This weekend, the Vatican hosted a historic summit addressing the problem of sexual abuse within the Catholic church. The summit comes only a couple of weeks after a series of investigative reports from the Houston Chronicle pushed the problem of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Churches into the same shameful light that the Catholics have squirmed under for years. And all of this has washed in on the tide of the #metoo movement, a large-scale movement exposing the terrible extent to which the vulnerable have been sexually abused within the entertainment industry.
As long as Hollywood, the Vatican, and the seat of American Evangelicalism find themselves in the same shameful room, what patterns can we discern that may help us to understand the causes and corrections of these abuses? First, it’s clear that neither religious belief and its accompanying notions of sexual purity nor an ethic of sexual liberty can guard against predatory behavior. And while priestly celibacy could contribute to the culture of silence around abuse, we can safely remove it as a causefor sexual abuse. Of course the “Sunday School” answer to the problem common to all these institutions is “sin.” And make no mistake, sexual abuse is an evil example of sin. But if we want to see real change, we need to understand some more specific, practical causes. Perhaps the unlikely convergence of these three institutions will provide us with some insight. So today, I’m offering a few traits that the entertainment industry, Roman Catholics, and Southern Baptists share that may have contributed to their problems with sexual abuse.
All three of these institutions wield great cultural power that is sometimes accompanied by political power. The Catholic church has a long history of struggle where power and politics are concerned. (Anyone remember the Holy Roman Empire?) Given its fraught past, the Catholic Church today mostly keeps its distance from politics. But its Cultural power remains. There’s a reason that Pope Francis’s statements about homosexuality or climate change have been huge news stories: a wide swath of people look to him as a leading voice on culturally-relevant issues.
The cultural power of both Hollywood and Southern Baptists is plain to see, especially in America. As America’s largest evangelical denomination, Southern Baptists have long been prominent voices in the religious right, whose explicit purpose is to wield political and cultural power in the name of Christian morality. The religious right has often pitted itself against that other cultural behemoth, “liberal Hollywood,” which wields its own power through mainstream media and the political opinions of its vocal celebrity members.
Why does all this power matter? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that “power corrupts,” because that’s not always true. But I will take a page out of Spiderman’s book and say that power comes with the responsibility to stand up for the powerless. While all three institutions have succeeded in that responsibility to a certain degree, they would all do well to pay attention to power’s insidious side: the more power we attain, the farther we stray from the margins, and the harder it becomes to relate to the vulnerable. It’s hard to listen to the stories of those being hurt by a power structure that benefits you. You may even be tempted to protect that power more than you protect those victims, which leads to the next trait these three groups share.
Those in power like to preserve that power. In Hollywood, that desire for self-preservation manifests in Public Relations campaigns designed to spin and distract until the public forgets all about a nasty accusation. But the church, as Russell Moore reminds us, should never approach abuse allegations in this way. Moore explains that cover-ups should be the opposite of a church’s reaction, since “The Judgment Seat of Christ will be far less reticent than a newspaper series to uncover what should never have been hidden.”
Yet, hiding and covering is too often a key element that perpetuates abuse. Baptists often justify such hiding with the desire to preserve the autonomy of individual churches and to protect the reputation of an otherwise good church against the damage done by a few insidious individuals. As Moore makes clear, however, such cover-ups only worsen the problem, both before God and man. Colin Armstrong of The Guardian singles out “institutional self protection” as a leading cause for the Catholic abuse problem as well. As the extent of that cover-up in the form of destroyed documentation became clear at this weekend’s summit, victims were justifiably angry.
A surprising commonality among Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and Hollywood is that all three are run primarily by men. Even more surprising? The Church can actually learn something from Hollywood. The problems for women in Hollywood are old news; differences in pay, discrimination concerning women’s age and looks, and the limited and stereotypical roles available for women have been widely discussed and debated even before #metoo illuminated more serious problems. But what has changed in light of #metoo is the common cry from women in Hollywood to stand up and speak up. Women have begun writing, funding, and directing more films and TV shows. They’ve begun asking for inclusion riders in their contracts in order to get more diversity on film sets. The system is still far from perfect, but change is in the air because women are speaking and the world is listening.
But women can’t speak in an institution that won’t allow them to. I’m not going to get into the weeds of complementarian versus egalitarian theology today, but even among those who hold a strict complementarian view of gender roles, space must be made for women’s views and voices. Maybe your theology can’t allow for female priests or head pastors, but you can still create advisory roles for women along with as many different ministerial roles as your church can muster. Besides, if you’re a real complementarian, you probably believe that men and women are meant to fill in the missing spots in one another’s strengths and weaknesses, so leaving your church without any female voices sets you up for some major blind spots.
Some of the most powerful voices from this weekend’s summit were women, like Sister Veronica Openibo, a nun from Nigeria who leads the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and who called out the Church for its “mediocrity, hypocrisy, and complacency,” or journalist Valentina Alazraki, who implored the Church to join forces with the press against “the real wolves” who prey on the helpless. Imagine if these voices enjoyed a more consistent platform within the Catholic Church. Imagine what the Church Universal would sound like if it were a true choir reflecting all its diverse experiences and viewpoints.
Of course, diversifying church leadership can’t prevent every instance of abuse. We need concrete strategies both for screening and reporting people in ministry, and for bringing criminals to justice and victims to healing. But only when we stop clinging to power we will be able to embrace the powerless. Then, we can take those concrete steps together.
Christine Hand Jones is a singer-songwriter, a professor of English and songwriting, and has served as a worship leader and church music director. She has a PhD in Literary Studies from the University of Texas at Dallas, which she earned, in large measure, by listening to the collected works of Bob Dylan and writing about what she heard. When she's not playing music or fascinating her students with stunning lectures over comma splices, Christine can be found drinking coffee, playing devoted cat mom to Desmond and Molly, and roaming the shelves of Half-Price Books.