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At US summit, prominent evangelicals share stories of sexual abuse

Wheaton, Illinois, US

For popular Bible teacher Beth Moore, the church always has been a safe harbour.

That was especially true when she was growing up. Church was a place where she could escape from the sexual abuse she experienced at home, she said.

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Jenny Hwang, from left, Tammy Schultz, Nancy Nealious and Ed Stetzer participate in a panel discussion at Wheaton College on 13th December, during a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. PICTURE: Emily McFarlan Miller/RNS

“I’ve seen glimpses with my own eyes what a church can do for victims of sexual abuse and assault. I am a survivor,” Moore said.

Moore was a featured speaker at a one-day summit on sexual abuse and harassment last Thursday at Wheaton College in suburban Chicago – and one of many who described their own experiences of abuse and harassment.

Some shared their stories of sexual abuse for the first time, including bestselling Christian author and pastor Max Lucado and child advocate Kelly Rosati.

“We’re trying to help amplify a conversation others have started,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, which organised the summit.

Evangelicals have not always done a good job of listening to survivors, Stetzer told attendees at the summit, and “we want to do better.”

“We’ve tried to listen to survivors today – you’ve noticed the overwhelming theme was people who have walked through this journey.”

About 750 people registered for the event, according to organisers. Another 300 signed up to watch the livestream, and more than 40 groups livestreamed the event, including churches, universities and the headquarters of the Evangelical Free Church of America.

It comes as a survey from Nashville, Tennessee-based LifeWay Research earlier this year found that about two-thirds of Protestant pastors say members of their congregation have experienced sexual or domestic violence. Fewer than half of those pastors said their training equipped them to address the issue.

At the summit, prominent evangelical Christians from a number of denominations urged churches to educate themselves about mandated reporting laws in their states regarding sexual abuse, pressed for more female leaders in the church and denounced abuses of power by church leadership.

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Max Lucado speaks at Wheaton College during a summit on sexual abuse and misconduct. PICTURE: Emily McFarlan Miller/RNS

And a panel of trauma and counseling experts from the college shared a clinical understanding of how trauma affects survivors and how the church can help them heal. They stressed the importance of believing survivors when they come forward and simply sitting with them in their sorrow.

“We expect someone who’s experienced trauma just to get up and be OK, and because things have been shattered, it’s going to take time to put them back together,” said Nancy Nealious, a trauma recovery and licensed clinical psychologist in the Wheaton College Counseling Center.

In his closing remarks, Lucado revealed he was sexually abused as a child by a community leader. That’s why he said he accepted the invitation to speak at the summit – because he understand the difficulty of “regaining a balance, having gone through this type of situation.”

As he listened to other speakers, he also said he felt the need to repent for what he called “locker-room banter” from his days playing football, for conversations with women in which he “could have done better” and a condescending attitude he has adopted at times as a senior pastor. Men need to listen and to hear the stories women are sharing, he said.

“Now is the time for across-the-coffee-table conversations that begin with this phrase: ‘Help me to understand what it’s like to be a female in this day and age,’” Lucado said.

The conference was not without its critics.

Former evangelicals Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, the creators of the #ChurchToo hashtag, were not invited to speak at the summit. The two offered their responses to its sessions throughout the day, stressing the view that evangelical beliefs, including the claim sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage, help create an environment where abuse can occur.

Kelly Aten, a community group leader at Renewal Church, a nondenominational congregation in West Chicago, Illinois, said she appreciated that speakers made clear sexual abuse is a sin. But they could have clarified that the abuser – not the victim – had sinned.

Survivors already may be dealing with feelings of guilt or shame, as well as a “blame culture” that too often asks what she was wearing or what she did to invite the abuse, said Aten, who attended the summit with a group of female leaders from Renewal.

And abuse is not just a sin, said Aubrey Sampson, a member of the church’s preaching team who identified herself as a survivor. It’s also a crime – a point she said more speakers could have made clear.

Still, those in the group said they had learned a lot and hoped to take what they have learned back to Renewal. They hope to create an environment where people can feel safe and experience healing.

“The leaders in our church need to be equipped and encouraged and empowered to know, ‘What do we do?’” Sampson said. “How do we lead our people? How do we shepherd our people well?”

That was something that had resonated with them in Moore’s talk.

The Bible teacher recounted new headlines every month exposing crime and coverups in churches and other Christian institutions. She pointed out how secular groups have responded.

Now, Moore said, it is the church’s turn.


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