Finding the Cracks in the PCA

A couple of months ago, I was speaking to a friend who has labored long in the defense and protection of abuse survivors in the Southern Baptist Church. She remembers when the story of the abuse crisis in the Catholic Church broke.

This friend went to a talk by one of the investigative journalist who broke the story on the Catholic Church. After the talk, she spoke to the reporter and said she was concerned that what was happening in the Catholic Church was also happening in the Southern Baptist church.

Now, two decades later with a published investigation and the Southern Baptist church building a database of abusers, we know that she was right. But what really struck me was the reporter's response to her concern.

Every System Has Cracks

He told her that predators are everywhere and that they learn to take advantage of the cracks in the system. Each system (or denomination) has cracks that abusers can exploit to their own advantage. In the Catholic church, priests are moved around frequently. In the Southern Baptist church there is very little communication between congregations.

But what are the cracks in the Presbyterian Church in America?

For years I heard people saying that abuse was a particular problem in the Catholic Church because of celibate priests or various reasons of false doctrine. This might be the only time you'll ever hear me quote Matt Walsh, but he saw the inconsistencies of that position years ago.

Since the third party investigation into the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee was published in 2022, I've heard countless Presbyterians argue that we don't or won't have that kind of problem because of our Presbyterian system of government. We have accountability. We have church courts.

Yes, we do. But we are arrogant fools if we believe that any system run by human beings is immune to exploitation by manipulators, liars, and predators. And our hubris will do the most damage to the weakest among us.

As Matt Walsh says, we all have logs in our eyes. Our primary job is finding and removing those logs, not putting up arguments about why we couldn't possibly have logs with our very biblical church government structure or arguing about whether our logs are as big as the logs in other churches' eyes.

Cracks Emerge Under Pressure

The average member in a PCA church may attend worship, Sunday School, and other gatherings of the church without any notion that there are cracks either in their local church or in the denomination as a whole.

Oftentimes these cracks only become evident when something goes wrong. A woman is abused by her husband but he is able to convince the elders that she is the problem. The woman begins to see cracks in the system that she wouldn't have anticipated. She always expected the church would be the place to protect and care for her. But her abuser exploits the cracks and she watches it happen in real-time.

Those who have had to put pressure on the system, pushing back against harmful words or actions, are those who see the cracks most clearly. If you haven't had a need to push back against the system, or those in church leadership, you ought not to assume that you have a more accurate view of the real state of things than those who have.

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Especially when others are telling you there is evidence if you will only listen to their experiences.

The Cracks Don't Care About Your Feelings

I'll be honest; I'm not a fan of the line "The facts don't care about your feelings" because it's often given as a defense of rude and pugnacious argumentation. Even if inanimate "facts" don't care, the people discussing the facts should take responsibility for the way they are conveyed.

But we do need to acknowledge that work of this kind has the potential to "hurt feelings" and we need to be ready for that up front. It's particularly unpleasant to look at the ugly underbelly of an institution that provides your spiritual care and perhaps even your salary. The cognitive dissonance can be staggering.

We have to be prepared to carefully separate the responsibility we have for our own words and actions with the responsibility others have for their own emotions and reactions to those words and actions. One of those is within our control and the other is not.

Stories are Our Best Starting Points

The only certain way to obtain data about the frequency and severity of abuse and abuse cover-ups in the PCA would be to commission an objective third party to complete an investigation. While I would welcome such an outside review, it is unlikely to happen. The investigation of the Southern Baptist Church was limited only to its Executive Committee and yet the scope was vast and the cost monumental.

As a "grass roots" denomination, we don't have an executive committee or any one central or authority-holding group of people who could be said to represent the positions and actions of the entire denomination. PCA stated clerk Bryan Chappell emphasized the importance of this in his Stated Clerk's Report at the beginning of the 49th General Assembly.

The best approach we have at this point is to listen to and share stories of individuals in the PCA who have experienced harm and look for similarities and patterns. This is the purpose of our Stories page. The more stories we are able to collect, the better the representative sample and the more accurate our understanding of the cracks.

Looking for Cracks, Not Just Abusers

This side of heaven, no church or church government will be able to put an end to abuse - either abuse within homes or abuse from church leadership. If we view situations of abuse as unconnected pinpoints on a map that reflect only on the character of the abuser, we haven't yet begun to look for cracks.

Those who are able to acknowledge that there are "abusers" in the church are on the right track. Yes. All organizations and systems have abusers. But the next step is to acknowledge that not only are predators in our midst, but that they might know the unique cracks in the system better than we do.

Listen closely to the words you hear from all parties in the discussion. Are the voices you're listening to seeking to identify cracks to protect victims and survivors, or are they seeking to minimize the problem, distract attention from the search, deny that there are cracks to be found, or even vilify those pointing out cracks?

Identifying the Cracks in the PCA

If we are going to protect women, children, and victims of abuse in the PCA, we have to stop asking "Do we actually have an abuse crisis?" and start asking "Where are the cracks and how can we vigilantly guard against evil using them to ravage the sheep?"

I have some thoughts about where the cracks exist and I'll be writing more about that in the future. But what do you believe are some of the features of our system that abusers exploit to do harm and avoid consequences?

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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