The 1999 movie Fight Club gave popular culture a lot of ideas and memes. Out of all of the contenders, one of the most enduring quotes from the movie must be the titular club’s first rule: You do not talk about Fight Club. We find a very similar rule in operation in Christian schools and churches regarding sex abuse — and it exists for the same reasons it did in the movie. Christian leaders absolutely don’t want anyone talking about sex abuse in their ranks. In an age when their religion is becoming more and more optional and voluntary by the day, factual information about how dangerous their groups are could only make their decline worse. Today, let me show you why this rule is such a red flag.
Of course they didn’t warn anybody
In mid-December, I spotted this story on Julie Roys’ blog: “Liberty University Issued No Warnings After On-Campus Sexual Assaults, Students Say.”
My first thought: Of course they didn’t.
The story itself won’t surprise anybody. For years now, this ultra-evangelical indoctrination station has almost entirely failed to warn students about sex assaults occurring on their campus. The federal government requires these warnings, so Liberty University may be violating the law in not issuing them.
But this ain’t Christian leaders’ first secret rodeo.
For years, I’ve heard about Christian colleges refusing to acknowledge sex abuse in their schools. In 2014, Samantha Field wrote about sex abuse occurring at three different Christian colleges. All three kept the abuse secret. All three tried to silence victims.
That entire “Abuse of Faith” scandal in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) involved decades of cover-ups. The SBC’s top leaders’ entire goal was to keep abuse secret. In this effort, they joined the Catholic Church, whose endless attempts to keep widespread sex abuse secret blew wide open in the early 2000s.
And let’s not forget about The Village Church (TVC)! In 2015, they tried their hardest to conceal a child-porn-consuming pedophile from their congregation. Or Paige Patterson, who allegedly did his best to silence multiple assault victims. Hm, or Jim Bob Duggar, who jumped through many extensive hoops to keep his child-molesting son Josh out of legal entanglement.
Or or or or… gosh, I reckon I could name specifics all day.
Covering up and concealing sex abuse comes as naturally to toxic Christians as lying in general does.
Why Christian leaders cover up sex abuse
When they feel safe enough, abuse survivors speak. They tell us that their leaders told them to keep the abuse secret. They also give us hints about what motivated those leaders to demand silence.
First and foremost, these demands reveal a pattern.
Survivor Susan Codone said in this 2019 Christian Index article, “They told me that I had brought down men of God.” In the same article, Megan Lively said, “I was seen as someone threatening an institution rather than as a sister of Christ.”
Another survivor, Hannah-Kate Williams, sued a number of Southern Baptist entities for not addressing her abuse. The defendants include the SBC’s flagship seminary (run by Al Mohler). As a result of her lawsuit, that good ole Christian love poured down on Williams in the form of “threats from pastors and church staff angry about her accusations.” As she put it:
There are pastors commenting online saying I’m lying and deserve the death penalty . . . They literally want me dead.Source
This same pattern rings through most survivors’ accounts. And I can understand why.
Christian leaders know that abuse allegations will open them up to a lot of uncomfortable questions and scrutiny. In demanding silence, they simply act to protect their livelihoods and reputations.
The red flag of silencing sex abuse
In her classic 1973 story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula K. Le Guin created a fictional, fantastical world of wonder and glory. The people in her world live lives of impossible pleasure and joy. But they all know that their comfort comes at the expense of one child. The people of Omelas deliberately keep this one child in conditions of unimaginable isolation, deprivation, and cruelty:
They all know [the child] is there, all the people of Omelas. Some of them have come to see it, others are content merely to know it is there. They all know that it has to be there. Some of them understand why, and some do not, but they all understand that their happiness, the beauty of their city, the tenderness of their friendships, the health of their children, the wisdom of their scholars, the skill of their makers, even the abundance of their harvest and the kindly weathers of their skies, depend wholly on this child’s abominable misery.“The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”
In this story, some residents of Omelas can’t handle the child’s misery. They refuse to purchase lives of luxury at the expense of mistreating one child. And so they leave. They simply walk away.
For all the wealth, beauty, and luxury of Omelas, the ones who leave have the only claim to morality. They refuse to protect their organization if it means enduring a vast injustice even to one victim.
Unfortunately, way too many Christian leaders don’t have any trouble with the notion. They’ll endure any number of injustices — to others, of course — to keep their cut-rate Omelas running.
When justice and honesty take a back seat to protecting a group’s leader or organization
Abusive Christian leaders seek to protect their organizations and their own hides above all. Indeed, they purchase their lives of power and wealth with the coin of endless victims silenced and betrayed.
Worse, these leaders gravitate to authoritarian systems. The power imbalances in these systems help abusers achieve their sickening goals. (More egalitarian groups shut abusers out far more effectively.)
For lifetimes, abusive Christian leaders have taught fields full of prey to treasure the capital-C “Church” or capital-K “Kingdom” above even their own lives and safety. And then, when those same leaders abuse them, these victims will be very easy to — ah, how did Paige Patterson so quaintly put it? oh yes — “break down” with the sheer force of their authoritarian power.
We should view these demands for silence as a supreme red flag. That is, after all, exactly what they are. They are issued by leaders who know perfectly well what abuse says about them as leaders in general — and, in particular, how abuse reflects upon them as the self-appointed spokesmen of a totes-for-realsies god.
And they ain’t wrong there, either.
Until the free ride runs out entirely for them, though, they’ll do their best to enforce the rules of Christian Sex Abuse Club — while pretending they’re deeply upset about all that sex abusin’ goin’ on in their churches.
Meanwhile, more and more people are figuring out that the only way to address the abuse at the heart of Omelas is to walk away from it.