Spiritual Dynamics that Enable Abuse
Several years back, the yearly meeting I was then a member of was sued.
The lawsuit came as a surprise, and revealed that a youth pastor, who had been beloved and celebrated for many years, had sexually abused a teen in his ministry. This teen—now a grown man—was holding the yearly meeting responsible for the damages he continued to suffer years later as a result of the abuse.
The yearly meeting embarked on a discipline process with the pastor. The pastor cooperated with what was termed a “restoration” process, which required—among other actions—full disclosure about any incidents of abuse that he was responsible for. He claimed there had only been one victim. In exchange for what he agreed was the full truth, and with other boundaries placed on him, his recording as a minister was restored.
Then, other victims came forward. It turned out the pastor had not been honest. The restoration of his recording was subsequently reversed.
My yearly meeting did something which went against what overwhelming research and expertise on abuse would recommend, but something which I have since learned is commonplace among Friends—we based our actions on a known abuser’s own testimony and our feelings toward that person instead of on our commitment to the safety of vulnerable people.
Like many meetings, we were reactive. It was only with these devastating disclosures and the subsequent legal counsel that our yearly meeting began to take seriously our legal and moral responsibility to ensure that no child or vulnerable adult was abused while under the care of our ministries.
Last fall I began working on a committee tasked with developing an abuse prevention policy for my current yearly meeting, a newly formed one which is in the early stages of formalizing processes and commitments. Because of the gravity of the issues, we decided to work with an organization that consults with faith communities on abuse prevention policies. Additionally, over the past few months, I began interviewing Quakers who already have created such policies. In the unprogrammed, evangelical, and pastoral Friends interviewed, I found similar patterns: most Friends meetings are unprepared to prevent or respond to abuse until they have their first disclosure. Even after, many meetings fail to take appropriate action.
I’ve spoken with a number of Friends who are social workers, prevention specialists, or had professional expertise as researchers and educators on sexual abuse. Many of these Friends feel that their input is unwelcome in their meetings’ process and are afraid to speak up. Meetings often opted not to avail themselves of information, research, or professional advice. Where this information or expertise came up, it was often regarded as suspicious, secular, unspiritual, or biased. In a number of stories that were shared with me, Friends undermined the development of policies—or even covered up or overlooked past incidents of abuse.
It is my opinion that the root of these problems is, largely, theological and spiritual. Lacking robust theology, communities center on a vulnerable, vague, and underdeveloped theology surrounding forgiveness and redemption. This lack combined with great ambivalence about the role of oversight in meetings has created a perfect storm: unsafe conditions where abuse can and does occur under the cover of the Religious Society of Friends.
Some of the issues that came up are common to the general public. For example, it is common for people to have a poor understanding of sex-offending behaviors and dynamics—particularly the “grooming” of community members—or to have misunderstandings about the root causes of abuse.
But additionally, I found vulnerabilities that are specific to Friends: our ambivalence about oversight, resistance to formalization of policies, and overreliance on personal relationships in lieu of systems and clear expectations. Believing that there is that of God in everyone is a difficult thing to square with the very disturbing actions of abuse, which are often far more calculated and sadistic than many people can imagine.
In researching existing policies, I was surprised to find that a great many meetings lack so much as a minimal background check policy, let alone the kinds of best practices ubiquitous among churches in this age of abuse scandals. Perhaps we think it can’t happen in our small communities where we know and trust one another. But the fact is that it does; we often never find out about it.
Many of the meeting policies that were developed after disclosure of abuse are not based on expert recommendations. I learned that the development and implementation of these policies was sometimes undermined by bitter conflicts and committee standstills, at times spanning years. Where new policies were implemented, they were often explosive: causing deep pain, destruction of trust, and sometimes splits of meetings. However, having adopted a written policy did not mean that the policy was implemented; in several communities, implementation was inconsistent or unenforced.
