Sexual Abuse isn’t just Hollywood’s Problem

Photo by Flickr user Prayitno

2017 may well go down in history as the year that Hollywood was revealed for what it really was all along. The past few weeks have brought us a torrent of accusations of sexual abuse and harassment against some of the leading names in American show business, from beloved Star Trek alum George Takei, to comedian Louis C.K. and Oscar winner Kevin Spacey, a host of big names are now fighting to deny (or in the case of Louis C.K., to apologize for) the accusations of misconduct that have been made against them. Then there is the man who practically runs the American film industry: Harvey Weinstein.

It was an open secret for years that Harvey Weinstein would use influence to get anything he wanted, but usually this was viewed in the context of film politics. Yes, Hollywood has a form of politics all its own. Since I was a teenager, I have been paying attention to the yearly series of self-congratulatory awards shows leading up to the Oscars. I have an idea of how the studios campaign for their films. At Miramax and then his own eponymous company, Harvey Weinstein built the most formidable campaign operation that the Oscars had ever seen. His ability to get his films into the winner’s circle was so impressive, one couldn’t help wondering if he was personally visiting Oscar voters in their retirement homes in order to twist their arms. (Yes, most of the voters are old, white, and male.)

There was no question that Weinstein behaved like a strong man, and yet his power attracted the friendship of anyone who was anyone. They all knew that he was pulling the strings. Hosts at award shows would joke about it openly. No one stopped to put two and two together and think, “If this is how this man behaves in general, might he be behaving this way toward the women in his life?” Actually, they did, but they were too terrified of crossing him to say anything. Weinstein had his fingers in so many aspects of the film industry that getting on his bad side was not a good idea for any up and comer.

Don’t get me wrong: Weinstein didn’t simply take advantage of the actors and actresses who worked for him. He was capable of delivering on many of his grandiose promises, which is why they flocked to him. Dame Judi Dench credited Weinstein with taking her from a respected but relatively anonymous stage actress to a major film star in the 1990s and onward. Wishing to give him something he didn’t have, she had a temporary tattoo applied in a sensitive area that read “JD loves HW”. I kid you not: both she and Weinstein have acknowledged it publicly. Of course, Dame Judi has now denounced Weinstein.

While Harvey Weinstein has been one of the biggest fish in the Hollywood pond for more than two decades, his misdeeds are only the tip of the iceberg. Watching the Oscars year after year, I have grown so tired of the way these people treat their art form like it is a kind of sacred calling. Just last year, Viola Davis, an admittedly excellent actress, said in her acceptance speech for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, “I became an artist—and thank God I did—because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.” I understand that she was on the spot and very emotional, but this was a profoundly ridiculous statement. A similar sentiment was expressed by George Clooney when he accepted the award for Best Supporting Actor in 2006.

And finally, I would say that, you know, we are a little bit out of touch in Hollywood every once in a while, I think. It’s probably a good thing. We’re the ones who talked about AIDS when it was just being whispered, and we talked about civil rights when it wasn’t really popular. And we, you know, we bring up subjects, we are the ones—this Academy, this group of people gave Hattie McDaniel an Oscar in 1939 when blacks were still sitting in the backs of theaters. I’m proud to be a part of this Academy, proud to be part of this community, and proud to be out of touch.

Again, we see the film industry portrayed as the champion of the downtrodden, the moral compass of a nation, and the expression of what is best in all of us. Of course, the hotel in which Hattie McDaniel accepted her Oscar was segregated. Clooney forgot to mention that in his ode to Hollywood. It also seems unlikely that McDaniel would have won if she had starred in a film portraying real life for blacks in America rather than an idealized version of the antebellum South.

It is certainly true that Hollywood has produced films that have drawn attention to injustices, told heroic stories, and inspired people to positive action. Yet we must also admit that much of what comes out of the film industry is absolute garbage. For every 12 Years a Slave there are ten films featuring senseless violence, behavior that is lewd even by the standards of our present culture, writing that is painfully awful, and a complete and utter lack of genuine creativity. And as for the Academy Awards, everyone knows they give their golden statues to actors who gain weight (the horror!), stories that portray Hollywood in a positive light, frilly period costumes, and the like. The supposed “Best Picture” of the year is so rarely the actual best picture that it seems almost pointless to award the title.

