A Christian columnist's question to the Twittersphere, "How old were you when you were pursued sexually by an adult authority?" prompted by a former youth pastor now felon's first-person account of sexual abuse with a youth under his care, published by Christianity Today's Leadership Journal, has created a viral online discussion.
As author and religion writer Jeff Chu posted in the introduction of his Storify post on the issue, the Leadership Journal piece written by the anonymous youth minister "focused on the perpetrator's losses, short on empathy for the victim, and widely considered tone-deaf."
Chu continued, "As the hashtag #takedownthatpost emerged to pressure the publication to reconsider the essay (which has since been taken offline), Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior invited other voices to the conversation — those of men and women who had been abused. She had a simple but difficult question."
In her post on Monday, "#HowOldWereYou: Origins of a Heartbreaking Hashtag," Prior writes that she herself was the victim of unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior from a health teacher as a junior in high school.
She also explained that in her own "ordinary experience, encounters with adult sexual predators were a common — if not universal — part of growing up. I cannot even begin to count the friends and relatives who were pursued as minors — sometimes 'successfully,' sometimes not — by adult predators."
She noted in her post that 7% of girls in grades 5-8 and 12% of girls in grades 9-12 report having been sexually abused, along with 3% of boys grades 5-8 and 5% of boys in grades 9-12.
"Of course, my question was much broader: posed not only to those who had been abused but to potential victims, too, those who had been merely sought out by an adult predator, as I had been," Prior states. "Imagine: for every child abused, the number of those who are tested and groomed as potential victims must be utterly staggering.
"My sense about the pervasiveness of the problem was, sadly, proven correct over the next several hours … The responses on Twitter were — and continue days later to be — overwhelming."
She writes that "it's time for the church to stop being shocked and face reality with open eyes."
In his post, "It's Abuse, Not an Affair, and It Appears We Need to be Reminded... Again," LifeWay research division president Ed Stetzer, writes that "the anonymous youth pastor is anonymous because he's in prison as a rapist. He doesn't seem to be able to bring himself to use the words 'child,' 'victim,' 'rape,' or 'abuse.' His language suggests he's deluded himself into believing the sex was consensual."
Stetzer believes the lesson learned from the youth pastor's controversial piece and ensuing discussion is that more of us need to be listening.
"Anyone who thinks this is simply a minor issue in American evangelicalism hasn't been sitting in counseling rooms," he writes. "Statistics tell us that you and I worship with a child sex abuse victim every Sunday."
Even with Christian leaders such as Stetzer helping to educate people within the church about the sexual abuse issue, Prior points out that "accepting the commonness of the problem does not mean accepting the problem."
"It is with sexual abuse as it is with a dog's jumping: it should be neither shocking nor tolerated," she writes. "Nor does opening our eyes to the problem mean we should establish a battery of fear-based rules and regulations for young people and for those that serve them. Rather, we must be fiercely communicative, open, vigilant, and wise.
"We need to understand the fact that abusers, potential abusers, and their victims are all around us," Prior concludes. "There is no need to adopt a culture of fear, suspecting anyone whose hand we shake at Sunday morning worship is a thief — but we don't leave our wallets unattended in the robe room either."
For its part, the Leadership Journal published an apology for running the youth minister's piece, stating they "deeply regret the decision to do so."
The Journal explained, "The post, told from the perspective of a sex offender, withheld from readers until the very end a crucial piece of information: that the sexual misconduct being described involved a minor under the youth pastor's care. Among other failings, this post used language that implied consent and mutuality when in fact there can be no quesiton that in situations of such disproportionate power there is no such thing as consent or mutuality.
"The post, intended to dissuade future perpetrators, dwelt at length on the losses this criminal sin caused the author, while displaying little or no empathic engagement with the far greater losses caused to the victim of the crime and the wider community around the author."
JL editors added that the post adopted a tone that was not appropriate "given its failure to document complete repentance and restoration."