Why All Churches Are Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse: A Call to Action

Why All Churches Are Vulnerable to Sexual Abuse: A Call to Action

This week a report broke that the scope of Catholic clergy’s abuse of children was much, much larger than was previously thought, at least in Illinois. Almost 2000 children were abused by clergy since 1950 in that state. This report is shocking in some senses, but not really in others. Which is to say, it certainly seems to be yet another large set of additions to the #churchtoo canon, showing how much previously unspoken of sexual abuse happens in churches. (Note: if you don’t know what #churchtoo is, it’s like #metoo for churches.) It’s tempting for non-Catholics to respond to this kind of report with a “not all churches” response—as in, it happens there but it wouldn’t happen here. In today’s blog post I will unwrap why we seek to say such things and why it “not all churches” can be unhelpful in a lot of ways.

If you stick with me I’ll also talk about how to get to healthier responses.

Yup, I Was Raised to Have that “Not All Churches” Attitude

Let me start by saying that as a communication scholar who studies stress, trauma, and conflict communication AND a pastor’s kid who grew up in a right-leaning moderate Evangelical denomination that has not (at least not as yet) had this kind of public denominational scandal, I absolutely see the tendency to “not all churches” this kind of report.

In fact, I’ve literally clucked my tongue when hearing about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal assuming it could never happen in the denomination I grew up in (I now have no doubt my home denomination is vulnerable). So I know how easy it is, when you read about this kind of sexual abuse situation happening to them, to shake one’s head sagely and confirm your own group’s goodness in contrast.

It’s sooo easy to dismiss that gnawing uneasiness about these kinds of things happening by outsourcing uncomfortable problems to those people over there.

Ooh Wait, Jesus Called Out Religious Folks Who Shook Their Heads Like This

Some may say sort of like the religious folks Jesus pointed to as negative examples??? Oooops.


I absolutely believe Jesus was right about this—because this not all churches kind of attitude is incredibly damaging, especially when looking at cases of sexual abuse and abuse of power. If you give me a few minutes I’ll explain why.

The Neurobiological Reasons It’s So Easy to Do, Though

But yeah, like I said, I’m both a PK from one of those denominations AND I’m a communication scholar who studies stress, trauma, and conflict communication, so I can absolutely see how it happens.

See, often we grow up in the dream that our church environment was safer than others.

OR we work so hard to choose well when we choose what to be involved in as adults. Sometimes we’re fleeing places with genuinely toxic environments and we’re just looking for some place we hope is safer.

When we seem to find it, we cling to the presumed safety of that environment.

In either situation, we really really hate to think that unhealthy behaviors, up to and including sexual abuse, could happen here in addition to there.

Our Brains Are Trying to Protect Us, But Sometimes In Misguided Ways

And the thing is, our brains tend to try to protect us from the stress and trauma that can come from the realization that people, including maybe even some of our people—the people we know—do horrible and damaging things by getting us to ignore the problem.

Note that our brains are trying to protect us when they do this. But they often do so in really misguided ways that end up hurting us or others.  

When the Idea of Safety Becomes More Important than Actual Safety for Vulnerable Folks

The problem, of course, is that when our brains pull this avoid-the-idea-that-there-could-be-a-potential-problem strategy, defending the idea of safety can become more important than the actual safety of the church members themselves.

In that kind of situation, the reputation of the environment—the church, the denomination, the pastor/priest—can often be made to take precedence over the actual good of the group, including the most vulnerable in the community.

In these situations, it seems more important to church leaders to LOOK holy and unblemished—or just for them to feel themselves to be safe at the expense of reality, depending on the situations and people—than to actually prevent or deal with abuse in healthy ways, sadly.

Purity culture can be complicit in this, as I’ve discussed before, especially here. But even outside of purity culture-based environments, this can absolutely happen.  

Avoidance of Conflict Doesn’t Actually Make a Different Reality

When that happens, well, the problem is that the churches are often too busy allergic to the idea that problems could remotely happen to actually work to prevent them.

In conflict studies, this is called the avoidance form of conflict management. It’s a great strategy for some situations. But it also can lead to toxic environments if it’s only a way of saving face rather than creating healthy environments for the vulnerable.

But, strangely, if you ignore the potential for problems, that doesn’t mean they go away.

Let’s Not Scapegoat Denominations that Have Been Publicly Called Out, Please

Both the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention have been overtly and publicly condemned for covering up abuse.

Let’s be clear—just because other churches and denominations haven’t been publicly called out doesn’t mean the same unhealthy patterns haven’t been at play there.

It also doesn’t mean that people haven’t been abused there. Either at individual churches or on a broader scale.

