In today’s blog, we are talking about Institutional Abuse. Again… Truly, it’s becoming so challenging to hear about this issue over and over again and to see it played out within many institutions, but notably and repeatedly within churches across our country. One of the challenges in discussing “Institutional Abuse” is that the name alone dehumanizes the issue and allows us to separate ourselves from the real perpetrators, the humans who make up the institution. Over time, we tend to forget the individuals with brains, heartbeats, bodies, and feelings who were making choice after choice at the expense of another, or many other, person(s) often to protect themself, the perpetrator or the “institution”. No institutional engine exists which is not made up of human parts ensuring it operates as desired, so we cannot blame this issue on a faulty machine made of metal. True accountability in these cases requires individuals to bear the liability alongside the institution. It requires someone – anyone – to assume the responsibility to repair what has been broken.
The damage that is being done by institutions like the Southern Baptist Convention, Pastor John Lowe at New Life Christian Church in Indiana, the Archdiocese of Chicago – and so many other faith institutions – goes far beyond the actual victims of the abuse, although the victims are the ones who have been harmed the most. What the individual predators and perpetrators did to their victims is beyond horrible in the first place, but the devastating long-lasting effects of the “institution” of leaders who colluded with these predators, becoming abusers themselves, by vilifying, silencing and shunning victims or their advocates and refusing to take action to protect them and hold the perpetrators accountable for their wrongdoings is equally egregious and likely even more damaging.
On May 23, 2022, news broke releasing the highlights of a scathing investigative report, 400 pages long, in which an independent investigation revealed the committee’s findings that top Southern Baptist Convention leaders stonewalled and denigrated survivors of clergy sex abuse over two decades while doing everything in their power to protect their own reputation. According to news stories, the report says these survivors, and other concerned Southern Baptists, repeatedly shared allegations with the Executive Committee, “only to be met, time and time again, with resistance, stonewalling, and even outright hostility from some within the EC.” (1) Years of sex scandals, rape and abuse by clergy in the SBC were made public in 2019 when the Houston Chronicle released a multi-part series detailing what they learned through reporter investigation and interviews. Those reports found many complaints had been filed as well as many requests for internal and independent investigations which largely either fell on deaf ears or resulted in efforts to silence those making the requests. Repeated demands for an independent investigation which could confirm or refute the abuse reports and make recommendations for reparation and change were finally honored at the SBC’s 2021 annual convention. The news reports circulating about this story and others compelled us to address this issue again. We hope this helps you to understand these issues a little better and help you make decisions over time about the institutions you become a part of either as a leader, staff member, or a member of the congregation. No matter what institution we belong to, it’s important to remember to keep the leaders accountable to maintaining healthy and safe environments for the community, congregation, members, staff they are supposed to represent.