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Church in denial: Blaming the victim for pastoral sexual abuse

Posted by Ron George on May 8, 2011

Emmanuel’s home page, the pitch: Connecting with God’s heart

Families go to church for lots of reasons, but chief among them these days is the quality of ministry for children and youth. It is key to attracting young families in otherwise aging congregations. It’s also key to the explosive growth of so-called mega-churches. A cottage industry has grown up around the topic – best practices, workshops, training for this specialized ministry. All too often, however – even once would be too often – youth ministries become hunting grounds for sexual predators.

It’s happened again, this time in Arizona.

Christopher Furey, a 44-year-old Canadian with a history of depression and suicidal tendencies, was sentenced Friday to 10 years in prison for child sexual abuse that he perpetrated as a youth minister at Emmanuel Fellowship Church in Cottonwood, Ariz. His victim was a 14-year-old girl, now 16, whom Furey groomed for more than a year with flattery and gifts that led to sex.

Her brother told the court his sister was broken inside. Her angry father said she’d been stolen from her family. The victim told the judge that Furey had asked her for nude photos and sent her threatening text messages when she began to have second thoughts about the sex. Her mother said she had learned the bitter lesson of why sexual-abuse victims relocate – their church had abandoned them.

Emmanuel’s Web site: Pitching ministry for children

The girl was seven years old when the family began attending Emmanuel, no doubt because of the congregation’s emphasis on family ministry. This family of committed Christians enjoyed being amid Emmanuel’s community of faith, were comfortable in the church setting and confident that this of all places in their lives was a safe place for children. They trusted Furey, who was and apparently remains a popular figure at least to some in the congregation.

The girl left a diary of her relationship with Furey for her mother to find. Backlash at the church began when criminal charges were filed against Furey, the girl testified last week. “Suddenly, I am the bad guy for putting Chris in jail,” she told the judge and dozens of church members, family friends and the defendant’s mother in a crowded Yavapai County courtroom. The family has moved to another church. The girl withdrew from high school and began taking online courses.

There were red flags that the church and the girl’s family ignored: The revealing clothes Furey bought for her, the hours they spent alone at the family home and at church – and 100,000 text messages between them! Someone might have nipped this in the bud, except for the trust factor. No one seemed to consider how inappropriate all this was simply because Furey was a youth minister, one of the Jesus people. The takeaway for churches and families alike: Pay attention! The messaging alone was enough to bring in the firefighters.

Emmanuel former youth minister Chris Furey: Trusted betrayer

Friday’s hearing was set to determine whether mitigating circumstances might reduce Furey’s sentence. (He was indicted last fall and pleaded guilty in January.) Furey had no previous criminal record. An expert witness testified that Furey’s seduction of the girl was inconsistent with his character. Furey had stopped taking his antidepressants, the expert said, which may have led to poor decisions regarding the girl. Excuses, excuses. It wasn’t enough for the judge, who looked at the big picture: Furey’s continuous harassment of the girl, and the damage he caused to the family “and the entire community.” Furey will not be eligible for early release.

Thank God for Arizona justice. The same cannot be said for God’s house at Emmanuel Fellowship, where worship is said to be “connecting with the heart of God.” Not a word of Furey’s story appears on the church’s Web site. Compare this with the gracious if somewhat belated response of Vienna Presbyterian Church, a Virginia congregation that has endured disclosure of sexual abuse of young women by a youth minister. Emmanuel’s Pastor, Frank Nevarez, has a blog titled, “Thoughts from a heart.” There’s nothing from his heart, however, about what ought to be his chief pastoral concern – reaching out to Furey’s victim and restoring the integrity of his congregation and its pastoral care. Not a word of testimony at Friday’s mitigation hearing in Arizona expressed the congregation’s pastoral concern for the girl and her family. Furey expressed remorse for his crime, but the church was silent.

Sadly, Emmanuel’s response – secrecy, denial and blaming the victim – is typical of these cases. Most congregations most of the time seem utterly incapable of embracing the truth that will make them free, even if it is painful truth that promises a kind of binding freedom – commitment to change that will not turn a blind eye to pastoral sexual misconduct. The case of Chris Furey is not over. Its sad ripple effect will continue through the lives of those involved, especially the girl and her family, at least as long as it takes for Emmanuel to reach out to the victim and seek forgiveness. You’d think Jesus people would do this instinctively, but apparently not. An active chapter of Compassionate Friends meets regularly at Emmanuel, folks committed to ministry to those who suffer the death of a child. What a shame as much compassion was not poured out for the kind of death that occurs when a child is made a victim of sexual abuse.

The girl’s mother testified Friday that the family’s new church has brought “hopes, dreams and aspirations” back to the girl’s life. Let us hope so for her sake. Let us also hope that true healing has begun for her and her family by forgiving Chris Furey for his crime and the congregation for its miserable treatment of them. It’s the only hope for healing this mess. Furey even testified – yes, it was self-serving in a court of law, but even so – that he hoped “the next chapter will be one of healing for everyone involved.”

Amen to that, but it’s not a slam dunk.

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5 Responses to “Church in denial: Blaming the victim for pastoral sexual abuse”

  1. Will Reef said

    How come God didn’t protect the victim from being molested? Oh yeah, because God doesn’t exists.

  2. Annonymous said

    Unless you were there and know what the church really did in this case, you should not pass judgement on them. It is very sad that the victim went through all that she did, but remember that when someone is hurting, they will often lay blame on the ones that were actually supporting them. It does happen.

    • Anonymous said

      When someone is hurting they will often lay blame on the person or person’s helping them, c’mon really? Why we’re they hurting in the first place. Oh yeah she was a child taken advantage of by a church leader… Had he kept his hands to himself, there would be no hurt. Also, I was there when this happened.
      Emmanuel fellowship used to be such a God inspired church, it’s really sad when I do a Google search on Emmanuel, the first thing that pops up is Chris furry and how he molested a little girl. SAD

  3. Shatteredclay said

    This is a very sad story… I thank God that He is in the process of bringing healing to that young girl and her family. I also Thank him for his forgiveness to that church and those members… which among you has no sin let him throw the first stone… I Thank him that his mercy triumphs over judgement. I thank him for his forgiveness for all the people that come across this site that have looked at porn today or are intending at looking at porn. I say to those fathers who have daughters remember as you look at porn that is someone else daughter that you are using for your own viewing pleasure. Some of them have a daddy that loves them as much as you love yours. I also want to state that their are many women and men who may come across this blog and you may be involved and/or were involved in an affair. I am not stating any of this to take away from the horrible things that happened to that young girl. But I am challenging those among you who have no sin let him cast the first stone. And I am saying to those that are thrown into the public with a mob of angry religions zealots Jesus says these word ” where are your accusers neither do I accuse you, go and sin no more.” That “Go and sin no more was not a “you better not sin anymore or else ultimatum” But rather words of freedom, that you are not bound to sin, that you have grace and strength from Him who saved you from your accusers to go and sin no more…We are all in the same boat with the same human condition but thank God that there is a Remedy and His name is Jesus. I encourage you all to remove the plank from your own eye and receive freedom to go and sin no more…

  4. Anonymous said

    Just a correction. Chris Furey is not a Canadian, he is actually a New Zealand citizen and lived in Canada for about 10 years.

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