Written by Renée Bosco
For much of the last three years, I have spent a large amount of time walking through the intricacies of a church leader sexual abuse case. The perpetrator, my former boss, was a well-known charismatic ministry leader. Through this process, I’ve realized the great need for reformation in how the church handles sexual misconduct. In recent years, more and more people have come forward with stories of sexual abuse committed by church leaders and the spiritual elite. The issue of sexual corruption in our leadership matters to God. He is as much an agent of exposure as the men and women who, against historical norms, are deciding to speak up. Leaders across all denominations are being exposed for their sex crimes. I believe this flood of exposure will continue until the church makes a massive shift to understand and combat how we allow abusive people rise to leadership and why we then offer them long-term protection at the top.
For many people, this conclusion may seem obvious. But the question of how and where to begin is harder to sort out. Below, I outline a framework that will help propel us in a new direction.
1. Jesus always called things by what they were.
He called some people wolves and some people bad trees. He called people snakes, broods of vipers, and white-washed tombs. He called out the people on the day he turned tables in the temple, saying they were turning his house into a den of thieves. He told people when they were being hypocrites and when they were being wicked. He called King Herod a fox. Jesus is our example, and this is where I find my justification for calling things what they are—for telling the truth. We must allow truth a voice. We must be willing to call a predator a predator and a sexual abuser a sexual abuser. This doesn’t mean negative terms of this nature are a person’s God-given identity; however, they are the applicable and important words that frame their dangerous minds and behaviors, and we must be willing to use them.
2. Sexual predators are not like most of us.
These people often have psychological disorders, making them hard to spot and even harder to stop. They’re slick, smart, and cunning.
Predatory sex offenders are motivated by a desire to maintain or restore their self-esteem by manipulation and control of others, and by the prospect of excitement and the opportunity to deviously exhibit their dominance and superiority…. These primary traits are endemic in narcissistic and the antisocial [sociopath] personality types, respectively .(1)
Research beyond that quote shows that many sexual predators are also sex addicts, narcissists, sociopaths, psychopaths, or some combination of these disorders. We are naïve to think in the attempt to keep things “in house,” that the average church will be successful in any kind of healing or restoration process for someone with such deep pathological disorders. We need to own our limitations and own them fast.
3. We must acknowledge and accept how remarkably hard it is to spot a sexual predator.
We must also work to understand how much they love to infiltrate our churches and ministries and why. Often extremely intelligent, “offenders can recognize ideal settings.”(2) Because of the pathological disorders many of them carry, they lack empathy, feeling no guilt or remorse as they begin to work us from the moment we meet. From the start, he will begin laying the first bricks of his false foundation that will one day cause us to say, “I’ve known him for years; he is incapable of doing that!” They live double lives and that is a fact.
Predators seek environments where they can have easy access to their prey of choice, whether it is young children, teenage girls and boys, or adults. They seek environments where trust is a high commodity, where the general population has naivety to evil, and/or where the people are silenced by guilt for even suspecting someone of evil. Predators are drawn to communities where positions of power are accessible and, furthermore, where brotherhoods of protection exist at the top.
Some of the protection predators find at the top comes from corruption of power centered for the good of the institution. As sociologist Anson Shupe puts it, “Religious institutional bodies faced with having to respond to sexual abuse seek to neutralize conflict in an effort to restore authority in their institutions.”(3) Men who build these church structures do whatever it takes to keep their prize of power secure. Some protection is simply fear based; it takes more fortitude than most think to stand against a colleague or friend, no matter how evil their actions. What I find most bothersome is that our own theology, twisted on its head, protects these people: “Christian concepts of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration, rooted in biblical justice [carry] important rhetorical functions.”(4) The predator is usually the first to remind us of these things, calling us to uphold them for him. And in the labyrinth of dealing with these masters of mind-games, we do. And that is how protection of the evil happens.
At this point, the issue of abuse by Catholic priests is well known to most of us. I used to think these men had chosen to engage in sexual abuse after following a call of God to enter into the priesthood—that somehow, they were good men at the start and fell into sin along the way. In my study, I’m finding the contrary. Some never had a call from God at all. They were simply con men with evil desires and pathological disorders that recognized the incredibly predator-safe environment of the priesthood, so they entered it. There they could safely preach to congregations in the morning and molest young boys in the afternoon. Sometimes these men were raised in the church, too, further shoring up their credibility as priests.
In her book Predators, Anna Salter writes,
…Many offenders report that religious people are even easier to fool than most people. One molester, who was himself a minister, said: “I considered church people easiest to fool…. They have a trust that comes from being Christians…. They tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.”(5)
This template of entering the church on purpose is not limited to Catholic priests; it happens in every denomination and non-denominational stream. A lesser-known example of this is found in a man named John Howard Yoder, a “renowned Christian ethicist and theologian.”(6) As a professor of theology at Notre Dame and faculty member at Goshen Biblical Seminary, Yoder, a Mennonite man, built his credibility by writing some of the most highly respected lectures, theological books, and scholarly papers in the 1970s and beyond. What most don’t know is that he also abused women throughout that same timeline, even during a highly secretive 17-year- long process of being surrounded by “covenant groups” intended to keep tabs on his immoral behavior. The four-to-six members of these revolving covenant groups were uneducated on the ways of predators, and Yoder was too cunning. Not surprisingly, he maintained large mental and theological control over direction of his own “care.” Therefore, he easily and successfully lived a double life while under close supervision for 17 years! On one hand, he remained a professor, writer, and theologian, creating material that continued to induce high credibility with the public, and he manipulated many members of his “covenant groups” into extreme secrecy and sold them on the false belief that he was repentant. On the other hand, he continued to commit sexual violence against at least thirty women from 1970 to 1997.
John Howard Yoder was partially exposed at a certain point, but his crimes remained mostly hidden and his victims never cared for. By the end of his life, his supporters were able to get his publications back into some college curriculums. At age 70, soliciting women up until one week before he died in 1997, Yoder proved to never have any intention of stopping his behavior. Now, 23 years later, this man, who is a disgrace to the Mennonite denomination and to the heart of God, has books that are still in print. Young college readers are none-the-wiser of this man’s evil behavior, and they’d certainly never suspect it while reading his “great works” on pacifism.
Another representation of this behavior is found in the modern charismatic teacher and author Jonathan Welton. Contrary to the non-scandalous narrative that Welton presented to the public, his support and connection to Randy Clark’s ministry, Global Awakening, was abruptly ended due to reports of sexual misconduct that Jonathan was conducting under his own startup itinerate ministry. Not only did he seduce his intern into performing an undisclosed number of sexual favors, but he had also been hosting private women-only inner healing meetings during which he would explain to them how he was their spiritual father and that fathers and daughters are to be affectionate with one another. There is still more to be told about that era in Welton’s history, but the details have been deeply shrouded in secrecy, offering him full protection.
Having an appetite to satisfy, he had to find his way back to the feeding ground, so he did whatever it took. Like a master chess player, he navigated his loss of credibility with Global Awakening, showed up for a rather extensive “healing process,” which he didn’t complete, then went right back into the arena of Christian ministry. Similar to the aforementioned John Howard Yoder, Welton began to create writings and teachings that would build credibility with the public. If any leaders from his past at Global Awakening were concerned with his rise in popularity, surely their concerns would be calmed by the release of his book, Eyes of Honor. In this book, Welton claims that, while he used to be addicted to porn, he is no longer and now he views women only through a lens of purity. In a Sid Roth interview about the book, Welton claimed to have a “Saul-to-Paul kind of transformation”(7) in his view of women. It was all highly effective. People from around the globe fell right into his hand, and no one from the past came to warn the public. That book was released in 2012; by the end of 2018, a timeline of abuse rose to the surface, revealing that he’d never stopped abusing women. His ministry is currently closed, and his victims are still working their way to wholeness, some seemingly permanently broken. Will he make it back for round three? Only time will tell if those who carry the protection in this case will choose an abusive leader or the vulnerable body of Christ.
4. In the hidden life of a predator, a trail of destruction always exists.
However long or short that trail is, it is filled with real victims whose lives have been marked by the predator. We cannot lose sight of the fact that what happens in sexual abuse cases is gratifying and pleasurable for the assailant and completely violating and harmful to the assailed. We are on a completely different ball field than run-of-the-mill self-afflicting sin issues.
The abused have been taken advantage of, their psyches and bodies beaten upon. When victims are manipulated through the grooming process, their insecurities and vulnerabilities are slowly and meticulously coaxed wide open; the predator then exploits them over and over again for his own sexual gratification. This goes beyond violation to their bodies, as devastating as that is, and encompasses rape of their hearts, minds, and souls so the predator can feel power and feed his evil desires.
When light comes to these crimes, the predator is usually given full attention and protection from fellow leadership. Meanwhile, victims are often left to fend for themselves; they are silenced and shamed, and their stories are never heard. What happens next, for many, is a further disgrace—total distortion of the victims’ understanding of themselves and God. Love for both is lost. This happens because of the negative response of the church toward the abused coupled with the positive response given to the abuser. Doing this sends a damaging nonverbal message to the abused and to the world about what our values are as representatives of the heart of God.
Somehow protecting “the calling” or position of a single evil doer has taken priority over caring for the pure, broken, and downtrodden. The abused should get our primary care, attention, and restoration efforts. I’m reminded of the verse, “…Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me” (Matthew 25:45 NIV).
5. As evil as the actions of sexual predators are, Jesus died for them as much as he did for the rest of us.
Living in the new covenant, we must offer love through new methods of dealing with leaders when they are exposed of sexual abuse.
Leaving them where they are, with no consequence, is akin to refusing to shed light on their darkness. It does nothing but enable them to continue to engage in satisfying both their overt and covert desires. It allows the darkness to fester and perpetuate the rot of their souls. Toward the goal of not losing sight of how dangerous such people are to those around them, I offer these suggestions (which also provide more support to the victims):
First, we need to turn our backs on the days of not immediately pressing criminal charges for sex crimes, everything from harassment to rape to grooming. Calling the police should always be our first move in protecting our flock. We are church leaders, most of whom are not also seasoned or professional investigators. Additionally, most have little experience in dealing with criminals who have psychological behaviors of this sort. We must bring in the professionals as fast as we can. Moving in this direction also declares, “We protect the abused first. We don’t harbor sexual abusers. There are natural consequences to pay for abusing people in our community.” The church cannot continue to be a less safe place for people than the secular corporate world.
