Excerpt from VICE interview with Basyle “Boz” Tchividjian. Tchividjian operates GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.
How big of a problem is child sexual abuse for Protestant churches?
It’s hard to answer that with any degree of certainty, because the research out there is pretty minimal. If you accept the general statistic that one in four women and one in six men will have been sexually victimized before they turn 18, then you have to acknowledge that those same people are inside of our churches and faith communities. So if you had 100 men and 100 women in your church, 20.5 percent of your church would be survivors of child sexual abuse.
How does the issue of sexual predators within Protestant churches compare with the massive scandal the Catholic Church as endured?
A few years ago, data was gathered from some of the top insurance providers for Protestant churches. It was found that they received 260 reports a year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders or church members. Similarly, the John Jay Report on the Catholic Church came up with 228 credible accusations by priests.
Again, sexual abuse is one of the most underreported criminal offenses. But if you just look at these numbers, they tell us that more children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church. One aspect of that is that there are way more Protestants and Protestant churches than there are Catholics. But for me, it’s important to share that statistic when speaking with Protestant audiences so that they stop pointing their fingers at the Catholic Church and engage more with their own church.
I have a friend who is a pastor in a Presbyterian church, and when she started at a new church, she preached six or seven sermons about abuse. She told me that since then, “I’ve had ten women approach me and tell me that they had been sexually abused as children, and that I was the very first person they ever told.” And this is a small church.
I think the reason they approached her was that in preaching about it from the pulpit, she created a safe space for them to talk about it. It’s a great example about how most of our churches aren’t creating safe spaces. Too often victims are afraid to say anything because they’re afraid of how people will respond.
How do the church leaders typically respond?
It’s such a spectrum. There are some that respond very well. The younger generation of pastors seem to get this issue more and are willing to talk about it. But we, unfortunately, do have a lot of pastors who don’t think it happens, and prefer to embrace a false narrative that makes them more comfortable.
It’s common to see a desire to protect the institution at the expense of the individual. Yet the gospel that Christians proclaim with their lips is all about a God who sacrifices himself in order to save [others], but when it comes to abuse, we often do the opposite.
So we have to educate our church leaders about this issue so we can try and eliminate victim blaming when disclosures are made. Telling the victim it was their fault because of how they were dressed or were acting, or forcing them to forgive the offender, just compounds the shame they are already going through.
Shame is a big issue with male victims of sexual abuse. They’re often the most silent of survivors inside the church. I’ve had male survivors tell me they didn’t want anyone in the church to know because they thought that they would be labeled a future offender and everyone would keep their kids away, or they would be accused of being gay.
Should there be any kind of support for potential abusers seeking help before they harm anyone?
We’ve intentionally focused on victims, because I’ve found that the perpetrators are often the ones with the most support from the church. Having said that, there are people who are earnestly struggling with this issue and are deathly afraid of telling anyone about it because of how they’ll respond. There should be resources for those who haven’t acted on those impulses to come forward and get help. But it’s tricky, because you see a lot of lying, manipulation, and narcissism with abusers. It’s difficult to know if they’re telling the truth when they say they’ve never acted on their impulses.
How has this line of work impacted you as a parent, and as someone who teaches at one of the largest Christian institutions in the US?
You don’t want to be paranoid and lock your kids in a room. But we also don’t let our kids do sleepovers, because I’ve met with too many victims who were victimized by a friend’s parent at a sleepover. I don’t tell other parents not to do that, but it’s our policy. Also, we talk about this issue a lot with our children. In many, ways it’s been good for them, and hopefully it will shape them when they become parents.
The years of doing this line of work has given me a pretty low view of the church. It has also given me a much higher view of Jesus, and that’s what allows me to go another day and keep my faith.
When you grow up as an evangelical Christian, you have this nice neat view of God and the world. And when you start doing this work, that all gets shattered. Because how do you answer when someone asks you, “Where was God when my dad was coming into my room every night and molesting me? Was he watching? Why didn’t he stop him?” Those are questions I don’t have answers to. All I can do is grieve with them and maybe get a little angry.
But studying who Jesus was while he lived on this Earth has given me a greater appreciation for who he was in relation to this issue. There was no greater defender of children than Jesus.
You can read the entire interview here.