In my book Sacrilege I said that I thought child abuse by clergy was not just a Catholic problem; the Catholic Church is big and keeps records. Most Protestant churches have far greater congregational autonomy and weak central record keeping, so it is easier for child abuse to disappear. The problem is not new.
Protestant churches in the nineteenth century were beset by scandals.
The Chicago Times in 1872 criticized “the extreme laxity which has commenced to govern certain denominations in accepting candidates for holy orders, and the mildness with which lesser offenses that infallibly lead to greater ones are excused.” The Chicago Times also editorialized: “The clergyman, like the physician, has extraordinary facilities for the commission of a certain class of crimes, and those facilities are such as to heap double damnation upon him if he is sufficiently diabolical to make use of them.”
“Boz” Tchividjian is a grandchild of Billy Graham and a professor at Liberty University. He saw Spotlight and sees the same dynamics at work in Protestantism as were at work in Boston:
My friend Christa Brown, who was sexually abused by her Baptist youth pastor, writes, “Eddie [pastor] always said that God had chosen me for something special. I guess I really wanted to believe that. Doesn’t every kid want to think they’re special? Besides, who was I to question a man of God? It wasn’t my place.” The sinister reality is that sex offenders who hold positions of authority while carrying Bibles and quoting scripture are treacherous, regardless of whether they are called priest, pastor, or reverend. It’s not just a Catholic problem.
I couldn’t help but recall the countless cases I have encountered in Protestant circles where offending pastors, missionaries, and other leaders have been reassigned or allowed to quietly resign all in an effort to insulate the institution. The youth pastor who rapes a child and is transferred to a new church and given a going away party; the pedophile missionary physician who is quietly sent home from the mission field; the church volunteer who admits to sexually abusing a child and is simply directed by the church leadership to move quietly to another state. The list could go on and on. It’s not just a Catholic problem.
In addition to quietly moving or reassigning offenders, many Protestant institutions are no less savvy than the Boston Archdiocese in using money, shame, and guilt to influence survivors and their families to remain silent.
That same deadly silence permeates inside many Protestant institutions. For example, many Protestant leaders who aren’t shy about speaking out on a wide variety of spiritual and cultural issues will often refuse to speak out against specific cases of child sexual abuse. They defend such silence by claiming something like, “We don’t know all the facts and don’t want to tarnish the reputation of someone who has done so much good.” Tragically, what often seems to be the real reason behind such silence is a fear of losing friendships, speaking engagements, book contracts, and other types of “influence”. It’s not just a Catholic problem.
Silence is not just limited to leaders. Just like in the Catholic Church, too many within Protestant congregations prefer to remain ignorant.
People do not want to know the truth. It is uncomfortable and inconvenient. Abusers are often powerful, popular, and manipulative.