False Narratives of Faith Leaders Caught in Abuse
Protecting reputations & incomes can be a dishonest & hurtful "business"
By Boz Tchividjian
When abusive behavior of faith leaders is uncovered, all too often the immediate response is not an unconditional admission or a genuine expression of authentic repentance. Instead, a common response is a new narrative. A false narrative. A narrative that attempts to paint a picture of the situation without any regard for truth. A narrative designed to protect reputations and preserve future incomes. A narrative designed to keep the leaders in the spotlight and the victims out of the way.
Since many of these leaders tend to be narcissistic, the primary purpose of a false narrative is to enable them to hold onto power as they crave affirmation and continued relevance. Seeking out friendly media interviews is one way that provides opportunities for offending leaders to elaborate and “sell” their new narrative. Social media is also an effective means to communicate this narrative because it tends to attract those who crave the leader’s attention and who will be quick to “like”, “share”, “comment”, “reply” or “re-tweet” the leader’s narrative. These same followers will often be quick to vilify and attack anyone who questions or criticizes the leader or the narrative.
Though false narratives vary with each offending leader and each situation, three types seem to be common amongst offending leaders:
Offending leaders are often quick to try and change the narrative from one of abuse to something less offensive and more acceptable to the watching public. One way this is accomplished is to re-defining the abuse with terms such as “mistake,” “misjudgment,” “failure,” or “misunderstanding”. Such a redefining is usually coupled with the offending leader publicly expressing sorrow and asking for forgiveness.
Do you see what’s happening?
The false narrative subtly minimizes the actual abuse, as the offending leader appears to be repentant about a far less serious offense. The hope is that this approach will prompt many to express support for the offending leader as “humble” and “godly”, while castigating anyone who expresses doubt or who attempts to point out the false narrative.
If the redefine narrative isn’t doing the trick, offending leaders often will take the next step and attempt to begin shifting the blame. We saw an example of this blame-shifting narrative a few years ago with a well-known fundamentalist pastor attempted to blame his sexual contact with an underage female whom he was “counseling” on the fact that he was under a great amount of stress. If that wasn’t bad enough, this same pastor filed a court document where he actually blamed the abuse on the “aggressiveness” of the minor victim. Fortunately, the court rejected these false narratives. Unfortunately, many within this offender's church embraced them. At the time of his sentencing, the court had received no less than 141 letters from supporters asking for leniency.
Blame-shifting narratives are not limited to situations involving child abuse. Not too long ago, the world watched as another well-known pastor and author resigned from his Seattle-based church amidst repeated complaints from other pastors and congregation members about his domineering leadership style and ongoing behavior that was verbally, spiritually, and emotionally abusive. When confronted by this disturbing evidence, this pastor defended himself by arguing that he had been forced to resign because “a trap had been set.”
False Empathy Narrative
If blaming others doesn’t legitimize the offending leader’s false narrative, empathizing with them sometimes does. Denying the abuse while publicly expressing care for those who alleged the abuse paints the offending leader as loving and kind. The false empathy narrative was clearly illustrated by the public statements released by the founder of the Institute in Basic Life Principles, after 30-plus women stepped forward to allege that he had engaged in various forms of sexual contact when they had served as IBLP student interns. Though this leader denied their claims, he focused much of his statement on expressing admiration for those who have held him “to the standards God requires of me.” In a later statement, he once again denied the allegations while also expressing empathy for the women who reported the complaints. He wrote, “However, I do understand in a much deeper way how these young ladies feel and how my insensitivity caused them to feel the way they do.” Though this false narrative can sound genuine and kind, it actually exploits and patronizes victims in a desperate attempt to look good to a watching world.
When it seems as if a false narrative may need help being legitimized, some offending leaders will enlist the help of well-known friends to express support and share the narrative. This was illustrated a few years ago when certain evangelical leaders published statements in support of the founder of then-Sovereign Grace Ministries after it was uncovered that children in his Maryland-based church had been sexually abused by church representatives and that some of their parents had been advised against reporting the crimes to law enforcement. More recently, this occurred when well-known Christians stepped forward to excuse the sexual abuse of children by Josh Duggar as “mistakes” and as being “overblown.”
