Sexual abuse of any kind is abhorrent. God hates it and Christians ought to hate it just as much. It is a sin in so many ways and at so many levels—and it thrives on secrecy. Abusers prey on the vulnerable, on those who are weak, on those they know can be compelled to keep silent and thus cover up the abuse. In that respect, the #metoo movement of the last months is a welcome shedding of light on a horrific problem that exists not just in our society at large but also—sadly and miserably—within the church. Also with the Canadian Reformed Churches.
Although the #metoo concept has been around for quite a while, starting in October 2017 it took off on social media after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke open. Allegations were made by various actresses against Weinstein, a powerful executive movie producer. Their stories ranged from sexual misconduct to assault and rape. Once the first lady spoke up, it was like a dam had burst. Numerous others came forward in the coming days, one after the other, to allege sexual harassment against this same man. One actress told her twitter followers to write “me too” if they had been sexually harassed or assaulted and thus was born the #metoo campaign.
It attracted millions of reactions and retweets in the following days and as I write this in mid-February 2018, #metoo is still trending strongly. Many women felt emboldened to speak up about some abuse in their past. In fact, in the weeks following a lot of other women have come forward to make public accusations against other men in positions of power. Influential Hollywood figures like Kevin Spacey and Woody Allen were called out. Soon the movement moved over to the political realm where allegations dogged US Senator Al Franken and Senate nominee Roy Moore, ruining their careers. In Canada, as a result of allegations, Patrick Brown resigned as leader of the Ontario Progressive Conservatives in dramatic fashion though he denied the accusations. Similarly, journalist Matt Lauer resigned his job as network anchor and comedian Louis C.K.’s reputation took a huge hit. Even celebrity chefs are facing claims of sexual misconduct.
Who can deny that it takes courage to stand up publicly and tell the world what foul things were done to you in secret? We instinctively feel for victims of this or any crime. They are the underdog, the weak, vulnerable and often the young who for many years were pushed down. And when it comes to being on the receiving end of some predator’s sexual sin, there is, regrettably, a misplaced sense of shame and guilt that the victim feels. While the perpetrator often feels no shame or remorse, it’s as if the victim feels double shameful, though logically there is no reason to feel for that.
This makes it incredibly hard for them to step forward and tell others what was done to them. By coming forward, they often must relive the awful experiences of the past. In this way they are, in a very real sense, re-victimized. The wounded have to fight the instinct to just bury the whole thing, memories and all. So, whenever we encounter a true victim of sexual abuse speaking up, we need to applaud their bravery in coming forward, stand with them, and encourage them to speak the truth in love in the pursuit of justice and, as much as feasible, reconciliation.
Under the Carpet
It’s precisely here where there’s often been a lack of understanding and sympathy in the world but also in the church. There’s a tendency in most of us not to want to believe bad things about the “good” people we know, and so a victim’s story is frequently received with suspicion. We just “can’t believe it” and so the accused is given the benefit of the doubt and little to no action is taken. For people who have suffered abuse, for them not to be believed comes across as another blow, another form of put-down. More than that, at times when the truth of the accusations has been verified, and sexual crimes have been committed, arrangements have been made to essentially sweep the matter under the carpet.
In the world this has meant settling such cases out of court (usually with cash to buy the victim’s silence). In the church it has meant some behind-the-scenes “slap on the wrist” for the perpetrator while in the meantime no meaningful confession of sin is offered, or discipline applied. Our federation has known repeat offenders in large part because they were not dealt with appropriately the first time. Too often the long, hard work of bringing about true justice and genuine reconciliation and healing through confession, repentance and a new way of living have not been pursued in favour of a quick and quiet settling of the matter so that life can “get back to normal.” But there is no “normal” or at least no healthy, good normal for the victims unless the truth comes out fully and the perpetrator is dealt with justly.
We must also admit that as elders and consistories we have at times been complicit in stymieing justice by discouraging the reporting of sexual crimes to the authorities. God has given governments and police forces to maintain law and order in the land. The church should not work against that but in every way support it, even if it means public embarrassment. Sticking up for God’s way, for truth and justice, often comes at a cost and we should not back away from it.
Now, however, this trend toward cover-up seems to be reversing with the #metoo movement. But, has the pendulum swung too far the other way? What is noticeable on social media is that the vast majority of the public believes the allegations without question. And if there is any hint of questioning the alleged victim or, worse, actual criticism of her, it is pounced on and that person is publicly shamed.
