By Robin Mullins Senger
Julie [Owens] began to hear stories about other clergy neglecting victims’ pleas for help. These church leaders blamed the women for the abuse, ostracized them, and told them to “pray, stay, obey,” she says… Listening to Julie Owens, Audrey [an abused wife] realized what she had endured was not representative of the God she knew. She felt as if someone had handed her back her faith…
This is an excerpt out of a sickening but important article: Julie Owens: Protecting the Flock
Julie “educates clergy and church members about the need to focus on victims’ safety. She wants religious leaders to better understand abuse, hold abusers accountable, and screen for signs of abuse when they conduct premarital counseling.” Visit Julie’s website here.
If you have experienced abuse and the church minimized it, you are not alone. You are not crazy and “under God’s wrath” for not wanting to live like that. I grew up in the church and watched my parents deal with corrupt pastors. If they confronted the corruption, they would be given the cold shoulder by all the leadership until they finally left due to the passive-aggressive hostility. I thought this was normal.
As I developed into a teenager, quiet, unsure, and a loner, I was a perfect target for new clergy who wanted a plaything who could be intimidated into silence. When I turned 19, I married a 42-year-old divorced pastor who I thought really loved me. No one talked to me about the red flags of the whole situation. Maybe they didn’t even recognize them. I was just told repeatedly by acquaintances how great a union it would be and how their parents and grandparents who married with a huge age gap had a wonderful marriage.
What I didn’t know was that the pastor I married needed to be married to advance in his denomination. Being divorced was holding him back. Typical of a predator, he saw my naivety and took advantage of the opportunity. He changed from charming to a cold and uncaring jerk as soon as we drove off for our honeymoon. My wedding night was spent by the hotel room door crying because he took absolutely no interest in me and it was as if I didn’t even exist.
It was another thing I just didn’t understand – he never showed any interest in me personally or sexually except to sometimes amuse himself with tossing me around like a rag doll in the house and shooting at me in the cow field for fun. I was 19 and felt so confused about life not fulfilling my fairy-tale expectations. Thankfully, we were living on my dad’s property and my dad told him to get off the property. My husband threatened him with a gun and my 3-month marriage ended with a quick divorce. My husband died of a massive heart-attack shortly after – justice! It took a few years but it finally came out into the open that the reason he had no interest in me sexually was because he was molesting the young boys in the congregation before preaching on Sundays.
Years later I respectfully corrected a pastor who blamed the wife of the worship leader for “making him almost kill her.” In spite of the worship leader’s repeated violence that kept sending her to the emergency room, the church leadership felt sorry for him being married to such a difficult person who kept making him angry. He told me that he couldn’t put any stock in my assessment since I had encountered other pastors like that. Therefore I couldn’t be believed. I’m thinking, so I challenge your victim-blaming and you discount me because I have experienced you knot-heads in the past also? That’s brilliant. Blame the victim and discount anyone who has a problem with the violence, even if it doesn’t make any sense. Protect the boy’s club at all costs. Sadly that is typical.
If you feel discounted by your church leadership for questioning red-flag behavior, know that you are correct to question it. Their minimizing response is further cause for concern – it should validate your gut feelings. Don’t let them make you feel small and foolish. An appropriate response would be to respectfully acknowledge your concerns and then follow church policy (if they have one!) to address it. Attacking you for questioning something is what guilty people and abusive personalities do.
When I think back on the pastor I married, there were red flags, but he was adept at putting down anyone who dared to question anything. What if those people had stood in their concerns and pushed the subject further regardless of his charm or intimidation? He was molesting 5-year old boys! Could that have been stopped? Probably. A pastor is not God, and should not be revered and adulated as if he is. Religious leaders need to be held especially accountable.
God cares about this issue very much. He is not blind to it, and is not letting them off the hook. So often I have just desperately wished for divine judgment to happen NOW. It doesn’t happen the way I wish it would. It’s taken years for me to make peace with the fact that God sees the evil in the church and deals with it in His way and time. He can be trusted to bring justice – it’s not my burden to bear. Or it would just eat me up. He alone is strong and wise enough to deal with it. Even though sometimes it appears that these false shepherds are getting away with it in the community, they are held accountable by God who sees every bit of it.