The problem with celebrity spokespersons is that they usually have very limited knowledge of the actual truth and often find themselves in self-created awkward positions of having to retract or dismiss their “supportive” statements in order to protect and preserve their own reputations.
The Cost of False Narratives
The most significant catastrophe in all of this is that false narratives declare to victims that the horrors of their abuse are not nearly as significant as preserving the all-important reputation and career of another faith leader. These individuals find themselves once again exploited and abused by offenders needing to satisfy distorted self-obsessions and who don’t care for anyone made in the image of the God they claim to worship. These false narratives suppress truth, promote darkness, and eviscerate lives.
Such false narratives must be exposed and those promoting them must be held accountable. I have had the privilege of representing many clients in courts throughout the country as they reclaim their truthful narratives and seek justice against individuals and institutions who have hurt and betrayed them.
Please contact me if you are an abuse survivor and you want a lawyer who will help you reclaim your narrative by taking your perpetrator or the institution that failed you to court.
Point the Spotlight Towards the Victim
At first, this may sound like a bad and ruthless tactic. However, we sadly live in a culture that is still quick to discredit sexual abuse victims. Shining a spotlight that casts doubt upon a victim’s character or credibility will naturally reduce any concerns about whether the leaders mishandled the situation. I recently learned of a clergy who abused his position to engage in a sexual relationship with an adult parishioner. When confronted about the matter, the minister laughed it off claiming that the victim was an alcoholic and couldn’t be trusted. Sadly, this attack of the victim’s veracity gave the church leadership the “perfect” excuse to do nothing. Other attempts to discredit victims can be more subtle such as claiming that victim was partially responsible for the sexual abuse, or that the victim is exaggerating about the type or gravity of the abuse. Attempts to discredit victims come in all shapes and sizes with the sole objective of shifting the spotlight away from the leadership’s responsibilities and failures related to this crime.
Point the Spotlight Towards Anyone but Themselves
The reality is that many leaders who are caught in the glare of spotlights that expose ugly truths will work feverishly to point at anyone but themselves. An all-too-convenient tactic is to demonize those who express support for the victim. Their motives are questioned and their behaviors are labeled as “ungodly”, all the while the leader claims to be unfairly persecuted. This is done with the hope that the focus will shift from the mishandling of a sexual abuse disclosure to the persecution of Christians.
Supporters aren’t the only ones who find themselves maligned by leaders desperate to push away the penetrating spotlight. I recently learned of a pastor who actually blamed unsuspecting and devastated parents for not protecting their child from being sexually abused by an adult. Little doubt that this distressing claim was an attempt to turn that darned spotlight off of his own failed response to this crime.
I have had the privilege of representing abuse survivors who turn on a giant spotlight by filing lawsuits against faith institutions and their leaders who not only failed to protect my clients from known perpetrators, but then protected those same perpetrators by ignoring my clients or even vilifying them. The spotlights turned on during lawsuits don’t get turned off or turned away easily. I believe that has everything to do with the amazing individuals who bravely step forward and risk so much to hold these institutions and their leaders accountable in a court of law. So many of these heroes have spent their lives struggling in the shadows, all the while the leaders who failed them continue to pastor churches and operate ministries without ever thinking about the destruction and pain they have caused.
A good friend once told me that the higher you go in church leadership, the less likely you are to encounter Jesus. I like to think that Jesus is actually walking alongside the many courageous survivors I represent, helping them keep the spotlights on so that justice can be finally served.
Please feel free to contact me if you are a survivor who is considering turning on a spotlight by taking your perpetrator or the institution that failed to protect you to court.
Boz Tchividjian is an attorney at BozLaw PA who represents sexual abuse survivors throughout the country.
A version of this article was originally published for the Religion News Service (RNS). Used with permission.