Sexual abuse, grief & hope focus of ERLC panel

Tags: ERLC

GRAPEVINE, Texas (BP) -- Women are grieving and male church leaders should join them in their grief over the sexual abuse and assault so many have suffered, panelists said Oct. 12 during the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission's annual national conference.

A panel of lawyers and female Christian leaders addressed sexual abuse and assault during a main session of the conference at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in Grapevine, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. About 950 people attended the three-day event -- titled "The Cross-shaped Family" -- that ended Oct. 13.

The panel discussion came after months of disclosures of sexual misconduct by male leaders in Southern Baptist churches, other evangelical congregations and the wider culture, as well as charges of mishandling by ministry leaders of allegations of sexual assault. Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear announced in July a new Sexual Abuse Study to address the issue in partnership with the ERLC.

Jen Wilkin, Bible teacher and classes/curriculum director of The Village Church in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, said women "are moving through the stages of grief around this. There has been a great deal of anger, and understandably so."

"I think women are looking to leadership, and they're looking for not just an acknowledgment of what has happened," she said. "They want to see grief among our leadership. They want to see a brokenness around what has not been previously seen and then legitimate changes taking place. And they're going to be watching for it. I think they're watching with hope."

Women understand the revelations of mistreatment of women largely are a surprise to men, Wilkin told the audience. "And that's OK. We're willing to allow a time for you to sort of come to terms with what is a historically unspoken reality for women. But then we do expect there will be action, and there will be change that's taken so that even if this is our past it won't be our future."

Gregory Love -- a law partner and co-founder of MinistrySafe and Abuse Prevention Systems with his wife and fellow panelist Kimberlee Norris -- said the last 16 to 18 months have sadly shown primarily male church leaders responding defensively.

"And it's almost like there is an unwillingness -- especially, I believe, for men in ministry leadership -- to just stop, listen and say, 'I'm sorry,' just to own what you can own," Love told attendees. "And even if it's not your fault, just to listen and let someone just tell their story and then also to listen in such a way you can ask the questions, 'What then needs to change?'"

His observation applies across the board, whether it is sexual assault, abuse or harassment, he said.

One of the most negative responses he has seen in the last year or more from male leaders is with female victims of abuse or assault "being received in such a way that just because it's old it's not real or just because it's old you should be past it by now," Love said. "And I would just tell you, 'Careful there. Be ready to hear this with ears as if it happened yesterday.'"

Trillia Newbell, a survivor of sexual assault, spoke about the fear a victim confronts in sharing what happened to her.

"I tell you this -- that woman in particular will fear saying it 10 times more than you're going to fear the reality of trying to care for her," said Newbell, author and the ERLC's director of community outreach. "It is a terrifying thing to say out loud. And there's so much shame and guilt that comes along with it even though you are not the perpetrator. ... [B]e ready to have compassion and to love and to extend absolute grace upon grace upon grace. Listen to her, and take action where action needs to be taken."

Norris issued a warning for churches.

Treating sexual abuse or assault as though it is only a sin "rather than a crime is inappropriate in every context," she told the audience. "And addressing this from the standpoint of 'We can somehow handle this within the church' is against the law in most states and inappropriate at best."

While she is encouraged that churches and ministries are "more willing to be proactive about this issue rather than simply reactive," Norris said she is discouraged at the clergy "who do not understand they are mandatory reporters" of child sexual abuse in nearly every state.

Other speakers at the conference also addressed sexual abuse or assault:

-- Bible teacher Beth Moore, who was sexually abused as a child, said in an Oct. 12 interview with ERLC President Russell Moore, "It was not the joy of the Lord for me to go through what I went through as a child, but in His sovereignty He allowed it. ... I would change my story in a heartbeat, but I get to say to [others], 'You know what, I know Jesus heals. I know His Word renews minds. I know His way works. I know you can really know the truth and the truth will set you free.'" She also said of the current situation, "It's very messy right now, but the fact that we are having to deal with it is a good, good thing, and we who are willing will all be better on the other side. The church will be stronger on the other side."

-- Phillip Bethancourt, the ERLC's executive vice president, said in an Oct. 12 keynote address sex can be used as a weapon. "Those with authority use their power for unwanted sexual advances on others," he said. "And as that happens, oftentimes in companion with that there are others who refuse to hold the powerful accountability because they're focused on their own self-protection rather than justice and protection of the vulnerable." He expressed gratitude for the SBC Sexual Abuse Study, saying, "We must pursue this issue with urgency. But here's the danger for me, and I wonder if some of you feel it. My instinct is to want to move straight to solutions before starting with sorrow. [B]efore we can get it right, we need to weep with those who weep. Out of the sorrow I am praying that solutions will come."

Lindsay Nicolet, the ERLC's managing editor of content, moderated the panel. Four other panels during the conference's main sessions addressed the education of children, the strengthening of ministry marriages, broken homes, and adoption, foster care, special needs and mental health.

Tom Strode is Washington bureau chief for Baptist Press, the Southern Baptist Convention's news service. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists' concerns nationally and globally.
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