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Vienna Presbyterian: Good news not Band-Aids

Posted by Ron George on May 15, 2011

Jesus, by Donna Holdsworth

The gospel came smack up against the way of the world at Vienna Presbyterian Church, where a youth minister once groomed girls for sex. The congregation’s insurance company wanted Band-Aids, but the church went for healing. The insurance company issued demands and threats – admit nothing or lose your coverage. The church went for truth that set it free.

Free to care, free to love, free to heal the brokenhearted, free to be healed by grace. Free to die, perhaps, but utterly unfettered by this world’s best but shameless legal system that would rather build a case than heal the wound. Vienna stood its ground: No, it would not take cover behind the statute of limitations for the youth minister’s acts; and no, it would not build a case for the defense that comprised the sexual histories of the victims.

Yes, it would publicly apologize to the young women preyed upon by the youth minister. Yes, it would cooperate with The Washington Post on an in-depth feature focused on the congregation’s struggle, finally, to get it right. And yes, it would establish a page-one ministry of outreach to sex-abuse victims and of public education on pastoral sexual misconduct. The insurance company opposed all of these moves, but the congregation insisted on redemption not protection.

Let Jesus people stand and say, Amen.

The Vienna Presbyterian story lays bare an inherent conflict between the talk and walk of institutional churches. The talk is of Jesus’ radical love ethic, but all to often – perhaps most of the time – the walk conforms with business as usual. The conflict takes innumerable shapes from the personal to the international. At Vienna Presbyterian, it came down to a shouting match between the church and its insurance company’s attorneys.

The attorneys were, in popular parlance, just doing their job. The insurance company wanted to limit its financial exposure; the attorneys were bound by the ethics of their profession to represent the insurance company’s interests. The company’s response to the sexual-abuse case was typical – try to help, admit nothing, cut our losses; and if they sue, go for the jugular.

The Crucifixion, by Pablo Picasso

USA Today reported this week that the “company encourages churches to react with concern and compassion, report allegations to authorities, investigate and document all events, seek legal counsel, and encourage counseling for victims.” In other words, stop short of accepting responsibility; stop short of acknowledging the church’s sin; stop short of God’s grace to heal by the reconciling power of love. The insurance company’s approach leads to limiting the payoff. The church’s approach leads to eternal life.

The company’s approach sounds reasonable. “Concern and compassion”? Nothing wrong with that, but the Vienna Presbyterian experience ought to teach Jesus people to beware an insurance company’s use of that phrase: It’s window dressing. This business organization is prepared to humiliate these young women if they dare go to court. It would be tantamount to the “second rape” by criminal defense lawyers, which is so often experienced by victims who testify against their rapists.

Report allegations to authorities? Of course, it’s another demonstration of good will, a willingness to disclose improper behavior – and to build a firewall around the church’s liability. See? We did the right thing. We turned our employee over to the cops. We severed our relationship with the bad apple. Thing is – and this is a hard saying for the institutional church – perpetrators also are in need of pastoral care, grace and redemption from their sin. Insurance companies couldn’t care less about perps.

Seek legal counsel? Right. Protect yourself by hiring your own attorney, because – well, in case you hadn’t noticed, your insurance company’s interests may not align with yours. Did you think paying malpractice premiums all those years entitles you to legal representation? No, you’re entitled only to coverage. Our attorneys are our attorneys, not yours. File a claim, and your insurance company becomes an adversary. The insurance company in this case didn’t give a damn about redemption but only cutting its losses.

The Resurrection, artist unknown

Counseling for the victims? Another brick in the fire wall, and it’s so important, we’ll even pay for it. It’s in the policy. Most important, though, is the protection it affords the company – not the victims, not the church (which now has its own attorney), but the company. The company’s bottom line, the company’s investors, the company’s executives – not one whit of this apparatus has an interest in paying damages. The entire structure is designed to limit liability and maximize earnings per share.

It’s not enough, however, for Jesus people to limit their liability. Acknowledging one’s culpability in wrongdoing is fundamental to Christian understanding of redemption, spiritual growth and wholeness. Was the church responsible for the youth minister’s actions? Absolutely, theologically as well as legally. Its stewardship of the young people fell short of protecting them. Its oversight of the youth minister was inept if not incompetent. Its response to this grave matter of pastoral care was belated. A congregation of Jesus people is not an aggregation of individuals but an organism bound to each other by the Spirit of God in Christ Jesus. What happens to one happens to all. What one does, all do. Living in community is not the same as joining a civic club. If it is, then perhaps the church ought to reexamine its values.  

Vienna Presbyterian seems to have discovered its moral core through the awful pain of its children and its face-to-face encounter with a brutal system of civil liability that would punish them further if they dare seek legal redress. Only time will tell whether the church’s commitment will endure or even whether the congregation will survive. It’s possible that the insurance company will decline coverage altogether due to the church’s refusal to play ball, which the company has strongly suggested is a breach of contract. If the young women sue, which they certainly have a right to do, the church may lose everything.

If that’s the case, then the church will have died in a way that others may live. It will have witnessed to the end that faith in Christ Jesus matters more than the financial bottom line. It will have seemed forsaken, and many will shake their heads and wonder why it did not save itself.

And then, it will rise.

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One Response to “Vienna Presbyterian: Good news not Band-Aids”

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