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God & Christianity / Life

Abuse in the church—it has to end.

Abuse in the church—it has to end.

One time, I wrote a letter to Pope Francis. I know…ridiculous.

What wasn’t ridiculous was the message I wrote to him: that before he goes off to save the climate and solve the refugee crisis and bring peace to the Middle East, he first needs to take care of priority number one—addressing sexual abuse in his church.

The Catholic Church has gotten the bad rap of being the sole proprietor of sexual abuse within religious institutions. But, as James Nolan wrote for VICE a couple years ago, “Modern history has been riddled with revelations of religious child abuse.” From New Religious Movements to BuddhistsMuslim madrassas to Mormon schoolsHindu gurus to Methodist ministers, it seems that religion has a serious, systemic, abuse problem.

Indeed, sexual abuse has plagued humanity for centuries. Even the Hebrew Scriptures contain tragic stories of abuse, rape, and incest. One of the historical books of these Scriptures relates how Amnon, the son of the famed King David, attempted to force himself on his half-sister, Tamar (2 Samuel 13:11-20).

There are still, today, plenty of Tamars. Too often, religious leaders play the part of Amnon when they are called to look after the vulnerable, especially children (Psalm 127:3; Ephesians 6:4; James 1:27).

As a member of the clergy, let me first tell you: if you are one of the abused, been impacted by this abuse, or you’ve been turned off of religion because of this hypocrisy, I am so, horribly, sorry.

This should go without saying, but abuse has no place in the sanctuary of a church or any other place supposed to provide love, safety, and justice to all regardless of age, gender, or position in life.

I hope that healing has come to your life and that you have not been been forced to continually carry a burden of abuse. But I know that some of you still live in the desolate conditions of someone like Tamar.

For you, there is the promise of Isaiah 61, which speaks to how God will deliver the oppressed, mend the brokenhearted, set free the captives, and comfort those who mourn. It is my prayer that these promises would all come true for you as you are supported by professionals, family, friends, and even the church as you lead a healthy, fulfilled life—physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Indeed, I hope that religious institutions do not continue to let you down. St. Francis of Assisi, the Pope’s namesake, once said that where there is injury, we should sow pardon. In this case, we must be clear that victims of abuse are not in the least bit responsible or at fault for the harm done to them.

In that vein, religious leaders and organizations must go beyond apologies and take appropriate action to punish those who have abused their power and to prevent that type of abuse in the future. The pardon sowed in the case of these injuries should not be for the abusers. They must be prosecuted and punished accordingly. Further, churches need to take the issue of abuse as a loud and clear call for reform and to no longer protect the abusers, but admonish them, provide support for the abused, and protect future generations from having to suffer similar mistreatment at the hands of ministers and leadership figures. Our religious institutions must be remade into places of love, justice, and safety for people of all ages, genders, and dispositions.

This type of reform will not happen overnight. It will take years to make any form of reparation, rid religion of sexual indecency (or at least make the attempt), and bring transparency to religious leadership, which is too often clouded in secrecy and power.

So too, for people who have been abused, there is no quick fix. I wish I could say there was. However, as the promise from Isaiah makes clear, in Jesus there is hope and healing, liberation and justice. I can only pray that the reality of those promises are evident in your life in the days, weeks, and years to come.

Until then, religious leaders like me have work to do—to interrupt the injustices being perpetrated by our very own leaders on our very own people.

This post reflects the views of the author, and is intended to start a conversation. Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Or, if you’d like to hear some overall thoughts on abuse from Christians at THRED, you can find those over here.

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Religion nerd, rugby fan, runner, foodie, traveler, beer-ista. Ken gets to do a lot of these things as a religion scholar, pastor, and popular writer and speaker working out of universities, cafés, communities, and local pubs across the U.S.


  1. Thank you for this good, hard, and true word of correction to the Church, Ken. As we look to our Living God to make all things new, it seems that this essential culture shift away from darkness and secrets and lies begins with the simple act of a man—any good by-standing man—being willing to take the side of a woman over and against another man. Not simply to say he believes her (although that is the obvious start), but to risk his own standing in the band of brothers to ensure that her abuser is called out and penalized. To bravely shine a floodlight throughout the systems that have for too long protected oppressors. To chip away at the Old Boy’s Club in which he is a privileged member through no special merit, and dare to see the world and the Church through the eyes of Christ. I believe He is calling people like you to speak truth to power—not only about sexual abuse but all abuses of power and influence in the Church and in the world. I pray for more of you. May His prophets multiply and bear much fruit.

  2. Whenever the sins of people in leadership positions within organized religion are exposed, others will use this as a means to discredit the institution as a whole. The power of this criticism is increased when others in church leadership refuse to acknowledge the problem or try to cover it up.

    Rather, we should apply what Jesus said in Matthew 18:15-17:

    15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”(ESV)

    This is not only true in cases of sexual abuse, but in cases of seduction, drunkenness, greed, and many other sins.

  3. Dear Ken, I don’t think that Amnon “attempted to force himself on his half-sister”. From how I read he quite well overpowered her and succeeded in “forcing himself”, by which I think you are saying raped her? I appreciate your attempts to be polite, but this is a ghastly story, for women everywhere know exactly how she felt. I think in general the issue of a brother sinning against you is well-addressed by the “go talk to him” method. But in sexual violence, no. I think that women, children, people who are weak and disabled facing an abuser…. not a good idea. The perpetrator has already shown he has zero regard for their feelings or life, so don’t expect a quiet conversation to make any changes in that one. This is where the whole community needs to stand as with the victims and confront the perpetrator solidly.

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