The issue was most divisive in communities that had welcomed a known sexual abuser, or discovered the presence of one in the community. Conflict centered on how to rightly balance the commitment to the spiritual needs of the individual who had committed the abuse with commitment to children and other vulnerable members, including adult survivors. The attempt by meetings to simultaneously minister to the distinct needs of these groups, combined with Friends’ reticence to implement boundaries and oversight, contributed to dangerous conditions in meetings.
Ambivalence about Oversight
In a November 2021 post, Quaker blogger Lynn Fitz-Hugh wrote on her blog, A Friendly Seeker:
For over 300 years Friends have had Ministry and Oversight committees or just Oversight or just Pastoral Care, or Care and Concerns. Recently Friends have begun to shed the term “oversight” for its cultural insensitivity. Really the purpose of the committee, however named, is to do pastoral care.
The term “oversight” is being done away with in some meetings because the word—a job title also used on plantations—is tainted by its association with the horrors of slavery. The way Lynn Fitz-Hugh describes it, however, doing away with the word is mostly an afterthought. Oversight is not really what the committee does, as she understands it; rather the committee’s job is to offer pastoral care.
I asked Quaker historian Steve Angell to talk about this change among Friends:
I think the key part of the word “oversight” is the prefix “over.” It suggests a spiritual hierarchy that many Friends these days are not comfortable with, and the cultural aspects may be just one facet of that.
Earlier Friends had both ministers and elders: Friends who were named as leaders, recognized for their wisdom and insight. Friends believed that the meeting would benefit from these leaders “looking over” it, giving helpful counsel and gentle correction as needed. In some meetings, a committee is still recognized in this capacity. In pastoral meetings, pastors may have some duties of oversight in their role. In almost any meeting, however, there exists at least some tension between the equality testimony and the duty of eldering. Friends have been aware of potential abuses of power since our earliest days; hence, oversight has always been a tricky thing.
While Angell views the dissolution of oversight among liberal Friends as a positive step, he concedes that it may assume an unrealistic equality. “I doubt that, within the Quaker meeting context, there is anything like absolute equality in spiritual wisdom.”
Meetings that reject oversight—a dynamic that I saw come up in all branches of Friends—have the most uncomfortable time confronting the dynamics of abuse, especially when they desire to welcome abusers into their midst. The meeting is at risk when vulnerable people and abusers coexist, and when it is assumed that authority and trust are distributed equally without regard for a person’s history, experience, or wisdom.
Judy*, a Friend and longtime social worker, explains:
The personality . . . issues that lead to sex offenses are such that lifelong recovery efforts are in order. It is not [the kind of problem that gets] “fixed” at some point, and that person gets a clean slate. My training and experience . . . [indicates] that a person with sex offender history needs behavioral monitoring, not only for the appropriate interactions with their target victim population, but also for eliminating any opportunities to exercise power and control of persons, places, or things.
While Judy’s perspective was largely rejected by her meeting, it is consistent with statistics about long-term recidivism rates among those who have sexually abused. In the years when an offender is most likely to be registered and monitored, recidivism rates are relatively low. However, after people who have offended are no longer under monitoring and treatment, the rates are astonishingly high. This suggests that when monitoring ends, most abusers will re-offend, even 20 years after a crime.
Friends’ discomfort with oversight is reflected both in our theological language and focus and also in our actions (or inaction) in the form of policies. Some Friends I spoke with commented about their own inner conflict over the idea of implementing policies because of the belief in “that of God,” of a call to Christian forgiveness, or for redemption for perpetrators of abuse.
Mary, an unprogrammed Friend and former sex educator struggled with the issue of forgiveness, which she felt had been neglected in her meeting:
There’s a piece we never ever talked about, about forgiveness. That’s not a word I have heard in my Quaker community. . . . I hear it in [other Christian] communities. But we don’t talk about forgiveness, that people can change; you and I can make a mistake, and we can change; we can own up and apologize.
Friends who advocated for strict policies, on the other hand, did not see them as conflicting with core Friends’ beliefs.