The Problem in Hollywood

What has really put the lie to Hollywood’s moral superiority complex is the scandals of recent years. First there was the “Oscars so White” campaign. The irony in that case was that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which has admittedly been anything but a leader in race relations historically, had been progressively nominating more people of color and even handing them awards. Although that particular year featured no acting nominees who were African-American or Hispanic, it was a relatively abnormal occurrence in this century. The real problem in that case may not have been the Academy, but rather the lack of good roles for black and Hispanic actors in general. Nevertheless, the Academy was so freaked out that they actually made efforts to diversify their voting base, and Moonlight rather shockingly defeated La La Land in the Best Picture race the following year (even if the presenters announced it wrong the first time).

This year, it is sexual abuse allegations that seem destined to rain on Hollywood’s parade. It will be interesting to see how many people are willing to acknowledge this dark cloud underneath those glowing lights. It’s a bit unclear what expertise many of these celebrities had regarding moral issues in the first place. The one ingredient that seems to be most common among them is good looks (either natural or contrived) and not intelligence. I realize as I write this that I’m beginning to sound as cranky as Carl Trueman, but being famous for one thing does not make you an authority on everything.

Why are we remotely surprised when we hear of sexual indiscretions in Hollywood? Yes, the film industry has long been at the forefront of the push for marriage equality, which is to say same-sex marriage. This is hardly shocking, because Hollywood celebrities love marriage. In fact, they love marriage so much they often get married three or four times. Of course, I kid. The divorce rate among celebrities is absolutely atrocious. There are many reasons that actors end up getting divorced: long periods apart working on different projects, roles that require them to share in physical intimacy with co-stars, etc. However, I think it could certainly be said that marriage in Hollywood is not viewed as a lifelong commitment for better or for worse and certainly not as a sacred covenant. In their minds, it is a legal arrangement to be entered into by two people as a way to celebrate their relationship and make a basic level of commitment. It can be discarded if things start to become difficult or you get a better offer.

Of course, Hollywood is not unique in its approach to marriage, and if celebrities hesitate to wear the same outfit more than once, it’s no wonder they can’t stick with the same person for decades. The treatment of relationships as disposable commodities is not the only thing that makes Hollywood particularly prone to sexual misbehavior. There are few segments of our society that celebrate sex and violence as much as the film industry, so why should we be surprised when those two things become mixed together and enter into real life? Remember, this is the industry that told us that sexual urges should never be denied. It’s not exactly shocking that people are refusing to deny them, even if it means violating the will of another person.

The Problem in Society

This is not to excuse what has happened or to say that the victims had it coming: not by any means. It is also not to say that Hollywood is unique in this respect. There is an epidemic of sexual harassment and abuse in this country. What aspect of American life has not been touched by it? The presidential election of 2016 had to mark some kind of low in this respect. We had one candidate caught on tape bragging about groping women, and who already had a long history of obscene sexual comments and behavior to which he publicly admitted. His opponent was a woman whose own husband had been accused of sexual harassment on multiple occasions, and who personally vilified the women making the charges.

The sad thing is that American politics has long been tainted by sexual scandals. Even as Harvey Weinstein was able to use his power to coerce the women around him, so powerful men in Washington, D.C. have long used their positions to engage in a wide variety of sexual acts with varying levels of consent from the other individual. The recent charges made against Alabama senatorial candidate Roy Moore are just the latest in a long line of scandals that have not been restricted to one political party. It pains me to have a man in the White House who bragged about sexual harassment, though I realize full well that he is hardly the first president of the United States with enormous moral failings.

The past two decades have seen an avalanche of sexual abuse revelations in the Roman Catholic Church that have robbed it of credibility in the eyes of many and likely contributed to the historic resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. The number of victims of this abuse, both male and female, is truly staggering, as are the lengths the Church went to in order to sweep it under the rug. Pennsylvania State University’s reputation was forever tarnished when it was revealed that a long-time coach had abused multiple minors (sometimes on school property), and while people in positions of authority at the school knew about it, they failed to protect the vulnerable on many occasions. Even the U.S. Olympic gymnastics program is in the middle of a massive controversy after it was revealed that a team doctor had inappropriately touched and otherwise violated many of the young ladies under his care.

