Put victims’ needs first

Our first response to powerful men abusing power should not be lament for the fact that their great teachings are tainted.

I recently came across the editorial by Angela Reitsma Bick called “The Problem with Powerful Men” (CC, March 6) that discusses the harm of being too loose on our standards for men in powerful positions, particularly within the church. The article begins an extremely important and relevant conversation on power imbalances, sexual misconduct and sexism in the church. Especially since, as Bick mentions, there have been numerous incidents of sexual misconduct, assault and harassment involving pastors coming to light in the past few years. I applaud Bick for writing this article and for calling out for reform in our dealings with men who need to be held accountable. However, I believe that Bick finished her piece just a bit too soon.

Yes, there needs to be an accountability structure put in place. But what she fails to consider more fully is the victims. I believe that the victims provide the exact answer we are looking for.

How often do you hear about the men who committed the actions and not a whisper of the victims who have bravely raised their voices, especially in communities where these “controversies” are often shoved under the rug? I remember when Ravi Zacharias was called out for the sexual abuse that he inflicted on numerous women over many years. The sorrow that many of my peers felt was not for the victims who suffered this abuse and the years of grief, trauma and silence but rather for Zacharias himself. “What a shame. He was such an important preacher” were the words of my peers. “Let’s not forget about the good that he did.”

Why is our first response to powerful men abusing their power, especially in acts of sexual misconduct, to lament the fact that their great teachings are tainted? Where is the lament and crying out for the victims who suffered? Where is our grief over an environment that systematically silences victims and raises the voices of those who inflict harm on others?

Better systems

An article by Hilary Scarsella entitled “Not Making Sense: Why Stanley Hauerwas’s Response to Yoder’s Sexual Abuse Misses the Mark” helps to answer some of those questions. Scarsella, Assistant Professor of Ethics at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, explores why many initial reactions to news of a theologian’s sexual misconduct are to lean towards the theologian rather than the victim, and why this is extremely harmful.

When I read Scarsella’s article, I was in my fourth-year Cultural Studies capstone course. My professor, Dr. Naaman Wood, was a key player in my growth as a student, thinker and Christian. At the start of the semester, he asked the group of 15 or so students what we wanted to discuss throughout the year. One topic that came up was Cancel Culture. As we prepared to dive into this discussion, Scarsella’s article was provided as one portion of the mandatory reading we completed for the class.

To summarize Scarsella’s arguments in my own words: by favoring the legacy and contribution to society (and faith) by powerful people, we continue to buy into a system that perpetuates harm to weaker populations and victims.

This is such an important statement, especially when you read Bick’s article. Yes, there needs to be accountability. We need to move from a system that allows those in power to get away with gross crimes to a system that allows victims to speak up about abuse and also eliminates the possibility of power being abused.

So, to extend Bick’s conclusion a bit further, I ask the question, “How can we prioritize the victims while also holding those in power accountable?”

Perhaps if, instead of creating church environments that allow abuse to happen, we focused on listening to the voices of victims. Perhaps this could provide the answer that Bick is looking for when she states, at the end of her article, that “There has to be a way, without gossiping, to stand with their victims instead. (Make no mistake: there are victims. If it seems like there aren’t, that’s just because we haven’t been listening.)”


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