Early in my career, I managed the business services in a large corporate sales office. During my first year, my office failed the business audit. I told my manager, “I understand you’ll need to drop my ranking.” He said, “No, I’ll drop Bill’s ranking instead.” Bill was a supervisor who reported to me; he had worked in that office for more than 20 years, and he had hired my manager. While I was glad to hold onto my ranking, I also felt a little insulted. Did my manager expect so little of me that he couldn’t hold me accountable for my own failure?
What does it mean when someone holds us accountable? Literally, it means they count on us. The landlord can pay the mortgage because we pay the rent on time; the host can plan the dinner because we have RSVP’d; our manager can trust the reports because we run our business with proper controls. The Notre Dame football team gets this: they end each breakdown with a unison shout of “Count on me.” But in church settings, bad theology can muddy the water. When we ask the church to hold our offenders accountable, they urge us instead to forgive. When we talk openly about our experience (which some of us do as a way of holding the church to account), they accuse us of vengeful bad-mouthing.
It’s time to clear up some misperceptions. Here are my 1-2-3’s of accountability: what it is and what it isn’t, why it’s hard, why we need it, and how survivors can help.
Accountability IS NOT…
1. A failure to forgive. Pope John Paul’s would-be assassin, Mehmet Ali Agca, remained behind bars for nearly two decades after the pope forgave him. Both men understood that Agca was still accountable to the state. (Note: forgiveness is complicated for survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. See my reflections here and here.)
2. Punishment or public shame. Accountability may feel like punishment to the offender, but most measures aren’t punishments in the strict sense. The church may require the offender to take part in therapy or addiction treatment, or they may suspend or limit his or her ministry as part of protecting the vulnerable. The congregation may not need to know about therapeutic matters, but they absolutely must be informed about limits on their pastor’s ministry.
3. Revenge. Victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse rarely have any say in how our offenders are held accountable, so revenge plays little or no role in the offender’s experience of accountability. To be sure, many of us fantasize about revenge; with my therapist’s encouragement I envisioned deeds I would never enact in life. But what we really want is not revenge, but a chance to heal through justice.
1. Owning our mistakes. Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll was caught plagiarizing in his book Real Marriage, and his Mars Hill Church admitted to buying a spot for that book on the New York Times Bestseller list. What did Driscoll do in response? “He owned up,” says blogger Ray Ortlund. Not only did Driscoll apologize, but he instructed his publicist to stop using the “New York Times Bestseller” status. Even more significantly, Driscoll agreed to stay off social media for the rest of the year, using the time to reset his life, rebuild his family relationships, and renew his work as the pastor of Mars Hill Church.
2. Accepting the consequences. I tried to do this when my office failed the audit. Jesus did this by submitting peacefully to his arrest and crucifixion, knowing they were the consequences of preaching that had threatened the powers-that-be.
3. Learning from our failures. Minister and counselor Mark Laaser struggled with sexual addiction early in his career. He learned from his own pain and his victims’ wounds, and he overcame his addiction. Now, with his wife Debbie, Laaser leads the Faithful and True ministry for men and women struggling with the same problem. In an interview with the National Association for Christian Recovery, Laaser talks about what he has learned on his journey.
Accountability is hard because church leaders worry about…
1. Money. Leaders may fear the financial impact of a public scandal. When a pastor is fired or openly held accountable for a sexual offense, the church may see a short-term drop in attendance and giving. But leaders should take the long view. Within the Catholic Church, secrecy (which allowed predator priests to harm many more victims) has so far cost more than $2 billion in the U.S. alone.
2. The offender’s feelings. Leaders often form friendships with the pastors who serve in their congregations. Being closer to the offender’s pain than to the victim’s, leaders may be tempted to cut a deal to keep the offense a secret. Church leaders must maintain a level field! If they wouldn’t offer a secret deal to the victim, they shouldn’t offer one to the offender.
3. The church’s image. Leaders fear that a public scandal will harm the church’s image, especially if the offender is well-known. But a congregation will recover far sooner from a transparent response to pastoral offense than to a cover-up. When faith leaders lie to their communities, they destroy the trust on which community stands.
Offenders need to be held accountable…
1. To rescue them from situations where they can’t control their behavior. In Healing the Wounds of Sexual Addiction, Mark Laaser says that sexually addicted clergy may feel “afraid and ashamed” when they are caught, but they also feel relieved. Some may even “slip up and do things that reveal their secret” because they know they can’t control their behavior on their own.
2. To free them from the burden of a secret that can literally make them sick.
3. To show respect. When church leaders ignore a pastor’s sexual offenses, they give the subtle message, “We can’t expect anything better from you. You aren’t worth the effort it would take to heal you.”
Victims and survivors need our offenders held accountable…
1. To acknowledge the violation: not only that the pastor violated our sexual boundaries, but that his or her actions harmed us. To affirm that the church will not accept that kind of behavior from its ministers.
2. To protect the vulnerable, either by removing a pastor’s access to the congregation or by sharing the facts openly with the congregation in a way that supports the victim.
3. To affirm that we matter to the church. To affirm that the church will stand up for us when we are wronged, even by one of their own.
Congregations need to see errant pastors held accountable…
1. To keep the church safe. We need to know that the man or woman in the pulpit won’t harm us or our friends or family members.
2. To acknowledge the congregational wound and begin the process of healing. When a pastor violates sexual boundaries, his or her sin wounds the whole congregation. Clergy sexual abuse is never really a secret. A few people may find out or at least suspect the truth. This can lead to jealousy, gossip, and broken trust even before the matter is openly discussed. A toxic secret can destroy a community. If the church openly acknowledges a failure in leadership, they can restore trust and give the congregation a chance to rebuild.
3. To show compassion for survivors of sexual assault, no matter where or when it happened. Even when survivors don’t make ourselves known within congregations, we are here. In an average-sized congregation of 400 people, dozens may have experienced sexual abuse or assault. Look at the statistics:
* Nearly one in five women in the U.S. have survived sexual assault.
* Experts believe that between 8% and 20% of adults were sexually abused as children.
* One in 30 women has endured an unwanted advance from a member of the clergy as an adult.
Whether we share our secrets or not, survivors need to know that our church is a safe place, and that church leaders will keep it safe by holding offenders accountable.
Can survivors hold the church accountable? YES! We can…
1. Educate ourselves about the nature of clergy sexual abuse: how and why it happens, how the church should respond, and how the church can reduce abuse within its walls.
2. Work to strengthen our congregation’s policy and procedures if we belong to a church.
3. Tell our stories, to one trusted friend or to the world. The more of us claim our voices, the more the world will join us in demanding justice.