the shape of leadership

Justice … or Reputation Management?

Responding to sexual abuse allegations against church leaders

Saehee Duran on August 9, 2021

In February 2021, an investigative report verifying Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias had sexually abused multiple women shocked the evangelical world.

When allegations first surfaced several years ago, Zacharias’ ministry associates, friends, and family members had rallied around him, insisting his victims were falsifying their accounts. Months after the popular minister died in May 2020, the truth finally came to light.

Sexual harassment, abuse and misconduct can happen anywhere, including in the Church. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements shined a spotlight on this sad reality. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), 1 in 5 women experience rape or attempted rape in their lifetime, and 81% are sexually harassed or assaulted.

So why are the voices of victims often dismissed or silenced, while the lies of sexual predators go unchallenged?

The Sin of Reputation Management

When preserving the credibility of the guilty takes precedence over seeking justice and truth, sin multiplies. Longitudinal data indicates false allegations account for just 2–10% of all sexual assault reports, the NSVRC notes. In other words, 90–98% of sexual allegations are legitimate, which necessitates urgent and careful investigation of each case.

In 2018, 75% of sexual assaults were not reported to law enforcement, according to the National Crime Victimization Survey. Such an alarming figure speaks to the danger of perpetuating hidden sin and untold injustice. The victims who do report often do so long after the incidents occurred, often due to fear of retribution, shame or denial.

Unfortunately, delayed reporting makes prosecution more difficult and allows others to be violated. When victims are silent or sidelined, it is easier for the guilty to justify their vices and maintain their positions of power instead of acknowledging their sin, repenting, and pursuing life change in humility.

While vulnerable sexual victims suffer in silence, people with positional authority often benefit from their perceived credibility. Some churches and Christian organizations hastily disown their obligation to stand for the weak and vulnerable, while scrambling to clear the names of their ministers or ministries. Such a self-seeking response may quiet the scandals momentarily, but wrongdoing will not escape God’s notice.

The Lord loves truth and justice, and so should His people (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 33:5; Proverbs 21:15; Ecclesiastes 3:17; Isaiah 61:8; Colossians 3:25).

Hence, managing individual or organizational reputations should never be the driving force when dealing with sexual allegations. God hates abusive behavior (Proverbs 6:16–19). As the Church, we have the divine responsibility and obligation to represent Christ properly by standing up for what is right, just and holy. The crisis mode of reputation management only hurts the body of Christ and distorts Christ’s redemptive work in this broken world.

It does not matter who the offender is. Even if it is a global influencer with a long track record of fruitful public ministry and seeming integrity, Christians must circle the wagons around victims, hear their stories, and seek justice and truth as Jesus would.

While vulnerable
sexual victims suffer
in silence, people with
positional authority often benefit from their perceived credibility.

A Voice for the Voiceless

Proverbs 24:24–25 says, “Whoever says to the guilty, ‘You are innocent,’ will be cursed by peoples and denounced by nations. But it will go well with those who convict the guilty, and rich blessing will come on them.”

Here are four ways to give a voice to the voiceless and promote safety, accountability and justice in your church:

1. Create a policy addressing sexual harassment and assault, and follow it in every case. Providing clear definitions and guidelines makes it easier for people to identify and report any violation when it occurs.

Offer an option to report confidentially through a third party (e.g. a counselor or HR director) since many victims are hesitant to come forward for a variety of reasons, including fear of losing their employment. Be sure the policy is transparent about the investigation process for both parties to prevent any favoritism or false accusations.

Include information on relevant state laws, such as mandated reporting for clergy members. Instruct pastors to notify the police any time there are allegations of criminal behavior.

Do not just create a policy and then file it away. Be sure all staff members know about it and understand their rights, responsibilities, and the consequences for violations.

Victims will remain voiceless unless you take steps to protect them and follow through on your policy.

2. Be aware of your biases. A Korean adage says, “Your arms bend inward.” It means we have a natural tendency to stand up for people who are closest to us.

James, the half brother of Jesus, warned the Jerusalem church about the sin of favoritism (James 2:1–9). He argued that when Christians favor the rich and powerful because they share the same social status or aspire to it, the weak and marginalized suffer the consequences of discrimination.

Likewise, if we fail to check our biases, we can fall into the trap of siding with the wrongdoers who have a social status we share or desire. The vulnerable and the abused need us to courageously bend our arms outward to stand up for them in their weakness.

3. Listen proactively, not reactively. Too often, an organization’s first response to sexual allegations is one of public image damage control. Rather than hearing and protecting the powerless, they scramble to protect the reputations and platforms of the powerful. As a result, the abuse may continue.

This is not the way of Jesus. Throughout His ministry, He paused to hear and respond to the voices of the marginalized and the weak. Jesus’ proactive listening led to many divine interruptions for healings and miracles.

The disadvantaged state of sexual victims makes it extremely challenging for them to defend themselves unless someone is willing to listen to them and advocate on their behalf.

4. Be observant. Since many victims hesitate to report voluntarily, leaders should watch for any signs of sexual harassment or abuse.

Address inappropriate behavior immediately, including sexist or sexualized jokes and comments, which have no place in the Church.

Pay attention when staff members or parishioners avoid or seem uncomfortable around certain people. If something seems wrong, trust your instincts. Follow up, and ask questions. As you build rapport with people, you will be in a better position to hear their desperate cries for help.

Follow the example of Jesus, and listen to those whom others seek to silence. He calls us to walk blamelessly and exercise wisdom as we pursue the work of ministry (Matthew 10:16). We will ultimately be accountable for our treatment of the powerless and vulnerable — people Jesus called “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine” (Matthew 25:40).

This article appears in the Summer 2021 edition of Influence magazine.

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