My church’s initial response to the abuse (Abuse series part 7)

Here are links to this entire series:
Part 1: My story of abuse (Introduction)
Part 2: Seven things you need to know about abusers
Part 3: Dealing with victims of abuse
Part 4: It started with a crossword puzzle
Part 5: Getting help for an abuse victim
Part 6: Taking the next step
Part 7: My church’s initial response to abuse
Part 8: Your marriage counselor may destroy your marriage
Part 9: Cutting off communication
Part 10: How to choose sides in an abusive situation
Part 11: The strangeness of a spring break
Part 12: Filings for divorce and early rumblings at church
Part 13: What are those deacons good for anyway?
Part 14: The “repentance” game
Part 15: Isolation
Part 16: When the church goes off the rails
Part 17: When the church goes off the rails even further
Part 18: Final church problems
Part 19: How to neutralize an abuser
Part 20: The saga concludes
Part 21: Updates
Part 22: The very end

Very quickly, we realized that the church was going to be a problem. I was floored. Up until that point, I was naïve and thought the church would have the wisdom to see the situation accurately and respond appropriately. Sure, we had done research and knew that churches mishandled abuse and we even knew the tactics the abuser would take in the church to try to protect his reputation and smear his victim.

We just naively thought that what so often happens would not happen to us. We had too much evidence and things were too clear cut.

As it turned out, we were wrong.

Let me step back for a second. At this point, the victim was quiet, trying to keep things calm and hoping for a miracle and reconciliation. Her abuser was not so quiet. He was in full blown “repentance” mode but there was an undercurrent of intimidation and manipulation. He was all about getting people to choose sides and he was talking to lots of people. Basically, he was showing his true colors in trying to isolate her by turning her friends against her.

As an example, I got a call from the pastor a few days after the victim left and he told me the abuser had requested that we stop talking to “his wife.” Apparently, he also made a legal threat against me but the pastor did not tell me that. However, the pastor passed on that request and said that he also thought it would be a good idea.

I refused. I stated that the abuser had no authority to tell his wife who she could get help from and we were not going to abandon her. At the time, she still had little support and no one really was up to speed on what was happening. In fact, she was already under incredible pressure to come home and she needed us to keep speaking truth to her. The abuser knew that too and I will write later about the enormous lengths he would go to in an attempt to get Marla and I out of his way.

While the abuser failed in that attempt, the pastor was duly intimidated. In fact, he told multiple people that he was scared to publicly discuss the situation because he was worried that the abuser would sue the church. (Yes, you read that correctly.)

After a few weeks however, the pastor realized that the situation had to be addressed publicly and he contacted the victim to ask her to write a statement for him to read. She wrote a brief and honest statement that discussed the abuser’s issues in very non-specific ways and reiterated her commitment to reconciliation in their marriage.

Not surprisingly, the pastor and the abuser decided that the statement should not be read as it was written. They both called and pressured her to change it to a neutral statement that could be interpreted as mutual marital conflict. She was not strong at that time and caved to their manipulation and the pastor read the altered statement in church the next week.

I was beyond angry and here is why: when the pastor decided to cave to the pressure from the abuser and avoid trouble with the statement, it looked an awful lot like he was making a decision to throw the victim under the bus to save his own skin. Rather than exercising church discipline and taking a stand against evil that was obvious (and even admitted to), he was taking the easy way out because he did not want a scandal and did not want to answer hard questions about his own culpability in not getting involved even though he knew of the problems. He was also showing a disregard for the victim’s reputation and integrity by opening the door for people to assume the victim had run off with the children and abandoned the marriage. (By the way, that is the way abusers will almost always paint these situations.)

We would have left the church over this issue but only a few days later, someone told me to hold off because the pastor was going to resign anyway. And so he did. However, during his transition weeks, I decided to force confrontation on the issue of the deceptive public statement. A meeting was held and in that meeting, the pastor admitted several things to the deacons including that he had made bad decisions because of fear and that he had kept the abuser in positions of leadership (head of AWANA and a deacon) even while knowing of issues that should have disqualified him.

It was decided that the pastor should read another statement to the church. And so he did; more specifically, after the next service, he turned off his microphone and read a tightly worded statement that sounded like it had been crafted by a lawyer and admitted to as little as possible. Immediately after he finished reading, he called on someone to pray and close the service and scurried out of the auditorium during the prayer without allowing questions.

A few weeks later, he left for good and things quieted down a bit. We decided to wait before leaving the church to see if a new pastor could fix things. The church mostly forgot all about the victim and as you will soon learn, that was not necessarily a bad thing.

We did not know it, but we were jumping out of the skillet into the fire.

Before I leave this part of the story, I want to say a few things about that pastor. Marla and I would have never been at that church if we thought he was malicious. He was not; rather he was just a very weak leader. He was also not very knowledgeable on the subject of abuse and as such, naïve about the tactics of abusers. In other words, he was an easy new victim for the abuser to manipulate.

While I can forgive ignorance and fear, what I saw is not what I want my children to see in their church or the leaders they will hopefully respect. Churches and their leaders need to have the guts to stand against wrong and call it wrong and they need to stand with the oppressed. Ignorance of oppressive tactics is no excuse for not standing with the oppressed. Considering its prevalence, churches need to make sure they understand abuse, the tactics of abusers, victim psychology, and effective strategies for handling inevitable situations. In cases like this where a pastor is in over his head, he has the responsibility to recognize that and get help rather than indirectly empower the abuser to manipulate the situation and further jeopardize the victim.

I wish I could say this was all that happened at the church, but we were just at the beginning of a saga that would end very badly.  Fear, ignorance, and some regressive ideas about women and abuse would make the victim returning to the church basically impossible. That return was six months away though so I am not ready to go there. In the next post, I will return to the abuser’s tactics as the separation continued and discuss how we began to neutralize him.

Read on: Part 8: Your marriage counselor  destroy your marriage