Sexual abuse and doctrine


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Bishop Eddie Long, the pastor of a Georgia megachurch with 33,000 congregants, was accused this week of using his position of power to coerce teenage boys into having sex with him. With these lawsuits against Long, institutional sexual abuse is no longer an exclusively Catholic problem.

Nor should it necessarily be a religious problem. But while all organizations with a hierarchy of power have the potential for horrific abuses of trust and authority, violations in a church setting are, for many Americans, imbued with the greater terror of defiled purity.

Above all, there's that whispered question: "Could it happen here, in my congregation?" Or: "Is there some trait of the church, more than just its structure, that makes abuses more likely?" Chillingly, the answer seems to be yes.

Abusive Catholic priests and Bishop Long allegedly used religious rituals to groom their victims, persuading them that God chose them for the "honor" of the relationship. Former priest Oliver O'Grady, subject of the 2006 documentary Deliver Us From Evil, confessed in a 2005 Los Angeles Times story that he scoured his congregation for submissive children and children who tended to be affectionate. Long, according to the lawsuits, "has a pattern and practice of singling out a select group of young male church members," who he then called his "spiritual sons" and took on private trips worldwide.

This grooming of the "holy chosen" and its strong religious overtones combined with certain traditions to make rebellion against abusive authority nearly impossible. While the blogosphere and talking heads cite Long's homophobia and blame the intolerant policies of mainstream Baptist faiths, the center of the doctrinal whirlpool justifying rape, abuse, and victim silencing is the notion of guilt and sinfulness.

Calvinism, with its focus on the inherent inferiority of man and salvation only through divine grace, is the progenitor of the American Baptists. Faced with the suffering and evil of the world, John Calvin claimed, we understand the necessity of a divine savior.

Perhaps. And perhaps this doctrine comforts the wounded and offers hope for those who know they are part of the elect.

But sitting in my first 24:7 meeting, I heard a statement replete with old-school guilt: "If you walk away from any week thinking that 'I'm so bad, I'm so bad,' " said Scott Gaskill, college pastor from Parkview Church, "welcome to the club. Because I'm so bad, and I'm not good enough, and nobody here is good enough for what God is giving us."

I left shortly afterward.

Though my liberal East Coast upbringing runs contrary to this doctrine, I had personal objections, as well: I know all too well that the only way out of abuse is for the victim to believe in her or his own worth.

The belief in her or his own wretchedness enslaves an individual more thoroughly than any threat of violence. If you are inherently sinful and the world is cast as nothing but evil, what right is there to reject the authority offering you salvation? And if that authority is actually a predator, wearing the cloak of a shepherd and claiming that he knows what God wants, how would you know? How could you refuse?

I am not suggesting that all churches in the tradition of Calvin — or who espouse the doctrine of original sin — are hotbeds of abuse and pedophilia. I certainly do not believe that 24:7 is necessarily destructive.

However, I do believe that these churches must labor assiduously to ensure that the encouragement of self-abasement does not silence abuse victims, that the infallibility of the Bible is not used to justify indecent acts, and that their charismatic authorities are subject to congregational oversight.

I guarantee that Long is not the only alleged wolf who claims to be a shepherd.

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