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The rising tide of sexual abuse in churches and ministries


The recent trial of Ghislaine Maxwell brought to the forefront just how far defense attorneys will go to discredit the survivors of sexual abuse. As a former violent crime detective, and someone who has spent 30 years working to end violence against women and children, I was relieved when the verdict came back ‘guilty’ in 5 of the 6 charges.

Yet there was something about this trial that continues to bother me — the silencing and discrediting of the survivors. It’s not something new that I have seen. In my opinion, in our society it’s usually the ‘norm’ to believe the perpetrator of sexual abuse rather than the survivor. And Maxwell’s defense team did more than try to discredit the survivors — they shamed and blamed them for what took place; indicating that they were active participants in the crimes committed by Maxwell and Epstein.

In the days following the trial, Christian leaders applauded the ‘guilty’ verdict and commented on their social media. I was glad to see that. And I especially appreciated the comment from Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton and Executive Editor at Outreach Magazine, who said, “Thankful for the Ghislaine Maxwell conviction, but also worth remembering that they almost got away with it. Thanks to local news reporters who continued on the case, believed the survivors, and eventually shed more light on these crimes.”

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Stetzer is right! The perpetrator almost did get away with it. Why? Because people were more distrusting of the survivors than of the perpetrators.

While some Christian leaders are shocked by this, too many in the church take the same position as Maxwell’s defense attorneys. Every day I am inundated with news about sexual abuse at churches, Christian camps, or Christian ministries by youth pastors, volunteers, elders, senior leadership, or the senior pastor himself. And far too often, I have seen church and ministry leadership deny or cover up the charges.

Recently, in my home state of Indiana, a pastor and three elders were forced to resign after failing to address reports that the pastor’s underaged family member had sexually abused up to 15 children.

The American public has watched entire denominations fight against each other over the decision to protect abuse survivors or not. We have witnessed large Christian camps exposed for allowing predators to operate for decades. We have seen youth pastors hop from church to church after leaving a trail of traumatized kids due to the sexual abuse that was inflicted on them. We have seen congregations fall apart because the senior pastor was caught sexually harassing or abusing the very people he was entrusted to lead. And we have been shocked by the revelations of sexual abuse among well-respected and well-known ministry leaders which left the organizations they led in complete shambles.

Though it’s all tragic, what breaks my heart is knowing that in all these instances, these crimes against women and children, are indeed preventable. As the leader of an organization that works tirelessly to keep places of employment, schools, churches, and youth-serving organizations safe (including providing sexual abuse prevention training by experts in the field that are ‘survivor centric’) — I’m often perplexed why Christian leadership and organizations don’t do everything they can to place prevention at the top of their list.

Ray Ortlund, a long-time Christian leader and the President of Renewal Ministries, tweeted after the Maxwell trial verdict, “Justice in our society means, among other things, that children so deserve to be protected that we rightly demand that of one another.”

A late pastor once said, “If the Devil can’t beat the church, he will join the church!” How prophetic his statement was, and how sad that we are seeing the proliferation of sexual abuse in the very places that should be safe and trustworthy.

We are now at a crossroads in our churches and ministries. And like so many other sectors of society, churches and youth-serving organizations need to make violence and sexual abuse prevention a priority. This can be done by investing their heart, their time, and their resources in education, training, and policy. By doing this, not only will they protect the people — especially women and children — that they serve, but they will also protect their mission and their God-given witness.

If you have been abused or are in an abusive situation, please reach out to the following Abuse Hotline who will come alongside you and assist you in your path to freedom.

A former detective with the Metro Nashville Police Department, Mike McCarty has dedicated more than 30 years to violence prevention. He is regarded as one of the nation’s leading experts on violence prevention and has consulted with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Department of Defense and Justice Department. A devout man of faith, McCarty is CEO of Safe Hiring Solutions and its affiliated company, SafeMinistry Solutions, He is also the host of The Safety Zone podcast.

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