Someone alleges abuse.
Someone in power rushes to hush or silence the accuser, sometimes even using Scriptures or “biblical principles” as the gag.
And it’s so wrong.
It’s poison, offered as cure, both to the victim and those close by.
But there’s an idea I’ve been developing that just might be an antidote. At least it has been for some, inoculating them and giving them words. And words are powerful.
I call it The Three Spheres of Offense, and when a church or organization forgets about these three spheres, it’s nearly impossible to respond to allegations of abuse in a healthy way.
Originally, two things made me nervous to write this article: 1) These issues deal with very painful realities, both mine and others, and 2) The ideas in The Three Spheres seem so simplistic.
But here we are.
About a month ago, I made a Facebook Live video on this topic, and whatever uncertainty I had about the importance of this message vanished. The responses and private messages I received were real, they were honest, and they were empowering. So here it is:
Basically, whenever there is abuse, there is one action (or one series of actions), but there are three impacts. In other words, for every offense, there are three distinct entities that endure the offense. Those entities occupy the three spheres.
When a church or an organization forgets these three distinct spheres, it can’t respond to the accuser/survivor correctly.
You see, the entity within each sphere has a God-given right to respond to the perpetrator.
- The offense against God is sin, and God retains the right to respond to that offense.
- The offense against the victim is abuse or harm, and the victim has a God-given right to respond.
- The offense against the community or society is a crime, and society has a God-given right to prosecute and adjudicate.
This is the oft-forgotten sphere.
We believe, as a community, that some behavior is wrong. As a society, we’ve decided that this type of action is harmful to us collectively, and that regardless of what the victim wants, the prosecutor gets to choose to prosecute, and if he or she so chooses, they are a representative of the offended society. That’s how we get “The People of the State of Illinois vs. John Doe.” Or “The United States of America vs. John Doe.”
Stop the Robbing
When a church or ministry forgets that the society at large has a right to respond, or when an organization hides information from authorities, or shelters abusers, we slap our communities in the face. We rob them of their right to respond.
Maybe God’s forgiven the perpetrator and they’re now doing fantastic ministry. Great.
Maybe the survivor’s forgiven the perpetrator and has been totally healed of all damage and never even thinks about it. OK, fine.
But that’s not the end of the story: Society still gets to respond. No matter what the church leadership thinks, no matter how “rehabilitated” the abuser seems, no matter how repentant and contrite, society still gets to respond.
And when a community finds out that we’ve hidden abuse, they rightfully despise us, and we look like fools. Because we are fools.
When a church or ministry forgets the third sphere, hiding and “forgiving” unilaterally, it does massive damage to society, which is not a “loving your neighbor” thing to do. At all.
What if you’re living abroad, where reporting abuse is often more complicated? What if the offender might face harsher punishment than he or she would in their passport country? What if you don’t think your host country has an adequate justice system?
These are crucial things to consider.
But we must be very careful here. What are we saying if we hide an American’s crimes from the local government when the crimes were committed in our host country? What if the victims are citizens of our host country?
Are we saying that we believe in following the law so long as we agree with it? Are we denying the local government the right to adjudicate their own way?
We are in danger here of sending a damning and very disrespectful message: “our people” deserve better than “their people.” Would we report similar behavior to local authorities if it were committed by a national?
If we’re not careful, our hubris will show, with damaging results. And once again we must ask: are we acting in a loving, Christ-like manner?
While You’re Here
I’ve written some about how my parents responded when I told them that I had been abused. You can read that article here. Here are some of the main points:
1. The idea that a person is innocent until proven guilty is great and helpful and very important in a court of law. It is not so great in churches or organizations.
If the gut response of the church or organization is to defend the accused, if that’s the default setting, there’s a very real risk that the least powerful, most marginalized, most hurting, people will be ignored.
Again, “innocent until proven guilty” is a solid principle for criminal courtrooms, but it really sucks in living rooms and board rooms.
2. False accusations are much less common than true allegations. If you think that the majority of abuse allegations are concocted, you’re wrong.
3. Allegations are often unbelievable. Abusers are often known and usually respected. Unfortunately, that’s how the abuse goes on for so long. It’s not typically the outlying weirdo that everyone avoids, it’s a person with authority and power that people want to love and protect. It’s someone who, if he or she “falls,” would leave a hole in the organization or ministry.
More Like Christ
Too often, in a rush to defend the accused, we’re not much like Christ. We need to listen to the accusers, the victims, the survivors.
That does not mean that we throw the accused under the bus. It just means that our posture towards the victim is one of listening and hearing and believing, not disbelief, distance, and doubt.
I pray that our posture would be Christ-like, standing in between the powerful and the abused. Too often, we flip that on its head, landing on the side of the powerful person who already has a voice, who already has the stage. We need to bend down, to be next to the person who is saying, “I’m hurting.”
This is my prayer.
— Jonathan Trotter
Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
Telling my Story: Sexual Abuse on the Mission Field
Ask a Counselor: What about child abuse?
Here’s the original video where I discussed these ideas: