Why Social Media Is a Last Resort for Survivors of Clergy Abuse | Sojourners

Why Social Media Is a Last Resort for Survivors of Clergy Abuse

Photo by Amaury Gutierrez on Unsplash

Mainstream media has played a crucial role in giving voice to survivors. As Christine Parker pointed out in a recent interview with Robert Downen: “Church leaders aren’t listening to survivors until the media tells their story for them.”

The rise of social media in the past decade has provided an additional — and no less significant — outlet for #ChurchToo survivors to tell their stories, though not without great cost.

In February of 2019, the Houston Chronicle dropped its bombshell investigation into hundreds of abusers in the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) who, like their Roman Catholic counterparts, had been protected for decades by people within the church. The “Abuse of Faith” series shined a much-needed spotlight on Protestant clergy sexual abuse and has sparked outrage and pushback across the evangelical spectrum.

Nearly a year earlier, though, two women helped the rest of the world peek under the hood of the evangelical machine. After months and months of conversation about purity culture — which the two hope to dismantle — and sexual abuse within the evangelical church, Hannah Paasch and Emily Joy “realized that it was time to create space for survivors within the evangelical church and for those who have left its walls.”

Stories poured on to social media as women and men across the world shared their accounts of sexual abuse within the church.

The Houston Chronicle’s report revealed one of the key theological conviction’s underpinning the coverup of sexual abuse in the SBC: When it comes to addressing abuse allegations, congregants should follow Matthew 18:15–17, which states:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

Simply put, many church leaders advised that all conflict should be handled privately within the church. This reckless application of scripture protected abusers and enablers while silencing survivors. And vocal abuse survivors have been further traumatized through shaming and spiritual abuse when they speak out. Often #ChurchToo detractors accuse survivors of wanting only to ruin the lives of their abusers, create division within the church, or otherwise stir up trouble. If that was not the case, then surely they would not have taken to social media to out their abusers.

Every abuse survivor I’ve spoken to on the role of social media in #ChurchToo, though, has said that they spoke out on social media as a last resort. Jules Woodson, whose confessed abuser recently started a new church, says that she “trusted social media because it felt like my last available option. I had already tried trusting multiple other resources, including my pastors, to help me after my sexual assault, all to no avail. I had lost so much hope over the years that anyone cared, that I felt like, ‘What more did I have to lose?’”

Far from the crusader burning the church to the ground, Woodson simply wanted the help and justice that church leaders had refused to give.

While “social media can be an excellent way for victims to end the silence” that met their initial disclosing of abuse, it comes with its own cost, notes Megan Frey. Frey and JoAnna Hendrickson created the site Brought to the Light in order to bring to the light the sexual misconduct of a prominent evangelical pastor. She states that the stereotype of the vengeful survivor is absurd. In reality, taking to social media “requires a lot of vulnerability to an already vulnerable victim. Social media can open victims to further pain and suffering — either by being further ignored, or a flood of retaliatory comments. People can be brutal, especially when hiding behind an anonymous Twitter handle.”

Take this gem tweeted at Woodson, for example: “Don't you ever blame someone else for your own desires. God will never hold down one of his own.... You on the other hand can’t stand for him to be successful because you are not.. Stop with the lies it was your own fault... and you know it. You took advantage of that young man.”

Megan Lively agrees and offers sobering advice for people thinking of speaking publicly about abuse they suffered.

“Don’t do it," she said. "The loss from telling my story was enormous in terms of family relationships. Now is the worst time for a woman to share her story online because of political charge in the country. #MeToo is seen as a Democratic Party issue. Affirmation, love, and worth will not come from sharing your story publicly.”

Lively also believes that the church shouldn’t rejoice when survivors share their stories. Instead, she explained, “The biblical response [to sexual violence] is grief, listening, and more grief.”

Tiffany Thigpen turned to blogging in the days before Twitter when she realized that her abuser — who had been shielded by noted Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson — had not stopped abusing girls.

“I realized that these teen girls were experiencing the same emotions I felt long ago,” Thigpen said. “I knew that they as minors could not have a voice at that time. I decided to raise my voice on their behalf and show them and any other victims that they were not alone.”

Thigpen’s blog became a safe place for abuse survivors to share their stories and find the validation that church leaders had withheld. As she chronicled her own harrowing story, Thigpen said that “the victims poured forth, not only from my predator, but from people around the world, even parents of victims just needing to tell someone their story and pain. There was power in validation and speaking it aloud.”

Dee Parsons, who writes on abuse at her site The Wartburg Watch, didn’t expect her inbox to be filled with stories from survivors.

“People wanted to tell their stories,” she said. “Most of them were at their wit’s end.”

These blogs — and now sites such as Twitter — handed the microphone to survivors. One advocate (who wants to remain anonymous) explains it this way:

“I don’t have any standard ‘platform.’ I’m not a writer, or a famous worship leader, or a church celebrity in any way. Nobody is asking me to speak at conferences or write books. I’m ‘just a mom.’ And yet social media provides a platform for me to speak (and to listen) about sexual abuse issues in the church.”

Parsons’ experience in blogging bears this out.

“We’re seeing some change,” she said. “Most importantly, victims know their stories are being heard. It gives them something they haven’t been getting from churches.”

Thigpen points out that social media may be the only time a survivor has ever heard ‘it was not your fault’ and ‘I believe you.’ This simple affirmation “can be lifesaving” and help survivors “find the strength to finally let go of long-held secrets and shame.”

Frey agrees, noting that she has found “enormous value” in networking with other abuse survivors and advocates.

Social media offers voice and support to the #ChurchToo survivor community. Its impact doesn’t end there, however, for it also provides a megaphone for what previously was kept quiet. Thigpen puts the matter plainly:

“We are placing predators and enablers on notice that we are going to publish your stories and share them until you are forced out or until you are held accountable.”

We saw Frey and Hendrickson get accountability for the actions of Wes Feltner. Both women report he manipulated them into a sexual relationship when he was their youth pastor. “After 17 years of guilt, anxiety, shame and blaming themselves,” these women publicized their stories on their website. Without this public pressure, it is unlikely that Feltner would have resigned his pulpit.

The church shouldn’t need a hashtag to shame it into taking sexual violence seriously. Abuse survivors shouldn’t have to look to Twitter and Facebook and blogs to find a place to belong, to be believed, and to give voice to their trauma. Enablers and abusers should not thrive in our churches. Yet all these things are true, and it is to our own shame. Where churches should have led out in justice and restoration, we waited — and are still waiting — for public shame to bring about change.