once people have taken a position, whether voting for a candidate or choosing a particular story to believe, they are more likely to keep holding onto that story even when evidence suggests they are wrong. This explains why people can continue to support a political party or candidate even when these are shown to be duplicitous. If the individual congregation member publicly defends a pastor near the beginning of the discovery process, they are very unlikely to change that opinion no matter how much evidence is revealed.

Maximum vs. Minimum Harm Concept: This is an easy one to understand, but hard to admit to. Even though we love to cheer for the Long Shot, if we have a horse in the race, we will cheer for him. In addition, most people will choose the path of least harm time and time again. With abusive pastors, many congregation members when they must choose whom to believe, will choose the path of least destruction.

In the case of a church, if the pastor is forced to admit sin and resign, the church will lose members, community standing, financial support, and future opportunities. Members then decide the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This is the underlying emotional reason why some will admit the pastor should be disciplined in some way as long as they can stay on at the church in some capacity.

Misapplication of Grace and Sin-Leveling: These are simply two versions of the same false teaching. Misapplication of grace teaches that since God has forgiven all our sins, we should just admit that a sin was committed and allow the pastor to say he is sorry–hopefully with tears and a standing ovation at the end–and then the congregation can move on emotionally.

Sin-leveling is the teaching that we have all sinned and all sins are the same. But this is not true. Thinking about having sex with someone not your spouse is not the same as committing adultery. They are related to one another, but they are not the same sin. Nor do they have the same consequences, which is the key point. But it sounds good, because all of us carry some shame around with us. It is easy to see our own faults and think that we would want people to overlook our mistakes. But abuse is not a mistake. Abuse pours acid on the soul of another human. God reveals great wrath about those who abuse “one of the least of these”. He says it would be better if a millstone were hung around their necks.

This is what we did with the principal and the pastor. The principal went to jail for ten years. The pastor was removed from the pulpit and the Elders board made the recommendation he never pastor again.

So many churches are wrestling with these decisions. We are cleaning out the septic tank of abusers, and it is going to be messy for awhile until we get rid of all the pastoral abusers.

The pulpit unfortunately attracts some narcissistic individuals and these days their victims are coming forward. But will they be believed? I desperately want to say that they will. But most congregation members won’t believe them.

37 thoughts on “Why Churches Disbelieve Victims and Believe Pastoral Abusers

  1. thank you so much Mike for sharing from your years of experience and ministry… very confirming insights on why this dynamic is so often the case, that the pastor is believed and the victim is not… it blows my mind… I’ve said/heard “unbelievable” at least a thousand times in response to various “damage control” tactics by leaders… Bless your heart, stay strong and thank you for being a voice for those silenced!

  2. Good read and very mature and unbiased take on church/pastoral abuse. I’ve seen this first hand in the church I used to go to..Sadly, most groups I checked locally after leaving that church are guilty of some or all in these ‘sin’ list and after seeing enough and being a victim once upon a time myself, I’ve decided to be independent of any church group or ‘unaligned’ and just get involved in or help out in charity groups.

    1. I have no trouble sharing it, but other than for information, I’m not sure if it will benefit. The organization still exists, but they do not do intervention work with churches with pastoral problems any longer. The group is called “Peacemakers” (Ken Sande). Now, they are mostly involved in doing training with churches on how to handle conflict. I stopped working with them in the late 90s because they changed their focus.

      1. Ken Sande use to endorse C.J. Mahaney. I understand that is no longer the case after Sande saw how C.J. responded when C.J.’s sin and hypocrisy was exposed. Mahaney is and example of people wanting to abuse a pastoral leader.

      2. I agree Steve. I was long gone by the time all that happened. But Ken told me he no longer supported Mahaney.

      3. Mike

        Thanks for you response regarding C.J. Mahaney. I am glad that Ken Sande’s eyes opened up when shown the evidence. It is disappointing that Ken Sande wasn’t able to get through to C.J. Then again with so many other leaders telling C.J. he really did no wrong or minimizing it I am sure it made it hard for C.J. to see his hypocrisy.

  3. Excellent thoughts and insights. My family has been wrongfully excommunicated twice by abusive pastors because we expose sin and injustice within the church. I thought we were the only ones treated this way. I always says I wish someone would buy the rights because you cannot make this stuff up and it is altogether unbelievable. Thank you for writing this!

    1. First, I’m sorry you had to go through that more than once–or even once for that matter. Churches have an unwritten playbook they follow when abuse happens. It is the churches who don’t act that way who are the ones I am intrigued by.