It certainly doesn’t mean that unhealthy clergy or other unhealthy individuals don’t hang out there.

It also doesn’t mean that even in the best environments there aren’t systemic gaps that could lead to abuse cases.

All Organizations Are Vulnerable, In Reality

The truth is this: every church is potentially vulnerable to sexual abuse happening there. Even when churches and denominations have systems in places to at least ostensibly try to prevent it and deal with it when it happens.

As I outlined above, to deny that fact is to too often protect the illusion of safety—of feeling shielded from the possibility of things going wrong—at the expense of actual safety.

And if you think progressive or mainline denominations aren’t vulnerable to this kind of thing—well, I’ve heard stories from people I trust that would make your eyelids curl.

Being Honest About Vulnerabilities Is Key

Ultimately, what I’ve come to believe is this. As with individuals, the sign of health isn’t that a church or organization looks invulnerable, but when they are willing to honestly show their vulnerabilities and work through their issues and actually try to make things better as much as they are able.

Have to Be Able to Spot the Pretense, Though

Now, the tricky part about this is that a form of covert spiritual abuse often pretends to be vulnerable, in the same way some unhealthily narcissistic individuals pretend to be vulnerable when they really are not.

The reality is, we’re all vulnerable to this kind of surface-level appeal when our brains are trying to protect us in the ways outlined above.

Chuck DeGroat, a clinical expert on church narcissism and the author of When Narcissism Comes to Church, talks about the unhealthy forms of this in detail in that book. He specifically talks about clergy as pretending to be vulnerable through a strategy he terms fauxnerability.

Defining Fauxnerability

Fauxnerability, he says, “has the appearance of transparency but serves only to conceal one’s deepest struggles.” He goes on to talk about a pastor who talks about his “besetting sins,” “talking about his brokenness and sin in a seemingly repentant way, grooming his listeners into empathy and trust. When he got them in his grip, he took seemingly innocent but calculated swipes at his wife…In time, people came to see him as the victim.”

As with narcissistic individuals, the same can be the case with narcissistic organizations, a topic DeGroat takes up later in the book. Sometimes churches too take up this mantle of seeming vulnerability, but as with the vulnerable narcissist, are really avoiding the deeper problems and really trying to blame others for their poor handling of the problems in their midst.

Red Flags for Fauxnerability

Some red flags of fauxnerability to look for, according to DeGroat?

  • Contradictions
  • Disclosures that focus on the past (let me tell you about this seemingly mild sin that’s seemingly already healed, so as to avoid telling you about the real ongoing issues under the surface!!!)
  • Looking good in public but not showing care off stage
  • Shifting blame in inappropriate ways
  • Unwillingness to look deeper to solve the underlying issues
  • Oversharing for manipulative purposes
  • A lack of mutuality and connection

What to Look For In Healthy Organizations and People

While DeGroat doesn’t draw a straight line between fauxnerability and what unhealthy seemingly vulnerable organizations look like, it’s not remotely a shocker that the descriptions in both parts of the book look remarkably the same.

And in the same way that over time you can get a sense of whether a person is resisting being emotionally vulnerable for a truly close relationship, and whether or how they’re really genuinely willing to address differences, conflicts and problems in their midst (both things I teach in my university classes, as it happens), the same is true of religious organizations as well, including when it comes to sexual abuse situations.

The important thing to know is this: While not all churches may experience either sexual abuse or abuse of power situations equally, and some may deal with it better than others (see DeGroat’s book for a great description of the healthy organization and how it responds), ALL churches are vulnerable to sexual abuse in some way.

Because, you see, as there are no perfect people, there are no perfect churches.

When “We’re All Imperfect” Gets Abused to Hide Abuse

As DeGroat notes, the picture gets more complicated because some deeply imperfect churches and individuals may only be using that very seeming self-awareness of their imperfections as a way to hide deeper issues. This is often called vulnerable narcissism in individuals, and DeGroat goes more in depth in the book about how organizations can exhibit similar unhealthy patterns as well.

Because this happens, it’s really important to look at the evidence of how both individuals and organizations act and behave to see whether they are genuinely willing to do their best to deal with abuse cases in a genuinely vulnerable way.

True Vulnerability: Seeking Justice

In the end, I know this much is true: the healthiest churches would acknowledge that “it can happen here.”

And not only say that, but be willing to actually seek justice for perpetrators in their midst as a way to prevent more abuse and damage, as well as to provide healing and support to survivors. Contrary to hushing up survivors, they would be willing to do real investigations to try to help understand what happened, how it was enabled, and to try to find the underlying issues that can be fixed as much as they are able.

Learning to Read Fauxnerability in Churches and Individuals

One thing I truly love about my discipline—communication—is that it gets into that nitty-gritty in-between space between ideals and the lived world.