Judy argues that real love for the perpetrator demands such policies:
I truly believe from the depths of my soul that the most loving thing you can do is to hold them strictly accountable and monitor and hold them. When you don’t believe that, it gets a little shaky. You have to know, practically and therapeutically, that’s the best thing for this person’s character problems—their personality disorder.
In my interviews, I heard shocking stories of revelations of abuse and of meetings who tried to respond, only to find themselves incapacitated by conflict. In each situation, the abuser was a person loved, trusted, and respected in their community. This follows the classic pattern of abuse behaviors: “The first likely entry into access to children or vulnerable populations [is] grooming the gatekeepers—the grownups in the room—and so gain access to people to victimize,” says Ashley, a social worker and Friends youth pastor.
“I was overwhelmed by the task of breaking through denial and minimization due to lack of information and understanding of the issues,” recalled Judy about her efforts to educate her meeting on sex-offender typology and treatment:
A man went so far as to say, “You’re dangerous. You’re dangerous to the meeting.” That kind of backlash is sitting there, like a viper, to get you. It feels like it just kept rising up, this visceral reaction that the men and women who supported [the sex offender] had.
Similarly, Ashley reflected, “I was called ‘That Woman.’ I was called ‘the witch-hunt person’ . . . just for trying to get dangerous people from places of power.”
Lacking robust theology, communities center on a vulnerable, vague, and underdeveloped theology surrounding forgiveness and redemption. This lack combined with great ambivalence about the role of oversight in meetings has created a perfect storm: unsafe conditions where abuse can and does occur under the cover of the Religious Society of Friends.
Leadership structures: For good or ill?
Within these dynamics, formalized leadership can be a double-edged sword. Pastoral and evangelical meetings raised issues of unaccountable pastors, while solutions and the most comprehensive policies I encountered also came from pastors, particularly ones with expertise in abuse prevention.
Mary told me:
I’m beginning to think there’s a lot of gifts in having a pastor, who has training in this kind of thing. . . . We needed somebody with some experience and wisdom, and we did not have that person in the meeting. . . . We kind of kept being stuck because we didn’t have [those] capacities.
Pastors, on the other hand, are not always supportive of policy, sometimes using their role to stand in the way. One person I interviewed noted that the most resistance on background checks came from pastors, while volunteers and members largely supported the change.
Even pastoral Friends meetings tend to reject much of the formality of leadership roles and structures. Less formalized leadership roles can also result in less formalized vetting and accountability of the people in these roles.
I observed this in the story of one unprogrammed meeting that put a man with a history of violent serial rape in the position of treasurer and of serving on the worship committee. This individual’s criminal history would have precluded him from being employed in many types of work—certainly as a pastor—so this was a situation where, ironically, the informality of the role made it easier for an offender to be placed in a position of trust, decision-making power, and visibility.
I do not totally blame my former yearly meeting’s elders for failing to recognize how the pastor’s behaviors of omission and dishonesty follow the classic pattern of sex-offender manipulation. Nor do I blame the well-intentioned people I talked with in other meetings who disclosed similar stories of Friends being manipulated. Friends were often put in positions to decide these matters without themselves receiving reasonable vetting and training to prepare them for the task.
Resources in the world of Friends are scarce on these issues, and most of our meetings are poor models for how to protect the vulnerable.
However, I am deeply grieved when our spirituality is misused to justify these kinds of actions. We are not made more spiritual by our avoidance of research and professional resources that are available on this topic. True Friends spirituality is and always has been rooted in honest appraisal of reality: it is faith and practice in integrity with one another.
A well-discerned, Spirit-led ministry does not have to endanger the vulnerable or enable abuse. If we think that such actions are more loving, we misunderstand what love really is. In Matthew 10:16, we are called to be “shrewd as serpents, harmless as doves.” Our love must be informed by reality and judged by its impact, not its intent.
* When partial names have been used they have been changed for privacy reasons.
- Wise as Serpents, Harmless as Doves: A Spiritual Approach to Abuse Prevention in Friends Meetings by Jade Rockwell
Correction: Lynn Fitz-Hugh’s name was misspelled in the print edition and an earlier version of this online article. We apologize for the error.