He was the principal of the Christian school which met at the church. His dad was the Senior Pastor. He had four years of teacher training and all the obligatory certifications, internships, and education needed. He added a Masters Degree in Theology and another Masters in Educational Administration. He was fully qualified to do the job he was doing.
During the five years he had been principal, his dad’s church had grown from 200 members to almost 1500. In that medium-sized town, the church dwarfed all the others. The main draw for newcomers was the Christian school.
And that’s when the accusations started.One 8th grade girl told her teacher she wasn’t going to detention any longer. (Note: The school practiced corporal punishment and a very difficult regimen of consequences for even the smallest infractions. Detention often meant at least an hour of menial labor, supervised by a teacher or administrator).
The teacher lectured this girl on how rebellion was like witchcraft. The girl still wouldn’t go to the detention as long as the principal was there.
The teacher probed for more explanation and the girl blurted out that during her last detention the principal had touched her in private places. The teacher knew she was a mandated reporter, but decided to report it to the school instead of the police. She told one of the vice-principals. He was also a mandated reporter. But he decided to tell the elders of the church about the accusation. They told the Senior Pastor and the investigation was on.
Two weeks later, the elders board concluded the following:
• The young girl misunderstood a harmless action
• She was histrionic and wanted attention
• She had become a problem for the school and would be asked to seek education somewhere else.
• The family, who were members of the church, were discouraged from talking about this incident to anyone else, including law enforcement.
The church assumed the matter was settled. The young girl was frightened of what the church could do to her family, so she said nothing.
Two years later, two sixth grade girls came with their parents to an Elders board meeting. They independently told similar stories. The principal had been in charge of disciplining them for breaking the rules. During sessions with each of them, he had fondled them sexually. The fathers wanted him removed immediately from the school or they would go to the police.
The Elders board met with the Principal and his dad the Senior Pastor. They met a total of five times to discuss what should be done. This was before I became involved. They decided the principal should resign and immediately go into counseling for his “problem”. The Elders thought they had handled it correctly and they assumed the matter was closed.
They had not handled it correctly. They should have gone to the police.
And the matter was certainly not closed.
First, the church should have immediately called the police and reported the sexual abuse. They should have done it with the first girl. Second, instead of trying to cover up the matter, they should have let the entire student body and their parents know about it. They should have asked if there were more victims who would be willing to come forward. Or, they should have allowed the police and the District Attorney to do it instead.
But as a result of messing this up so badly, the situation quickly went beyond their control. A month passed, and the principal still had not tendered his resignation. When the board members asked him about it, he told them his father would not accept his resignation. They approached the Senior Pastor who suggested they call a congregational meeting to deal with the situation.
At that meeting, the Senior Pastor was given a special privilege. This man was a master manipulator. In a long diatribe, he castigated and smeared the reputations of these girls and their families. He told stories about them which could only have come from their classmates. By the end of the meeting, he called for a vote to have all the family members of the victims thrown out of the church!
He failed to get the congregation to back him on this. That’s when the organization I was part of was called in. At the meeting, the Senior Pastor had also suggested the board should resign for believing these horrible rumors being floated by hormonal teenagers. The board didn’t resign. But they also didn’t know what to do.
We held several meetings with the young girls and the families involved. At the first meeting, I walked the leadership team through the process they should have done. Then I introduced the ADA to them who explained what was about to happen. He explained that uniformed police had taken the principal into custody. They were doing what should have happened years before.
And here is the real point of this article. The principal never did admit he had done anything wrong. He continued to call all of it lies, even though four more victims came forward with corroborating and damning stories of abuse. And his family continued to back him up. None of this should surprise anyone reading this.
Here is the shocker though. With all the evidence we compiled, MOST congregation members still defended him. MOST congregation members felt that a grave injustice had been done against the principal.
In addition, students held all-night vigils in prayer so the devil would be bound and the principal set free to resume his leadership over the school.
Even 27 years later, I shake my head at the gullibility of those people. But I have seen this pattern over and over. When Ted Haggard was found guilty of hiring gay prostitutes, few people in the church would believe it. Even when he finally admitted parts of what he did, there were people who felt he was just being kind to the church and falling on the sword by accepting false blame.
Why do churches and church members doggedly defend Pastoral Abusers? What are the essential reasons this happens? Here is what I and other victims’ advocates and abuse consultants have found.
Familiarity Bias: Technically, Familiarity Bias is a financial term. When newcomers start investing in the stock market, they believe companies they are familiar with will make the best investment. They falsely believe they really know the company just because their name is recognizable. This is a dangerous way to invest.
And, this is what congregation members do when they assume they really know a leader. That leader has publicly revealed things about their life, so congregants adopt a false intimacy with them. Most people believe the story of someone they know more than someone they don’t. The victims are often people that very few members of the church know well. Or even if they know the victims, the pastor is often perceived as the best known person in the congregation. Because of this notoriety, the average person will automatically assume the person they know (pastor, principal, etc.) is more trustworthy than a victim they’ve never met.
Over reliance on Personal Experience: Abusers do not abuse everyone. They could not possibly do so. In a previous article, I laid out the blueprint for how pastoral abusers choose their victims. Only a small number of people are actually victimized by even the worst sociopathic offenders. That means the vast majority of people in a church have never known the pastor/principal/worship leader to abuse them.