These are just the cases that make the news. Many of us have friends or relatives who have been victims of sexual harassment and/or abuse, and the rest of us probably do and don’t know it. Again, there is no part of our culture that has been immune from this, and that brings me to the Protestant and evangelical churches. For some time, it was the Catholics who seemed to be having the big problem with abuse, and many partially attributed it to the fact that they require clerical celibacy. I am not going to claim that the Catholic Church’s rather odd views on sex have not contributed in some way to what has occurred there, but let’s not kid ourselves: plenty of Protestant churches have experienced the same kind of abuse scandals. The lack of a massive church hierarchy has in many cases just kept the problem more localized.

The Problem in the Church

Whether you know it or not, there are people in your church who have been sexually abused. Perhaps they are being actively abused right now. Those who have been fortunate enough not to suffer from rape may have had to tolerate inappropriate comments and mistreatment in either the personal or professional sphere. I honestly cannot think of a time that I have heard a pastor address this issue from the pulpit with more than a passing reference. That is somewhat understandable, as it is not the kind of thing one usually discusses around children, and the victims of sexual abuse are sometimes re-traumatized by such conversations. Nevertheless, my general sense is that our churches are not doing nearly enough to educate people about this very serious problem and confront it within their own community as well as the broader society.

Hollywood’s sexual misdeeds, as repulsive as they may be, make perfect sense in a community that has little sense of absolute morality. What is the Church’s excuse? We have the gospel of Jesus Christ. We believe that all human beings are created in God’s image and have infinite worth. The Word of God commands us to defend those who are vulnerable and oppressed. It condemns those who relate to others with violence. Why on earth are we of all people so bad at handling this issue?

Do we realize that there are people in our churches who were sexually abused as children, most likely by someone they knew well? Are we aware of the number of women who are forced to endure sexually explicit comments in the workplace? Would it even occur to us that sexual abuse occurs within the context of marriage, and that some of the marriages in our church may have a dark side of which we are not aware? Or would we – God forbid – say that the Apostle Paul’s comments that spouses’ bodies belong to each other (1 Corinthians 7:1-7) mean that there is no such thing as consent? Does it occur to us that our pastors are sexually tempted, and that people in positions of power may use that power to abuse?

I am not suggesting that we should run around paranoid and suspecting everyone in our church family of horrible sins. It would be unfair to allow the bad behavior of some people to taint the innocent. Nevertheless, if we begin by assuming that we will have to deal with cases of sexual harassment and abuse at some point, then we will be better prepared when the unfortunate day comes. Such cases require an abundance of wisdom and compassion. They require our church staff to be properly trained. Would all of your elders or people in other positions of authority know what to do if a 12-year-old girl came to them and said, “I was raped by my father”? What if the father taught Sunday school, sang in the choir, and was regarded by all as a great Christian man? Would we dismiss her story out of hand? Would we have any idea how to approach the issue biblically?

What Must Be Done

Friends, I do not have all the answers when it comes to this difficult issue. I know that many of our cultural institutions are rotten to the core, and thus while it grieves me to hear of so many cases of sexual abuse, I think we are merely starting to see what has been the case for a very long time. What truly pains me and will continue to do so is the failure of so many churches to handle these issues properly. Perhaps we think ourselves so much more righteous than the world that we are completely unprepared to deal with the effects of serious sin. “Surely it couldn’t happen here!” we think. I’m sorry to say so, but it could happen anywhere.

The Bible is not neutral on these issues. While we certainly need to establish the truth of every situation, we must be prepared to act if it becomes clear that sexual harassment and/or abuse has occurred. Consider this great passage of lament.

Then I looked again at all the acts of oppression which were being done under the sun. And behold I saw the tears of the oppressed and that they had no one to comfort them; and on the side of their oppressors was power, but they had no one to comfort them. So I congratulated the dead who are already dead more than the living who are still living. But better off than both of them is the one who has never existed, who has never seen the evil activity that is done under the sun.