While theology or philosophy can sometimes promise one thing and deliver another, I do love that I live in the field where we are trained, and in turn train others, to look at what the verbal and non-verbal communication that’s actually happening is communicating in real time.

It’s really a beautiful thing.

Learning to Spot Incongruous Disconfirming Communication

I don’t have time to pull out all my communication tools today, but one really helpful term from my field that speaks to a lot of the different aspects of DeGroat’s fauxnerability problem is the idea of incongruous disconfirming communication.

I’ve discussed this term before (here), but it’s been awhile, so the long and the short of it is this: incongruous messaging is when a person’s verbal communication says one thing while a person’s nonverbal communication (including behavior) says another.  

We’re all familiar with this kind of idea—the common term we tend to be more familiar with is hypocrisy.

Why Not Just Call It Hypocrisy?

What I love about the fancier scholarly term, though, is that it’s part of the study of disconfirming communication, which is communication that ultimately leads someone to feel devalued as a human being and that leads to rightful feelings of a lack of safety in environments and relationships.

What Happens When We Don’t Do What We Can to Make Things Better

Research shows that too much or too strong devaluing communication of this or other types can often lead to a rightful lack of trust in a person or organization.

It’s incredibly counterproductive, in light of this fact, that churches fear maintaining their reputations so much that they end up acting really incongruously about sexual abuse cases and other matters, which is ultimately what so often leads to people losing faith in them.

The truth is that in reality, to create a healthy and trusting environment, you need to show you’re willing to minimize disconfirming communication where you’re able to. The pervasive religious rhetoric about how “all humans are imperfect” tends to dismiss this reality and too often becomes a way to avoid making things better.

What the Catholic Abuse Scandal Can Teach Other Churches

I can assure you, as even long after the Catholic church’s abuse scandal broke and had Pulitzer-prize winning movies written about it, we’re STILL finding out more about the depth and breadth of the abuse that occurred, if you’re at a religious organization, there’s a good chance there’s been sexual abuse that’s been pushed under the rug at some time or other.

It’s a common temptation in the world of spirituality for all of the reasons mentioned above and more.

None of This Means It’s Easy to Make Change

Let’s be clear—this doesn’t mean it’s easy to take the steps we can to change unhealthy environments. I’ve talked to clergy who backed survivors against unhealthy systems and ended up with their own cases of spiritual trauma in the process.

While I’ve heard of a few conservative pastors and other allies that have backed survivors, most of these cases I’m aware of were in moderate or progressive church environments.

The truth is that unhealthy church environments can cause a lot of trauma for allies as well as survivors. But the only way things will change is enough people being willing to look at the problems and advocate for change.

Reaching Toward Healthier Fruits

I guess all of this boils down, not shockingly, to Jesus being pretty d*mned wise, in his calling out of hypocritical religious folks AND his emphasis on knowing trees by the health of their fruits.

Because this much is true: those who say not all churches are correct in a lot of senses. In the same way that there can be healthier relationships than others, there can be healthier organizations than others.

That is absolutely accurate.

Being Aware of What Can Go Wrong and Why To Be Healthier

But this is also true, and is emphasized strongly in Chuck DeGroat’s book: Keeping both relationships and organizations healthy involves a clear-eyed awareness of problems that have and could crop up, and a genuine commitment to solve them if and when they do.

This fits perfectly with ALL the interdisciplinary research on healthy conflict management.

Time to Listen to Critiques with An Eye to Advocacy and Improvement

Ultimately, while the “not all churches” response is a natural way to try to make one think that one’s environment is immune from the problems of sexual abuse, a wiser and, to use Chuck DeGroat’s term, less fauxnerable response would be to listen to aspects of the situation or critique that may apply to one’s own environment.

It’s better to ask clear-headedly whether one’s own religious organization is vulnerable to the same problems.

And it’s wiser to turn one’s energies to supporting survivors by working to understand and shore up the potential gaps in the system wherever you are.

There Are Bound to Be Gaps: Wise People Will Work on Them as They’re Able

I know this much is true: whether or not there are systems in place in your environment, there ARE gaps in them. And if everyone in churches was willing to learn more about this issue and demanded that reformation took place, things would not be instantly solved, but they would gradually get better.

The truth is that sexual abuse in religious organizations is a huge societal problem, all religious organizations have at least some vulnerability to these issues, and ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. May we all have the strength and energy to do what we can in this area.  

A Final Charge

Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s do whatever we can where we are with what we’ve got to speak up against the toxic crap toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.

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Venmo: @assertivespirituality

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Why All Churches Are…

by DS Leiter Time to read: 13 min