Most abusers are Narcissistic and Machiavellian in personality. This means they can be tremendously charming to all people, even their victims. They appear as disarming, warm, confident, nurturing, and intelligent. It is virtually impossible for the vast majority who have never been hurt by the pastor to initially believe the story that the victim tells. It is simple: “Pastor X never treated me that way. I can’t believe what this victim is saying. The so-called victim must be making this up.”
A Theology of Leadership Protection: Many churches teach some variation of the idea that the leader of the church needs to be protected from outside attacks. The congregation members feel no compulsion to abstain from criticizing him privately, but as soon as someone brings the criticism into the public eye, everyone becomes his defender. You will hear Psalm 105:15 quoted often: “Do not touch my anointed ones; do my prophets no harm.” This is interpreted to mean that no one is allowed to touch God’s leaders; they are above criticism from the outside.
Other people will hide behind Matthew 18 and the process for dealing with conflict among believers by saying that these victims should have confronted their abuser the “biblical” way. This implies they should have made their accusations in-house and never included outsiders. This adds to the problem, because the congregation already believes the pastor more than the victim. The church will rarely side with the victim without an outside entity directing the process.
He Who Controls the Microphone, Controls the Direction of the Discussion: The Senior Pastor is the voice everyone knows and most people trust. This person is afforded a platform to express his views every week. When the Senior Pastor is an abuser, he is also the one who controls the narrative of how the abuse will be viewed. When the Senior Pastor is not the abuser but wants to defend the person who is, they still control the microphone and they can subtly shift focus away from the offense. They can minimize it, shift blame, victim-shame, sin-level the offense, or call for unity to gloss over the offense. Anyone who controls the pulpit during the time of inquiry controls the most important place where the narrative of abuse can be discussed. If that person is the offender or a friend of the offender, then it is unlikely the average church attender is going to believe or sympathize with the victim until someone else is given the microphone. Anyone who has followed the process of recent disclosures of pastoral abuse will affirm that the pastors and elders of those churches have used the pulpit to do damage control. Very few churches use their public platform to help the victims. Most just pay lip service to the victims at best.
Retroactive Reality: The cost entailed with believing a victim involves believing the pastor has always been an abuser. This causes church members to have to re-examine their spiritual walk in light of this information. Victims are revealing to the congregation that the abusing pastor is a deceiver. Therefore, church members fear their own spiritual formation is tainted as a result. Some congregation members have spent their entire spiritual lives in that one church. They begin to think, “what does this say about me?” This comes out so much in one-on-one interviews I have done with congregation members.
I said it myself years ago. The man who mentored me in the Christian faith when I was 14, assaulted two other boys sexually. I was about six years into my faith walk when I heard about these accusations. I could not believe it. I would not believe it. If he did this, then maybe everything he taught me about God was wrong. It spawned an existential crisis of faith. Most people hate existential crises and will avoid them. The easiest way to do this is to discount the story of the victim.
Doubling Down: Once you have publicly declared you believe the pastor more than the victim, it is hard to change your story. It has been proven that once people have taken a position, whether voting for a candidate or choosing a particular story to believe, they are more likely to keep holding onto that story even when evidence suggests they are wrong. This explains why people can continue to support a political party or candidate even when these are shown to be duplicitous. If the individual congregation member publicly defends a pastor near the beginning of the discovery process, they are very unlikely to change that opinion no matter how much evidence is revealed.
Maximum vs. Minimum Harm Concept: This is an easy one to understand, but hard to admit to. Even though we love to cheer for the Long Shot, if we have a horse in the race, we will cheer for him. In addition, most people will choose the path of least harm time and time again. With abusive pastors, many congregation members when they must choose whom to believe, will choose the path of least destruction.
In the case of a church, if the pastor is forced to admit sin and resign, the church will lose members, community standing, financial support, and future opportunities. Members then decide the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one. This is the underlying emotional reason why some will admit the pastor should be disciplined in some way as long as they can stay on at the church in some capacity.
Misapplication of Grace and Sin-Leveling: These are simply two versions of the same false teaching. Misapplication of grace teaches that since God has forgiven all our sins, we should just admit that a sin was committed and allow the pastor to say he is sorry–hopefully with tears and a standing ovation at the end–and then the congregation can move on emotionally.
Sin-leveling is the teaching that we have all sinned and all sins are the same. But this is not true. Thinking about having sex with someone not your spouse is not the same as committing adultery. They are related to one another, but they are not the same sin. Nor do they have the same consequences, which is the key point. But it sounds good, because all of us carry some shame around with us. It is easy to see our own faults and think that we would want people to overlook our mistakes. But abuse is not a mistake. Abuse pours acid on the soul of another human. God reveals great wrath about those who abuse “one of the least of these”. He says it would be better if a millstone were hung around their necks.
This is what we did with the principal and the pastor. The principal went to jail for ten years. The pastor was removed from the pulpit and the Elders board made the recommendation he never pastor again.
So many churches are wrestling with these decisions. We are cleaning out the septic tank of abusers, and it is going to be messy for awhile until we get rid of all the pastoral abusers.
The pulpit unfortunately attracts some narcissistic individuals and these days their victims are coming forward. But will they be believed? I desperately want to say that they will. But most congregation members won’t believe them.