Church leaders revictimize abuse victims when they fail to respond appropriately to abuse. Theology can be used to minimize the sin of perpetrators and sometimes blames abuse victims.
I’ve been following the story of Pastor Steve Wingfield at First Christian Church of Florissant and was notified that the largest paper in St. Louis published a follow-up article, The battle for First Christian Church of Florissant. It is important for people to see the likely fallout when church leaders fail to be true shepherds. As a result, First Christian Church of Florissant is dwindling in numbers as the remaining members try to make sense of the mess created by their church leaders.
The story involves a former youth minister, Brandon Milburn, who is now serving 25 years in prison for sexual crimes against minor boys and how Pastor Wingfield failed to report and respond appropriately when members brought the sexual abuse allegations to his attention.
In April, Pastor Wingfield filed a defamation lawsuit against several members who spoke out against him publicly on social media. Wingfield later dropped the lawsuit claiming he wanted to handle it via mediation. I reached out to one of the former members who said that there has been very little mediation, but “more consulting on how to move past this.” Here’s my interpretation: the negative publicity regarding the lawsuit, Plan A, did not yield the desired results and so Wingfield has gone on to Plan B to redefine their new and improved image (because we know it’s all about the image of the church over helping the abused and defenseless, right?).
Dawn Varvil, one of the defendants in the rescinded lawsuit, discussed the hardships sexual abuse victims have faced while the church leaders turned their backs on them in order to save face. Now, let’s look more closely at the motives behind those mean horrible trouble-making members who had the audacity to call out their pastor publicly:
Members also say the church has neglected to provide victims with any substantial relief, either in the form of paying for counseling, or in the case of at least one family, simply reaching out to inquire how it might be able to help. Varvil also says she knows of others victimized by Milburn who have yet to come forward. (Source)
It’s apparent to see that these members who publicly called out Pastor Steve Wingfield are concerned about the emotional and spiritual well-being of those who have been harmed by leaders within the church, a place that is supposed to be a refuge and a place that shares the love of Christ, defending the oppressed and abused.
“This is a stumbling block for them,” Varvil said, referring to the victims. “They have left the church. Some of them are using drugs. Some of them are using alcohol. The faith community owes them some action.” (Source)
I agree 100% with Varvil. To be sexually abused by a leader in the church who is in a position of trust and then abandoned by other church leaders sends very powerful messages to victims:
- who can victims trust in the church?
- are the church leaders not concerned about the pain they are feeling?
- where has God been in all of this?
When church leaders fail to respond appropriately, the victim is emotionally, physically, and spiritually abandoned. Some might have a crisis of faith and leave the church, some will even reject God because if God’s church leaders blame or disregard victims, the logical conclusion is that God also does the same. Varvil discusses the secondary abuse here:
“To see them no longer having any relationship with Christ is I think, well, it’s the most abusive part of what happened,” Varvil continued. “Because they came to him (Milburn) to begin with because they were broken and vulnerable from situations. It was the perfect time for them to embrace their faith.” (Source)
What About Those Who Have Abandoned Their Faith as a Result of Secondary Abuse by Church Leaders?
Varvil has clearly articulated the problem of secondary abuse by church leaders, but now we’re going to focus on specific foundational beliefs which seem to minimize abuse and place full responsibility of those leaving the faith onto onto victim. Are these beliefs wide-spread?
Boz Tchividjian was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine in this excellent article, How Should Christians Respond to Abuse Situations Like the Duggars’?, and he echoed a similar heartfelt message as Varvil about victims who have abandoned their faith:
Well, I’ve encountered those victims 10, 15, 20 years later. And it’s a tragedy, because they don’t want anything to do with Jesus. And I understand it. Because the very ones who professed and represented Jesus turned their backs on them to care for and spend all of their time and resources on the very ones that eviscerated their lives through abuse.
A couple of days ago, I took a screenshot of the Boz’s quote above, and tweeted it, adding the following to preface it: “When Christians fail to respond appropriately to sex abuse, this often happens:”
My tweet was retweeted by someone who did not agree with Boz (or me) and challenged it based on her understanding of theology:
“This is an example of a distortion and misunderstanding of the doctrine of soteriology. We are all born “not wanting anything to do with Jesus”. It is due to our sin nature, not events in our lives.” ~Jules’ Diner
Do you see what’s going on here? What conclusion do you come to when reading @Jules’ Diner’s tweets? Who is responsible when a victim falls from the faith – – the victim, because of their own sin, or the abuser?
Do you see how this belief could minimize the abuser’s responsibility?
If church leaders believe this, what are the far-reaching implications for an abuse victim? For an offender?
Do you see how this belief could create a climate in which church leaders do not take abuse seriously because they believe the victim is ultimately held responsible for how they respond to their abuse and also “their sin” of falling away from Christ?
Yes, I understand that we are all sinners, but when we discuss a victim’s sin rather than wrap our arms around and support a victim, how can a victim ever feel safe in such an environment?
These two verses from Jesus come to mind when it comes to the faith of a child that deserve consideration. Look how Jesus responded to those who have caused children to sin or have sabotaged their faith:
Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. Matthew 18:5-6
And one more:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Mark 10:13-14
If Jesus said that faith can be harmed by people, then is He not suggesting the onus is on the perpetrator, NOT the victim? That is the response we must have over any theology that teaches otherwise.
In other words, if you are following a theology that doesn’t align with Jesus’ words, you might want to recheck your theology.
- Florissant church, pastor dismiss defamation lawsuit
- A Youth Minister’s Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart
- Is it Enough – blog detailing the coverup at First Christian Church of Florissant