When Religious Leaders Sexually Abuse
By Wittenburg Door guest writer, Karen Stiller
I grew up with a very suspicious father, who was also a Canadian Mountie. “Girls, where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he’d tell us. He regularly knelt down beside our beds so he could inspect under them, as part of his investigations into whether we had actually cleaned our rooms or not.
My dad was right about the messes under our beds, and about the smoke and all those fires.
Some people will amaze us with their beautiful, unwavering hearts and others will dismay us with the thousands of ways they can hurt what feels like the whole world and try to destroy the vulnerable ones who wander across their rocky paths.
When Ravi Zacharias and all his mess was finally hauled out from under a very big bed for us all to see, I wondered if it would be possible that our daughter in her 20s would somehow, miraculously, miss this news story. I hoped that she wouldn’t have to find out.
My dad raised us to know the world was a perilous place; but we had hoped our kids would simply see how wonderful it all could be for as long as possible. The Ravi reckoning was one of those moments of unveiling, when you cannot pretend something is anything other than the horrible monster standing right there in front of you.
In high school, our daughter had watched videos of the now infamous apologist and abuser, to help her better explain Jesus’ tender love to her buddies and, if we’re going to be honest, to cement her leadership role running the local Youth Alpha group.
“Does no one mean what they say?” she asked me over the phone, when she heard the news. “Can we trust anyone?”
“You can trust your dad,” was the only true thing I found to say. He is a good pastor. For each one who is bad, I said, there are so many who are good and true. We reminded each other of the pastors and priests out there who are nameless and fameless. They sweep dusty church halls and hold old lady’s hands in nursing homes as they lay dying. There are PhDs in Saskatchewan and Minnesota planning parish potlucks. Potlucks matter.
Most ministers don’t spread themselves like margarine across multiple campuses and put their names on t-shirts. Not everyone is trying to build an empire. Some people are still trying to usher in a kingdom.
But how many good pastors, thinkers, authors and leaders does it take to balance out a wrecking ball like Ravi Zacharias? I think the answer must be in the thousands, such was the damage that was done.
Most ordinary and good church leaders just keep showing up and doing the right things that are right in front of them to be done, the things at their feet and their fingertips. These are small and ordinary tasks that don’t bring fame and glory, but do help build a kingdom, or that is the hope.
It was in February of 2021 that RZIM released the results of their four-month long investigation into the years of sexual misconduct by their leader. We talk about it sometimes, where I work. Every single time so far that I say his name out loud, I cry a little bit. I see this in other women too, including my daughter and a woman her age I work with and mentor. As she grew emotional about this case in a recent zoom meeting, my younger friend apologized, as women have been advised to do when we show tears in professional settings.
“Don’t apologize,” I messaged her. “I am done saying I’m sorry for crying over this mess.” Why isn’t everyone here crying? I wondered.
Weep over this. Turn it inside out and upside down, and use humour both soft and biting, if it helps, to try to understand what we can possibly do now, to make things a little bit better. And remember, for every bad apple and smoldering fire, there are thousands who would never do such harm. They are here and there and everywhere, for this long, slow work.
Karen Stiller is a writer living in Ottawa, Canada She is the Senior Editor of Faith Today Magazine and author of The Minister’s Wife, Craft, Cost, and Call, The Lord’s Prayer, Shifting Stats Shaking the Church, and Evangelicals Around the World.