I take great comfort in the principle laid out in Jeremiah concerning false religious leaders. Now before you read it, keep in mind that this is a principle. God hates abuse and falsehood and oppression. He hates it when people misuse their authority to hurt people, to mislead them, to cover up their evil desires, to turn a blind eye to abuse and evil. Just because someone holds the title of clergy does not mean that God called them to ministry. The ministry attracts a plethora of corrupt evil men who want the position to hide their secret sins, to gain access to victims, to give themselves credibility so they can gain more access through other agencies who trust them. Read this article by Joe Navarro M.A. to understand it more: Why Predators Are Attracted to Careers in the Clergy.
If you read Joe’s article and the following Bible passage from Jeremiah 23, they make so much sense together.
“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for,” says the Lord. 2 Therefore, this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: “Instead of caring for my flock and leading them to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them. 3 But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their own sheepfold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. 4 Then I will appoint responsible shepherds who will care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one will be lost or missing. I, the Lord, have spoken!
10 For the land is full of adultery, and it lies under a curse. The land itself is in mourning—its wilderness pastures are dried up. For they all do evil and abuse what power they have. 11 “Even the priests and prophets are ungodly, wicked men. I have seen their despicable acts right here in my own Temple,” says the Lord. 12 “Therefore, the paths they take will become slippery. They will be chased through the dark, and there they will fall. For I will bring disaster upon them at the time fixed for their punishment. I, the Lord, have spoken!
15 Therefore, this is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says concerning the prophets: “I will feed them with bitterness and give them poison to drink. For it is because of Jerusalem’s prophets that wickedness has filled this land.” 16 This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says to his people: “Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you, filling you with futile hopes. They are making up everything they say. They do not speak for the Lord! 17 They keep saying to those who despise my word, ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’ And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires, they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’
18 “Have any of these prophets been in the Lord’s presence to hear what he is really saying? Has even one of them cared enough to listen? 19 Look! The Lord’s anger bursts out like a storm, a whirlwind that swirls down on the heads of the wicked. 20 The anger of the Lord will not diminish until it has finished all he has planned. In the days to come you will understand all this very clearly.
21 “I have not sent these prophets, yet they run around claiming to speak for me. I have given them no message, yet they go on prophesying. 22 If they had stood before me and listened to me, they would have spoken my words, and they would have turned my people from their evil ways and deeds. 23 Am I a God who is only close at hand?” says the Lord. “No, I am far away at the same time. 24 Can anyone hide from me in a secret place? Am I not everywhere in all the heavens and earth?” says the Lord.
25 “I have heard these prophets say, ‘Listen to the dream I had from God last night.’ And then they proceed to tell lies in my name. 26 How long will this go on? If they are prophets, they are prophets of deceit, inventing everything they say. 27 By telling these false dreams, they are trying to get my people to forget me, just as their ancestors did by worshiping the idols of Baal. 28 “Let these false prophets tell their dreams, but let my true messengers faithfully proclaim my every word. There is a difference between straw and grain! 29 Does not my word burn like fire?” says the Lord. “Is it not like a mighty hammer that smashes a rock to pieces?
30 “Therefore,” says the Lord, “I am against these prophets who steal messages from each other and claim they are from me. 31 I am against these smooth-tongued prophets who say, ‘This prophecy is from the Lord!’ 32 I am against these false prophets. Their imaginary dreams are flagrant lies that lead my people into sin. I did not send or appoint them, and they have no message at all for my people. I, the Lord, have spoken!
God is not blind to what is happening. If you are experiencing abuse, and not getting the support you need from your religious group, you are not alone. Reach out to others who have been through this and will listen to you and understand you and encourage you. You are not alone and never will be. Julie has an amazing group on Facebook with connections to many others, including myself, who care deeply about you and will love you and help you. Her group is called Addressing DV in Christian Homes.
In conclusion, you are not to blame. God loves you deeply. Draw close to Him and share your heart with Him, even if it’s just to cry because your pain is too deep to talk. He is listening and will never leave you or fail you.
Psalm 22:24 The Message (MSG)
Here’s the story I’ll tell my friends when they come to worship, and punctuate it with Hallelujahs: Shout Hallelujah, you God-worshipers; give glory, you sons of Jacob; adore him, you daughters of Israel. He has never let you down, never looked the other way when you were being kicked around. He has never wandered off to do his own thing; he has been right there, listening.