A Most Urgent Task

Here we go again. Last week Kathryn Post of the Religion News Service reported that yet another Christian leader has failed to respond adequately to sexual abuse:

Bishop Stewart Ruch III of the Anglican Church in North America’s Upper Midwest Diocese had known since 2019 that former lay minister Mark Rivera had been charged with felony child sexual abuse. But he did not tell people in his diocese about the abuse allegations until last month — which Ruch has called a “regrettable error.” 

The ACNA was founded in 2009 by former Episcopalians who disagreed with the Episcopal Church’s teachings on sexuality. The ACNA adopts the traditional, orthodox Christian view that sex is reserved for a marriage between a man and a woman. Yet sadly, the Rivera scandal is not the only recent sex abuse incident in the ACNA:

Bishop James Hobby of Pittsburgh resigned in November 2020 for mishandling abuse allegations about a priest in his diocese. Bishop Ron Jackson of the Great Lakes diocese was defrocked in 2020 after pleading guilty to sexual immorality due to a longstanding use of pornography.

In 2019, an investigation by GRACE, a nonprofit that deals with sexual abuse at Christian organizations, found that a high-profile priest at St. Peter’s Anglican Cathedral in Tallahassee had sexually harassed men at the church.

It can be deeply dispiriting to read about these scandals. Believe me, it’s even more dispiriting to write about them. It can be devastating to report them. But it’s hard to think of a more urgent task than responding decisively and justly to the crisis of sexual abuse in the church. 

American Christians are deeply divided. Christian public intellectuals are divided over the best response to the political and cultural challenge of a secularizing nation. Christian denominations are divided between Evangelicals and fundamentalists. Christian families are divided over politics, pandemics, and conspiracies. 

Yet these arguments—as important as they often are—will ultimately be fruitless if the church can’t protect its members from predators. We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that sex abuse scandals can devastate a church. They don’t just wreck its witness (who cares what an abusive institution thinks about, well, anything?); more importantly, they inflict deep and sometimes deadly wounds on human beings created in the image of God. 

It’s time for the disparate elements of a disorganized church to rally to a common cause. It’s time for that same disorganized church to apply the common lessons of all too many similar scandals to create systems of accountability that leave abusers nowhere to hide. It’s time to recognize that human frailty leads to human failure, and to enact policies and processes that put a fence around our own weakness.

Not long ago I was talking through best practices with a young leader who was just starting to build his ministry. He told me, “Everyone needs to be on the same page. We need an entirely new Modesto Manifesto.” 

The term is a blast from the recent Christian past. In 1948 a young evangelist named Billy Graham gathered in Modesto, California with key members of his team to craft a set of informal rules designed to safeguard the integrity of his expanding ministry. According to his autobiography, Graham was concerned about the temptations of money, sex, self-promotion, and excessive independence from the local church. 

To respond to these temptations, Graham and his team made a few simple pledges. Regarding money, they agreed to downplay emotional appeals for funds and to depend on funds raised by local committees. The most famous aspect of the manifesto was the famous (and controversial) “Billy Graham rule,” his pledge “not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.” Graham also pledged to cooperate with local churches and to resist any temptation to exaggerate the effectiveness of his ministry.

At the heart of the Manifesto was both a recognition of the frailty of the human heart and, in Graham’s words, “the determination that integrity would be the hallmark of both our lives and our ministry.” The rules aren’t mandated by scripture, and no one claims they’re perfect. The Billy Graham rule itself is dated. It can be a source of unfairness when or if a male leader grants access and privileges to male employees that he denies women in equivalent positions. The Manifesto’s rules do, however, construct a “fence” around real misconduct.

Fences or “guardrails” aren’t just a Christian concept. One of America’s most influential progressive atheists, Ta-Nehisi Coates, once wrote this in the pages of The Atlantic:

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one. 

Like Coates and Graham, I have my own fences. They’re different from Graham’s. I treat my male and female colleagues equally, for example. But I recognize that human failings proceed from human frailty, and it is wise to recognize your own frailty when setting the rules and practices that guide your organization and your life.

And this brings me back to the proliferation of sex abuse scandals in the American church. It’s past time for the church to not just recognize human frailty in setting policies to prevent sexual misconduct, but also in setting policies to respond to abuse. A new version of the Modesto Manifesto would put a fence around the human temptation to cover up abuse, enable abusers, and rationalize cowardice.