Second, for those outside of prison, meaning those who are released from prison, were not successfully convicted, or were never charged, I suggest they be removed from both their leadership roles and the church community where they committed their crimes. Instead of allowing predators a place among the flock, we offer to take church to them. This idea is not my own; I stumbled across it in Dr. Diane Langberg’s writings, and I believe it is an incredible position for the church to take. Until now, churches have tended to do one of two things: (1) Protect their fellow leader, don’t press charges, keep the story quiet, and the cycle inevitably repeats; or (2) Kick the predator out, leaving him to repeat the same behavior at the next place he decides to land.
Are there options outside of constantly swinging to one extreme or the other?
Dr. Diane Langberg, a clinical psychologist who has spent the majority of her 40-year career drudging through the thick of trauma survivor care, offers us a hopeful solution. In a recent blog, she shared this perspective on what happens when we allow sexual predators to remain in our churches, and then she proposes a solution:
The images, fantasies and the feeding only continue even while Scripture is read and songs are sung. This is someone with no understanding of the practice required for a godly custody of his/her eyes and thoughts. We have not only failed the vulnerable. We have also failed victims of abuse by another who now feel vigilant and fearful in God’s sanctuary. And we have failed the abuser, for we have left him/her in their prison, practicing that which is strangling their soul. There is no grace in leaving another in the prison of practiced sin, justified by deceptions. We become complicit in their spiritual suicide…
So Diane, what are we to do? Do we leave the abuser in their sin and keep them away from the church? No, to the first question. Yes, to the second. Bring the church to the abuser. I have worked with churches who have done this. A group of committed and mature adults meet once a week with the abuser and listen to the sermon, discuss it, check in, not only about actions and choices but also about thoughts and impulses. They sing and they pray. . . The group is to have permission to stay in regular touch with both a therapist for updates and with the parole officer dealing with the case. They read Anna Salter’s book Predators and watch her documentary on sex offenders. Know also that this group will need care, respite, encouragement and shepherding as they enter into the sewer of abuse. The work is hard, slow, discouraging and contagious. The church must not abandon them.(8)
If we choose to make this a common practice, which I think we should, I beg of you to not forget Dr. Langberg’s closing words, “The work is hard, slow, discouraging and contagious.” We cannot abandon the teams of people who are willing to do this. They must be well educated, well supported, have full disclosure of everything the offender has done, and have access to the abuser’s therapist. The team will be crippled without a massive support system at their back. Dr. Langberg calls it entering the “sewer of abuse,” and I know she does not use that term lightly.(9)
We are at the forefront of a movement whose missionis to end sexual corruption in church leadership. I didn’t start it; I simply landed in it. I got here by playing the role of whistle-blower; I’ve slogged through the ugly sewer. It is not pleasant or easy to consider these issues, but it is crucial. The momentum underneath us is moving so fast I can barely keep up. I credit this to God; He is moving swiftly and directly. This revolution is not for the faint of heart. Upon entry, one must be willing to lose everything for the sake of love and for the sake of the abused, who have had their entire beings ripped apart. We are at the beginning of an era that will change church history. Now is the time to decide which side you want to land on.
1. Wayne Petherick and Grant Sinnamon, The Psychology of Criminal and Antisocial Behavior (Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2013), pg464.
2. Anna Salter, Predators (New York: Basic Books, 2003), pg29.
3. Anson Shupe, quoted in Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review Volume LXXXIX (Jan 2015).
4. Rachel Waltner Goossen, “’Defanging the Beast’: Mennonite Responses to John Howard Yoder’s Sexual Abuse,” The Mennonite Quarterly Review Volume LXXXIX (Jan 2015).
5. Salter, Predators, pg28.
7. Jonathan Welton interview with Sid Roth, It’s Supernatural (May 7, 2012), 6:55 – 7:00; https://www.lightsource.com/ministry/its-supernatural/jonathan-welton-279289.html.
8. Diane Langberg, “How Should the Church Respond to Abusers?” (Jan 6, 2020); www.dianelangberg.com.
9. Many of my readers know I’m directly connected to the sexual abuse case of Jonathan Welton. That ongoing journey is the catalyst for my education and study on this topic, and it has formed my ideas and opinions related to it. On behalf of the integrity and credibility of Steve and Joy Hogan, the senior leaders at Welton’s home church in New York, I want the public to know they fought a long and honorable fight for that man. Many credible witnesses can attest to this, including the advisory board assigned to Welton’s case. After the closing of Welton Academy in September 2018, the Hogans entered directly into the proverbial sewer of abuse. The methods they used to walk that out looked similar, yet different, to what I proposed here. It’s been hard, slow, and discouraging. Unfortunately, Welton has continued to show himself untrustworthy and divisive, so with much support, they have shifted their protection fully toward their flock and away from the wolf.