How Evangelical purity culture enables child sexual abuse
John Ortberg is an evangelical Christian author, speaker, and senior pastor of the Menlo Church in Menlo Park, California, a megachurch with over 4,000 members. He stands in the center of a scandal regarding child sexual abuse and an Evangelical “secrecy culture.”
Ortberg and his church stand accused of equating child sex abusers with LGBTQ people and ignoring or minimizing warnings coming from a transgender man — because he’s transgender.
The Evangelical movement at large, which elevates “sexual purity” to a high altar, finds itself facing a child sex abuse crisis the Washington Post says may soon rival that of the Roman Catholic Church. The Ortberg scandal helps explain why. Here are the basic facts, which I’ll boil down as simply as I can before addressing the larger problem.
Menlo Church volunteer confesses to Pastor Ortberg he’s sexually obsessed with children
According to a statement from church elders, “In July of 2018, a person serving in the Menlo Church community came to [Senior Pastor] John and shared in confidence an unwanted thought pattern of attraction to minors. The person assured, to John’s satisfaction, that the person had not acted on the attraction and sought John’s support. John believed the person and provided prayers and referrals for counseling.”
Pastor Ortberg took no action
He took no steps to bar the volunteer of over ten years from working intimately with children. He did not talk to other staff or church members about the situation. He agreed with the volunteer that working with children, unsupervised on overnight trips, would be appropriate therapy. He allowed and even encouraged unsupervised contact with children to continue.
A third party reported the danger to the church board
It turns out the board released the above statement because a former church member had written to them on November 18 to tell them about the problem — 16 months after Pastor Ortberg first learned of it. Four days later, Ortberg took a “personal leave” from his duties. Menlo Church leaders say they hired an independent investigator to look into concerns over Ortberg’s actions.
But, according to the former church member, the board did no more than a cursory investigation of the volunteer himself, who had spent a decade supervising children in settings both on and off church property.
Ortberg apologized, saying “he did not handle this matter consistent with his responsibilities to Menlo Church and the Board’s expectations of him.”
Church leaders adopted a “restoration plan” that would allow him to return to the pulpit, which he did on January 24, slightly more than two months after the third-party complaint.
Then the first bombshell dropped. Pastor Ortberg‘s transgender son revealed himself as the complainant —
On February 2, 2020, Pastor Ortberg’s son Daniel Lavery, a respected author, saying he was motivated by deep concern, revealed on Twitter that he was the person who first reported the problem to the Menlo Church board. He tweeted that he and his wife had learned about the volunteer’s self-reported sexual obsessions and had brought their concerns to Ortberg — who promptly dismissed them.
Lavery says he made the accusations public because they were more serious than the board was letting on and because they revealed a pattern of secrecy in church culture that was putting children at risk. He also claimed the pastor and the board were minimizing his concerns because he’s a transgender man.
The details of his claims are stunning —
Lavery revealed the volunteer told him both the pastor and the pastor’s wife “continually encouraged” him, as a form of therapy, to seek out unsupervised work with children, including overnight travel.
In his tweet, Lavery says he and his wife Grace, “expressed the gravest reservations about this [therapy] scheme. He says Ortberg dismissed his concerns on the following grounds:
- “That pedophilia was like homosexuality”
- “That the most important thing was maintaining secrecy around this affair”
- “That [Lavery and his wife] lacked standing to offer an alternative form of treatment for sexual obsession with children because of our transitions.”
Lavery says Ortberg would not assure him the volunteer had or would stop traveling overnight with children.
His tweet rocked the Evangelical world as major publications like Christianity Today devoted articles questioning church culture and how it might inadvertently enable sexual predators.
But soon, Ortberg returned to the pulpit, the uproar died down, and life seemed to go back to normal at Menlo Park Church.
Until June 28 when …
Lavery dropped his second bombshell. The volunteer is his brother, Pastor Ortberg’s other son.
Lavery’s thread is too long to reproduce in detail here, so I’ll try to briefly summarize. The details are sad and shocking, part family tragedy and thus perhaps not meriting a full airing, but also part critical public information, in that Pastor Ortberg knowingly put hundreds of children at grave risk of being sexually abused, which is why Lavery came forward with so many details.
He says his primary concerns are these:
- He had hoped “Menlo Elders would conduct a confidential and thorough investigation,” but claims the investigation was not at all thorough, citing evidence of critical deficiencies.
- He says “Ortberg returned to the pulpit acknowledging vague regret, but that “neither he nor church leaders specified what he did wrong.”
- He says “Parishioners were not given the full story of Ortberg’s relationship to this volunteer, or his interest in keeping their strategy a secret.” He worried parishioners did not have information they needed to learn if their own children may have been sexually abused.
- He complains church leaders publicly smeared him after his first tweet, “insinuating I was mentally unstable because I am trans[gender].”
- He says his father and possibly other church leaders subscribe to the thoroughly discredited “Virtuous Pedophile” movement that claims close, unmonitored contact with children is therapeutic for pedophiles.
Menlo Park as church-culture cautionary tale
People like me raised in Evangelical culture don’t find this sad story at all surprising. Feminist writer Libby Anne observes in a Patheos column that ex-Evangelicals like her (and me) recognize many common factors that “create a perfect storm of coverup and neglect” of child sexual abuse in the Evangelical world.
She notes that denial is so entrenched that Billy Graham’s grandson Boz Tchividjian created the organization Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environmentto “convince churches and other evangelical groups that they should create protections for children.”
Her point of view syncs with my own personal Evangelical experience: Churches often don’t take responsibility because Evangelical people are firmly convinced that they are morally better and safer than “worldly” people — that sexual abuse happens somewhere else to someone else.