    2. “I thought we were the only ones treated this way. ” That seems to one way abusive churches are able to exist for so long. They find ways to control information where people think they were the only ones treated this way or think they are the only one with issues or questions.

      One way to keep people thinking they are the only ones is to have a broad definition of what is “gossip” or “slander” and thus make people afraid of tlaking.

      This blog post is a very good analysis. . Thanks for posting.

  4. “We are cleaning out the septic tank of abusers, and it is going to be messy for awhile until we get rid of all the pastoral abusers.”

    Your posts are part of the solution. Thanks. Good work. God bless.

  5. I’m sorry for my late reply! It took a few days to fully read this, and I’m SO glad I did! It was well written and well thought out. I think you hit the nail on the head in every way, and these are reason why abuse is still rampant in the church.

    Thank you for this: “But abuse is not a mistake. Abuse pours acid on the soul of another human.” Spot on.

    I actually try to be a bit gracious towards people, who are in a temporary state of denial/disbelief when abuse allegations come out against someone they love, or look up to. There’s a “shock” to the system that has to wear off, before the mind can process such awful news.

    Where I lose sympathy is where denial refuses to fade, and instead the heart hardens. They refuse to listen to the victims, or chooses to believe they “must be” lying. That is inexcusable. You must let the facts unfold, and let the chips fall where they may. That is what proper investigating does, and it cannot be done “in house” by people who have personal relationships with the accused. Police are trained in these areas, and are trained to be objective.

    I loved the one where you mentioned people will take the “easier” route, with the least amount of consequences. So true. I also think people try to stay “neutral” and refuse to take sides. That is not optional. You either believe one party, or the other. You can’t have it both ways, trying to be “objective” when really you just don’t want to pay a price for believing the victim.

    I’ve noticed that victims tend to be told that they are at LEAST partially responsible for their abuse. They trusted the wrong person, chose to be alone with their abuser, or did not say “no” clearly enough (the list goes on). So while sin leveling may not occur, “shared blame” is still alive and kicking.

    It’s not fair to assume victims are infallible; that they’ve never sinned and that is why you believe them. You will never find a perfect, pure, 100% sinless victim. It doesn’t work that way. EVERYONE sins. But you DO NOT use their fallen nature to excuse or justify the abuser’s fallen nature. That is where we are failing as well. Not understanding that there is no excuse for the abuser’s sin. None.

  6. This so much mirrors the credence and support that American Christians still continue to give to President Trump in the face of the revelations of his past sexual misdemeanours.

  7. Mike, excellent work on your article…I am interested in connecting with you about an international Conference on Engaging Religion, Faith, Spirituality, Science & Research in Lansing Michigan, on November 14-16, 2018…Here is a link to the faculty line up: https://www.biscmi.org/engaging-faculty/

    The agenda is just about ready to be published…please email me if you are interested in talking about the conference

      1. 23rd Annual
        2018 International Conference
        Dates: November 14-16, 2018
        A Groundbreaking International Conference to explore and examine the impact of religion/faith/spirituality on battering intervention practice and programs!

        The Battering Intervention Services Coalition of Michigan (BISC-MI) 2018 Annual Conference is entitled, Religion, Faith, Spirituality, Science & Research: Engaging for Safety and Accountability.  Participants will have the opportunity to expand knowledge, perceptions, and experiences. This conference will explore the impact of connecting the field of battering intervention with the often contradictory and complicated issues of religion, faith, spirituality, incorporating principles of science and research.

        Engaging faith communities, and developing strategies to address the personal religious/faith/spiritual beliefs, can provide important, meaningful pathways for intervention and change for many who participate in battering intervention programs. Examining the multiple and overlapping contexts regarding the historical impact of a wide range of religious institutions, faith beliefs and spiritual practices is critical to this process. Applying recent research and advances in science to inform practice is an essential component.

        Join BISC-MI as we continue the tradition of providing exciting, relevant, and innovative conferences to advance the field of battering intervention!

  8. Mike, in twenty years of advocating for survivors of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and vowed religious, this is at once the most thorough and compact treatment of this phenomenon I have ever encountered. Well done. It should be a “must read” for all ministers, church councils, school principals, and boards of directors.

    I have personally known three such perpetrators as mentors. I have even experienced denial in myself. But even more, I’ve seen it in others around these three criminals. Also, whenever I read of an accused minister, I see as surely as night follows day members of their congregation leaping to their defense and in many cases re-victimizing the victims.

    Thanks for writing this. I’ve shared it, and will continue to do so.

    1. Thank you for sharing it Greg. We all go through denial when someone we know is accused. It is natural. But the more we know, the more we can fight that inclination.

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