It’s hard to think of a modern sex abuse scandal that wasn’t enabled by one or more leaders within the abuser’s institution. Ministry leaders rallied around Ravi Zacharias when he faced sexual abuse allegations in 2017. He was, after all, one of the world’s most effective apologists. Kanakuk Kamp leaders refused to act when a young superpredator named Pete Newman was caught naked with boys. He was, after all, one of the camp’s rising stars. 

Time and again, warning signs are ignored. Ministries try to keep allegations quiet. They handle investigations in house. They use nondisclosure agreements to limit public damage. And each step of the way lawyers, executives, and board members do what they can to preserve the leader, preserve the ministry, and preserve their own reputations. In a very real way, the predators have help.

The temptations to conceal, rationalize, and otherwise enable abuse are rooted in the old vices of greed and ambition. They’re also rooted in the law itself. 

The temptation of greed is obvious. Ministries can be immensely wealthy institutions, and the greater the reach of the ministry, the greater its wealth. Thus it creates a dynamic that teaches key leaders that they can do well (high salaries, book deals) by doing good (sharing the Gospel, saving the lost). When scandal strikes, Christians then protect their ability to do well by telling themselves that they’re trying to preserve their ability to do good. 

The temptation of ambition is perhaps even more pernicious. Virtually every Christian celebrity is surrounded by individuals who don’t just take a paycheck from the ministry, they derive virtually all their cultural influence and prestige from their proximity to the ministry or the man. When the ministry or celebrity is disgraced, a person can lose something even more valuable than wealth—their good name. They go from basking in the glow of the celebrity’s reflected glory to fighting against a stigma. That can be more than merely painful. It can be deeply humiliating. 

And then there’s the temptation of law. Corporate law is an under-appreciated factor enabling abuse. Virtually every American church or ministry is a nonprofit corporation. Under the law, corporate officers and directors have a legal fiduciary duty to the organization they serve. Ideally that fiduciary duty should empower board members to place the interests of the organization over, say, the interests of its founder or one of its key leaders. The organization should be bigger than the man or woman who runs it.

But there’s a dark side to this legally mandated organizational or institutional loyalty. It provides incentive to minimize organizational risk and organizational exposure. Nondisclosure agreements, aggressive litigation tactics, in-house investigations—all these things can create a conflict between a director’s perceived legal obligation to the corporation he or she governs and the biblical obligation to “act justly” and to vindicate the oppressed. 

Put them all together, and you create a situation where people who spent their entire lives thinking of themselves as good and decent people find themselves neck-deep in concealment and cover-up. Each step of the way, every molecule of their body is screaming at them, “Make this go away.” They just can’t handle the truth.

So, recognizing this human frailty, build fences. A new Modest Manifesto would say, “No nondisclosure agreements and no confidential settlements.” Confidentiality would be the victim’s decision, not the ministry’s. 

A new Modesto Manifesto would also pledge immediate, independent, and transparent investigations in the face of abuse allegations. Ministry leaders would be required to release the full results of the investigation, and to hold members of the organization accountable based on the results. Independent investigations also preserve due process. They guarantee that the fact of an accusation is not proof of guilt. 

Moreover, a new Modesto Manifesto would promise to protect whistleblowers. Earlier this year I wrote a long, reported piece about the failure of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries to adequately investigate sexual misconduct claims against Zacharias. The story depended on whistleblowers who were willing to go on the record and substantiate claims of not just a remarkable dereliction of duty but also outright cruelty directed towards those who dared raise questions about the organization’s investigation and response. 

This is hardly a complete list of proper pledges in a new Modesto Manifesto, but the right policies can reverse perverse incentives. Presently, ministry leaders face grave conflicts of interest when they conduct in-house investigations. It’s in their interests to clear their colleagues. But good policies make investigations automatic and independent. Accompanied by the knowledge that results will be transparent and public, they create incentives for cooperation and accountability.

Critically, the right policies also enact biblical principles. The book of Luke declares, “For nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest, nor is anything secret that will not be known and come to light.” Policies that endeavor to turn that eternal truth into temporal reality can help make integrity “the hallmark of our lives and our ministry.” And, more importantly, they can help save hearts from trauma, souls from despair, and lives from the darkness of death.

One last thing …

I dare you to listen to this song and not smile. It’s evocative of the simple and profound joy of fellowship and faith, hidden away in small groups and small spaces. Enjoy:

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