Thousands of women are self-identifying on social media as victims of sexual assault or harassment, and they include women whose offenders were church leaders or who were told to keep quiet by church leaders.
Actress Alyssa Milano started the #MeToo hashtag on Sunday and since then thousands of women have publicly shared their stories. They want the world to know that the abuse which Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein is being accused of is rampant across the country.
Bible study leader Beth Moore has shared publicly for years about her childhood sexual abuse, but on Sunday she tweeted of a mentor who told her at age 25 “that people couldn’t handle hearing about sexual abuse and that it would sink my ministry.”
It didn’t, she said, and Moore encouraged others to speak out about their experience, launching her own #WeToo hashtag as a result.
And Kay Warren, wife of megachurch pastor and author Rick Warren, also revealed on Twitter that she was a victim of sexual abuse.
And others are pointing out that the problem of sexual abuse in the global Christian church needs to be tackled.
Halee Gray Scott wrote in the Washington Post of coming to faith in Christ in her 20’s and volunteering as a youth group leader. She worked closely with the youth pastor, who showed up at her home one night and raped her.
One lesson learned, she said, is that offenders are not always the people we might suspect.
“My story – and the stories of countless others who have been the victims of sexual assault perpetrated by pastors – is a story of how fairy tales have failed us,” she said, “‘The Brothers Grimm’ taught us that good and evil are visibly discernible….but in the real world, good and evil are not so nearly apparent as we might hope.”
Other women have tweeted online of sexual assault by pastors and leaders in the church as well as family members and friends in the church community.
Sexual abuse expert Boz Tchvidjian, a grandson of Billy Graham, says he believes the hash tag is raising awareness in powerful ways as women tell their stories, many for the first time publicly.
The offenders, he says, “can’t wait for this news cycle to run its course and the spotlight to be dimmed.”
Tchvidjian, a former prosecutor, now consults with faith organizations on the issue of sexual abuse. For years, he has spotlighted abuse in the Protestant church, pointing out that church insurance companies receive more reports of sexual abuse by Protestant church leaders than the Catholic church has received.
“The likelihood is that more children are sexually abused in Protestant churches than in Catholic churches,” he said in a 2015 op-ed piece.
Tchvidjian hopes that the #MeToo campaign will lead to profound changes in the culture. He says society must name offenders and their crimes.
“We’ve got to expose those who hurt and abused,” he said.
Tchvidjian says abuse victims who aren’t able to share their stories should also be affirmed, especially this week as #MeToo washes across social media. These victims, says Tchvidjian, may give themselves a hard time for not stepping forward.
“I want to make sure that they don’t feel undervalued or under-appreciated or under-loved,” he said.
He also says the power of “bystanders” should not be ignored. The Harvey Weinstein story is evidence, says Tchvidjian, of many people – “bystanders” – who knew of the Hollywood producer’s abuse but chose to ignore it.
It’s a tragedy that also plays out in churches and ministries across the country, says Tchvidjian. Those with power can identify the vulnerable and take advantage while those around them look the other way or downplay the crime.
Research on abuse shows it happens to many children before the age of 18. As many as one in four girls and one in six boys will experience some form of sexual abuse, and many cases are never reported. Researchers also report that abusers are most often people that children know and trust.