As more cases of pastoral sexual misconduct surface, churches are beginning to understand that more than the victim and perpetrator face fractured lives. With more than 200 reported cases of pastoral sexual misconduct in the country last year, entire congregations are left sorting through shards of shame, scandal, and anger, hoping to find healing and forgiveness in the rubble underneath.
Members of Christ Community Church in Saint Charles, Illinois, know from experience that healing is a lengthy process (CT, Oct. 6, 1997, p. 90). Two years ago, former youth pastor Bryan Buckley was convicted of sexually abusing a 14-year-old girl from the church.
Church elders confronted Buckley, then staff held a meeting for the parents of church youth, explaining what happened and offering counseling and prayer.
To help children and parents work through anger, betrayal, and fear, the church conducted all-day small-group counseling sessions. Senior pastor Jim Nicodeme gave updates to the congregation as the criminal case developed, and he preached about personal responsibility, repentance, and forgiveness.
To give youth greater assurance of safety and control, Christ Community allowed kids to ask the new youth pastor difficult questions about his integrity and commitment to the group.
Christ Community paid for counseling for the two girls who reported Buckley, and the church also supports the treatment Buckley receives while incarcerated.
"Our congregation learned how to pray for our leaders, our members, and their protection like never before," says Kathy Cott, director of caring ministries at Christ Community.
LONG-TERM WOUNDS: But even after two years, Cott says the healing process is not complete.
"[Buckley] is still in prison, and that makes it harder to take the last steps," Cott says. "We have to come to terms with the fact that this might not ever be entirely over and done with the way we would like it to be."
Congregational healing specialists say the trauma of sexual misconduct often plays out in a recognizable cycle.
"The first emotion a congregation goes through is shock, as if they had lost a loved one," says Kathy Adams, a Beaver, Pennsylvania, counselor who works with churches and pastors in crisis. "Then someone usually goes into denial and is angry that anyone would ever suggest that some thing like this could go wrong at their church."
Dealing with anger and fear of all involved is a balancing act, says Kibbie Ruth, a congregational healing consultant for Kyros ministries in San Mateo, California. "You have to consider how to protect the victim, help their family, and heal the church," Ruth explains.
Picking up the pieces of communal life becomes even more painstaking when practical difficulties such as huge payouts to victims and lawyers, and skyrocketing insurance rates add stress to an already explosive situation. Church insurance after some scandals has increased as much as 300 percent, effectively making it very difficult for churches to stay afloat financially.
Adams says giving also traditionally declines when a church is under scrutiny, especially in cases where members believe leadership has failed or betrayed them.
Congregational healing is further complicated by fears about the safety of children and the guilt that church leaders feel about not preventing the abuse.
Nancy Myer Hopkins, coeditor of Restoring the Soul of a Church: Reconciling Congregations Wounded by Clergy Sexual Misconduct (Liturgical Press, 1995), agrees.
"The first thing that everybody wants to know [about congregational healing] is how long this is going to take," Hopkins says. "I tell them about as long as it took to create the atmosphere of the abusive situation."
Hopkins also believes openness and honesty about the misconduct is important. "If you can't tell a congregation what happened, then how can you expect them to heal?" Hopkins asks. "You don't have to give graphic details like in the Lewinsky scandal, but many congregations think that if they do not talk about what has happened, it will go away." Ruth and Hopkins both say that the duration and speed of a congregation's healing process depends on the extent of misconduct and on the church's character.
"If a church is serious about being a sanctuary, a safe community, then not only will they discourage inappropriate behavior, but they will also experience the benefits of deepened fellowship," Ruth says.
Copyright © 1999 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.