Ecclesiastes 4:1-3

God is on the side of the oppressed, not the oppressors. Are we defending the vulnerable or those who have power? One of two great evils has occurred any time an allegation of abuse is made: either the person has indeed been abused, or an innocent person has been falsely accused. I am not saying the latter never happens, but we must realize that our bias often causes us to look favorably upon those with reputations for good Christian living, teaching, etc. Sexual predators are often very good at hiding their true ugliness. There aren’t many occasions on which someone is proven to be a sexual predator and everyone says, “Yeah, I kind of figured.” If people had strongly suspected it, they would have been more likely to do something in the first place. It is those who seem less like stereotypical abusers that are so very dangerous.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “Do not receive an accusation against an elder except on the basis of two or three witnesses.” (1 Timothy 5:19) Unfortunately, this is a very high bar for victims of sexual abuse to clear. For obvious reasons, those who seek to do harm to another person try to do so in private. Only a very small percentage of rape cases that have such a number of witnesses. Nevertheless, there are other signs we can look for: changes in behavior on the part of either the abuser or the victim, inappropriate amounts of alone time, and obviously accusations of misconduct.

Paul went on to say, “Those who continue in sin, rebuke in the presence of all, so that the rest also will be fearful of sinning.” (v. 20) He also stated that such examinations should be conducted without “a spirit of partiality”, which means we should not show extra favor toward either the person making the accusation or the person being accused. Realize also that what Paul had in mind here was probably not seriously violent behavior, so we may need to employ some common sense when it comes to these cases. There is also much we can learn from those who deal with such issues on a professional level and understand how best to counsel victims.

There are certain assumptions that must never, ever take hold in our churches: 1) That a person who was abused must have been acting in a seductive manner, 2) That those in positions of spiritual leadership are not capable of committing grave sins, 3) That rape cannot occur within a marriage, 4) That the kind of media content we consume (such as pornography or shows depicting sexual violence) has no effect on how we act, 5) That parents and grandparents would never abuse their own children and grandchildren, 6) That a woman who is pregnant as the result of rape must marry her abuser, 7) That people who have previously committed fornication consensually cannot experience a change in the nature of their relationship that makes it rape, 8) That someone who has abused once will not abuse again, 9) That it is more important to protect the reputation of a person or ministry than put sin to death, and 10) That God will not call us all to account one day for how we handled these situations.

The Apostle Paul said another thing to Timothy that is also important. “Do not lay hands upon anyone too hastily and thereby share responsibility for the sins of others; keep yourself free from sin.” (1 Timothy 5:22) Friends, we have a duty to dig deep into the histories of those we are considering for ordination and/or pastoral positions. This is not meant to be a witch hunt, but please realize that those who are caught in their abuse will often simply change location in order to escape accountability. Always call and speak to individuals at the churches where the person has previously ministered. Always do a criminal background check. Always ask them detailed questions about why they left their previous jobs. Churches can certainly turn against pastors for inappropriate reasons, and there are those who attack the reputation of a pastor unjustly, even after that person is long gone. However, if churches did a bit more research into the previous experiences of their potential employees, then abusers would have a harder time simply blending in to a new environment and committing abuse all over again.

Also, when it comes to people who have admitted to acts of sexual abuse, repented of their sin, and experienced the grace of Jesus Christ, there is a particular way that we should treat them. Yes, we should let them attend our services, for we are all sinners saved by grace. However, there are practical consequences that ought to follow such a person for the rest of their life. They must never be allowed to serve in certain ministries of the church, such as the children’s ministry. They must never serve as ordained ministers. Thank God, there are some abusers who do come into contact with the power of God and are changed for the better. We must not underestimate the grace of our Savior. Nevertheless, we must also realize that the most likely person to commit acts of sexual abuse is someone who has already done it in the past. They must be treated differently than the average congregant, even if we all receive the same grace of God.

Furthermore, and I can’t believe I even have to say this, we should never perform a marriage for a known sexual abuser. Marriage is a blessing of God, but it is not an absolute right. Those who perform marriages where one of the participants has criminal convictions for sexual abuse are essentially setting up the spouse to be abused. Sexual criminals are not exempted from God’s command to love one another, but we have a duty to protect the innocent, and we must never give the church’s blessing to abuse.

In summary, yes, Hollywood has a major problem with sexual abuse and harassment. Such things are all too common in every part of our society. However, we must look to our own house first. We must ensure that we are defending the oppressed and not the oppressors. We must educate ourselves on the patterns of abusers and look to confront them. We must never treat grave sin lightly. We have a duty to defend the vulnerable, both in our own congregations and around the world. Let us prepare ourselves so that if we are faced with such accusations, we will respond in an appropriate manner. Let us be ready to minister to those who are the victims of sexual crimes.

All scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation.

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