In anticipation of the Nov 8th release (note: it’s been bumped back a week!) of my new book, Bully Pulpit: Confronting the Problem of Spiritual Abuse in the Church, I am making my way through a 5-part blog series on misconceptions and misunderstandings of spiritual abuse. You can read prior installments here, here, here, and here.
We come now to the final misconception in the series: “Talking about spiritual abuse will just lead to false accusations against pastors.”
As I have engaged the topic of spiritual abuse over the last several years, I have observed a repeated sentiment that pops up again and again. It is basically the idea that while spiritual abuse might be a problem, the real problem is false accusations against pastors. The concern is not so much about protecting the victims of abuse, but protecting church leaders.
Now, let me say that I understand this concern. False accusations do happen. People do lie. And churches need to take that possibility very, very seriously.
The problem with this misconception, however, is the way it frames the issue. It is suggestive that our default position should be a posture of suspicion toward the victims—as if the norm is that people lie about their pastors and the accuser is probably yet another person who just hates the church.
Now, to be clear, this is different than saying the accused is entitled to the presumption of innocence. Of course, everyone should be regarded as innocent until they are proven guilty. But that’s not the same thing as a presumption that the accuser is probably lying. Those are two very different things. And the latter is deeply problematic (not to mention unbiblical).
So, here are a few additional considerations that I think can bring more balance to the discussion.
Are False Abuse Accusations Common?
One might that think that the presumption that accusers are probably lying is motivated by a larger trend in churches where this must happen a lot. In other words, we might think that this posture of suspicion toward accusers is due to the fact that there is an epidemic out there of false abuse accusations against pastors.
The problem with this disposition, however, is that all the indicators we have suggest that there is not a trend of false abuse accusations. While there are no hard statistics on spiritual abuse accusations, the percentage of false accusations in cases of sexual abuse hovers somewhere between 2 percent and 7 percent.
And given that most abuse cases are not reported, the actual percentage is probably significantly lower still. If there is a parallel with spiritual abuse—and the two forms of abuse are often linked—then we have little reason to think false accusations are a statistically significant problem.
Counting the Cost
On top of this, churches need to consider the enormous price paid by most people who have the courage to come forward and speak up about spiritual abuse. Typically, they are not believed, they have their character attacked and tarnished, and often are driven out of the churches they love. What would motivate them to lie about the charges? What would they have to gain? Often, they have everything to lose.
Indeed, in my own research, this is why most people actually don’t speak up about spiritual abuse. They often choose to stay silent. Why? Because they have seen what happens to other people who do speak up. The just have to look at the train of destroyed lives to see what will likely happen to them if they come forward.
So, we need to do away with this perception that people are rushing forward in droves, eager to make accusations. The current system in most churches is not set up in such a way where such claims would be welcomed. And so most people say nothing at all.
But Can’t the Victims Still be Mistaken?
One might argue that there are other types of false accusations besides lying. Even if the accusers are not lying, they might still be mistaken about their claims. They might think they suffered abuse when they really didn’t; they may just have an overly sensitive personality that led them to exaggerate what happened to them. They just blew it out of proportion.
Fair enough. This is an important possibility that has to be considered and is all the more reason there needs to be a genuinely independent, third-party investigation to resolve it (which many churches still refuse to do).
In the meantime, there is one factor that can help clear up questions about whether an accuser has made a mountain out of a molehill: Have multiple accusers come forward? If a significant number of people have stepped forward with similar stories and claims, then the credibility of those stories goes up considerably.
It is very hard to imagine that all these different people share the same proclivity to exaggerate and see things that aren’t there. Is that possible? Sure, lots of things are possible. But is it likely? In most cases, no.
Here’s the big point: we need to make sure our churches are not set up in such a way that victims coming forward are viewed with suspicion, treated as scandalous, and regarded as likely to be lying.
Instead, churches should have a posture of sympathy and openness. They should take the victims’ claim seriously. And when that happens, a real investigation can ensue.