Sexual abuse is what ungodly, worldly people do. Good Christians don’t need to worry about it.
The conservative Christian sexuality worldview is toxic
Evangelical people, like Roman Catholics clergy, take a dim view of human sexuality from the get-go. Outside of reproduction, it’s not “pure.” Sexuality isn’t something “nice” people talk about, isn’t something any unmarried person should ever think about. It works against spiritual health except in the most limited of circumstances.
Sexuality is a struggle!
That’s a common theme for both Roman Catholic clergy and Evangelical Christians. Masturbation is a serious sin, and “impure thoughts” are just as bad. Simply feeling sexual desire is condemned as morally wrong. (This is theologically complicated, and lines are vague. The difference between feeling attraction and experiencing sinful “desire” is hotly debated in some Evangelical circles.)
When speaking of the Evangelical world, denigration of healthy human sexuality is often referred to as “purity culture.” Outsiders can experience it as creepy, as when fathers gift their young daughters with “purity rings” at ceremonial “purity balls” where young girls pledge to refrain from any sexual activity until their fathers give them away in marriage. Some Evangelical insiders are are working to reform purity culture and its implicit sexism.
But the long and short is that by condemning almost all sexuality, Evangelical purity culture erases the practical moral difference between healthy adult sex and child sexual abuse.
It’s all equally wrong! (In their worldview.)
Evangelicals (and much of the Roman Catholics clergy) believe all humans face sexual temptation and must struggle to live in purity or chastity. They believe faith in God gives them the power to succeed in that struggle.
Whether you’re a young man “struggling” with the desire to have sex with young women, a gay man struggling with desire to have sex with men, a lesbian who falls in love with other women, or a pedophile struggling with the desire to have sex with children, you’re all in the same boat. God is there for all of you equally, in the same way.
Faith in God and the Church is the answer!
If you have enough faith, pray enough, go to church at the right times and stay away from “the world,” then you’ll be fine. God will either take your “temptations” away or give you the strength not to “submit” to them.
Good Christians don’t commit sexual sins, after all.
Evangelical sexuality doctrines equate LGBTQ people with pedophiles
The Evangelical sexuality wordview completely overlooks what science tells us empirically about human sexuality. We know for sure — through rigorous experimentation, study, and decades of clinical experience — that sexual attraction cannot and does not change, not through counseling and not through faith.
We know lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people experience sexuality as they were born to experience it — or if one is of faith — as God created them. We know that sexual expression between adults harms no one, so is not pathological.
As for pedophiles, people who experience strong sexual attraction or obsession toward children, we know their unfortunate state IS pathological. For whatever reason, they are wired to crave sexual expression that is harmful to children.
No amount of prayer, faith, counseling, or therapy has been shown to alter how they experience sexual attraction. While they may not be able to control their desires, they can control their behaviors. They can stay away from children and not put themselves in a place of temptation.
But Evangelical purity culture and worldview cannot (or does not) distinguish between harmless, minority sexuality and pathological sexuality. As Pastor Ortberg and his board demonstrated so well, any sexuality outside traditional married heterosexuality is equally sinful and equally amenable to faith-based “therapy.”
Evangelical denial and trans/homophobia must end
Evangelical culture exacerbates the very real danger of child sex abuse. As Libby Anne notes in her Patheos column, child sex abuse is a risk for just about all human institutions. Schools, scouting organizations, community centers, etc, all work to put policies in place to protect vulnerable kids from a small minority of pathological predators. That’s just sad human reality.
Not all pedophiles are predators, but human institutions that encourage or tacitly allow pedophiles to interact with children put children at severe risk of harm. This should be needless to say, but for many conservative Christians, it’s not so obvious.
The Roman Catholic Church got itself into historically huge trouble by denying sexuality is a powerful human drive not amenable to change or control by methods of faith and religious observance. Leaders believed the dogma: God would lift sexual struggle from pedophiles who exercised enough faith.
Obviously, they were wrong. Countless children suffered for the mistake.
The Evangelical world is now facing the same problem. They can’t or won’t understand that pedophiles are a threat regardless of the strength of their religious faith. Because Evangelicals effectively pathologize ALL sex, they lack the ability to distinguish potential predators from sexually healthy adults.
To make matters worse, they hold LGBTQ people in such high sexual disdain that they won’t (at least in this case) listen to them when they raise red flags about serious risk to children.
I don’t mean to imply that Evangelical people and leaders encourage or tolerate the sexual abuse of children. Of course they don’t. Nor do Roman Catholic clergy. But both institutions are blinded by their sexuality worldviews.
When almost all sex is “impure” and “sinful,” then true pathology fades into the background. When the “sin” of pedophilia is equivalent to the “sin” of homosexuality — when God will, against all evidence, change both those conditions for “good Christians,” then child sexual abuse is bound to increase.
Here’s the real tragedy boiled down
An accomplished, widely respected transgender man and author reached out privately to the church that had rejected him — to report a sensitive family matter that was putting children at grave risk of harm. He was mostly rebuffed because of his transgender identity.
Church leaders did everything they could to sweep the matter under the rug, blind to danger because their faith-based views on sexuality make LGBTQ people permanent, untrustworthy outsiders, and because they believe wrongly that faith can change how people experience sexuality.
The Catholic Church has struggled with the same phenomenon and still don’t have it under control. If the Evangelical movement doesn’t take dramatic steps to change its own views on sexuality, hundreds of thousands of children will remain at risk from predators and potential predators.
It’s time, well past time, for conservative Christians to inform their faith with human knowledge, to take steps to rid dogma of sexual pathology.
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