Respect, Honor, Believe: Abuse and Assault in the Church

I’ve been involved in liturgical music since junior high, when my 7th grade teacher invited me to join the parish “folk group.” I also played flute with my parents, who were song leaders, and with the parish choir on holidays.

That involvement deepened as I studied music in college and grad school, and of course, now I write and publish music for the Church.

So this past spring’s news about David Haas was particularly horrifying to me. I had idolized David for years and I knew (know?) him, though not as well as some in my community of liturgical composers.

We spent time this fall coming together for webinars, trying to form our understanding and see how we, as composers for the Church, can make a difference.

The presentation that stayed with me most was given by Dr. Hilary Scarsella, who works with Into Account and the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. She talked about approaching discussions of abuse with an attitude of “survivor-centered response.” Too often, the response to allegations of assault, harassment and abuse is to alienate the accuser and make her experience secondary to preserving the man’s reputation.

For instance:

  • What if she’s making it up? Innocent until proven guilty!
  • How dare we ruin this man’s life?
  • What about forgiveness? Second chances? We’re Christians!
  • Lots of guys through history have done bad things, and we still listen to their music. Why can’t we separate the man from his music?

All of these arguments, highlighted in the presentation, are reactions I’ve heard within my own communities. In fact, let’s be honest. They’re all things I thought or expressed myself in earlier accusations of abuse and assault that didn’t hit quite so close to home.

When you recognize yourself in something you now recognize as morally problematic, it also makes you recognize your responsibility to speak up.

The thing is, what do all those arguments tell survivors of abuse? When we say, “What if it isn’t true?” we call them liars. And THAT is how we’ve managed to have generations of dysfunction around this subject. Why would women come forward if they know they’re only going to be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced?

And then, if they’ve remained silent for years *because* they know they’ll be shamed, disbelieved, and silenced, but then they finally decide to do so because, say, someone is about to be put into a position of great influence? Well, then they’re shamed, disbelieved, and silenced *again*, because if they really had this experience, why didn’t they come forward years ago?

Women always bear the burden. The culture and the system are rigged in favor of the abusers.

But as for truth versus lies: in the case of David Haas, more than forty women have come forward at this point. To cling to the “what if it’s not true?” argument is to defy our God-given reason.

All of the argument listed above tell the victims, “My comfort is more important than your trauma.” Because that, after all, is why we don’t want to confront the hard questions. If we have to give up singing David Haas’ music, it will be uncomfortable. We’ll be sad.

But if we DO keep singing them, what does that do to the victims? It means their own churches and liturgies are minefields of trauma, week in, week out. The community that should support them, the liturgy that should help heal and sustain them, is instead re-traumatizing them. EVERY. WEEK.

Is our comfort really more important than that?

As for forgiveness–sure, forgiveness is critical to Christian living. But what does that mean? Does that mean the perpetrator gets a pass and the victims–once again–have to bear the burden? There’s no way that’s what God means by “forgiveness.” It’s got to be our understanding of forgiveness that has to grow. Maybe it’s time we do the hard work of figuring THAT out.

Finally: yes, there is a loss of a beloved repertoire. But who’s to blame for that? Not the victims. We need to put the responsibility where it belongs–on the perpetrator–and stop asking the victims to bear it instead.

These are the questions Dr. Scarsella posed (and which now are filtered through my own experiences). I share them now because there’s no doubt in my mind that some of those who read this are wrestling with some of the same questions and the same resistance.

It’s really hard to overcome a lifetime of cultural conditioning, but we as a Church have lost so much moral credibility since the sex abuse scandal came to light. The Haas situation is yet another black eye in the same area. We, as Church, have GOT to learn to confront these hard, uncomfortable issues so that we can fix them. First, because victims of abuse are God’s beloved, and they deserve to be treated as such. And second, because our dysfunction is getting in the way of our credibility to spread the Gospel.

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