Remember, these are allegations, unproven assertions about the conduct of another. Aside from giving a general report of the abusive behaviour, the accusers have generally not put forward in public the evidence for their claims. And yet most people online simply jump on the bandwagon and vocally support the women who have spoken up while often fiercely condemning the men being accused. Yet these men have not been heard. Their side of the story is untold. To most, this does not seem to matter. To even raise the question of proof raises hackles and invites a backlash. It has become the forbidden topic, the elephant in the room.
It appears to me that we are witnessing a turning of the tables. Where unscrupulous employers, politicians, celebrities and others in powerful positions once used their influence to oppress and shame their victims for their own pleasure, the victims are now using public pressure and the mere suggestion of wrong-doing to put their oppressors in a corner and shame them in return. To date, four months after the Harvey Weinstein allegations were first made public, there still has been no arrest. This is true for all of the above-named persons. Careers have been ruined and reputations permanently altered in a negative way, but does anyone (aside from the persons directly involved) actually know if they are guilty? Isn’t it possible that false accusations could have been raised? Does anyone care that innocent men may have been trashed in the public eye?
Again, let me repeat that sexual abuse is horrific and should be stood up to and stamped out as much as possible. But is it good and right, is it godly that people are accused, tried and convicted in the court of public opinion without a fair hearing? The automatic, knee-jerk shaming of the #metoo movement is another form of vigilante justice, where the apparent victim whips up a crowd into frenzy and together they proceed to hang the one they believe guilty. No one waits for the evidence. No trial, let alone a fair trial, is even contemplated. An accusation by someone believed to be a victim is enough and the crowd demands the perpetrator’s lynching.
Vigilante justice is not justice. It’s just another form of personal revenge. It’s an instinct at home in our sinful hearts and in a world that does not honour Christ, but it should not be or become our inclination as Christians. True justice is to hold everyone to the standard of God’s law. Sexual abusers show hatred to their helpless neighbours by damaging their bodies and souls purely for their perverted pleasure. On the other hand, liars and slanderers also show hatred to their helpless neighbours by damaging their reputations purely for their perverted sense of justice. All such persons need to be held to account by both the law of the land (as enforced by the courts) and, for Christians, the law of God (as the elders enforce it in the church).
Going public with accusations before any authority has verified the claims is not the way to go either in the world or in the church. That’s just another weapon, another tool of oppression to beat up an enemy with. There have been cases both in the world and in the church where allegations of sexual misconduct are made against a male even though they were completely false. It is not beyond anyone, even a younger female, to concoct a story for some kind of perceived personal gain, with little regard for how that story affects the man involved. A guy’s reputation can be ruined in an instant and even if, years later, his name is legally cleared in the courts and the lie is finally exposed, in the minds of so many that man’s name will never be the same. And that, too, is wrong in the Lord’s eyes.
True victims must be protected, encouraged and supported all the way. But before any action against the accused is taken by the authorities, the truth of the situation must be clarified with facts. Evidence and/or witnesses need to be consulted and a fair-minded judgment made as to guilt.
There is a fine balance here and I recognize it may not be that cut and dried in many situations. What if there is no witness? What if there is no evidence? And yet a woman (or child) comes forward in all earnestness to make allegations of sexual abuse? It seems to me that when there is any question of a woman’s (person’s) safety or health, a precautionary step must be taken to secure her safety. That might mean bringing her elsewhere to live or it might mean removing the alleged perpetrator from the home. Accusations must be taken seriously but once the person is in a safe place, then let a careful, discreet investigation begin and the truth come out.
Sin—whether it’s sexual abuse or lies and slander—is what our Lord Jesus Christ came to die for. True justice was meted out to him on Good Friday so that we Christians might receive mercy and be forgiven all our sins. In this respect, the liar is no different than the abuser. But when we repent of our sin and drink in the grace of God and know peace with him, then we’ll be looking for ways to help our neighbours experience the same thing. Christian justice can never be about us getting pay-back, for we know God has not paid us back for our sin. Justice and mercy, truth and reconciliation—these are what our Saviour died for. For his honour let us now live for them.
Peter H. Holtvlüwer (minister of the Word at Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church)
This article is published here with Rev Holtvluwer’s permission and is also published in Clarion, March 9, 2012.