Why Evangelicals Find it Difficult to Respond to Abuse

Gary Schoener

Gary Schoener, a psychologist who has worked with many Fundamentalists/ Evangelicals, was asked why Christians of this persuasion found it so difficult to address abuse issues. This is his response.

It is very interesting to interview a born-again Christian or some other type of Christian fundamentalist and to discuss ethical violations. Not all born-again Christians and other Christian fundamentalists are the same, but I have listed some of the themes I find.

I have the most experience with various types of Christian fundamentalists, but they exist in all groups. I might add that apart from religious fundamentalism, there is a secular version of this among various professions too. But here I want to refer to what on this web site is called fundamentalism or evangelicalism.

  1. There is some belief that somehow God will forgive you (rent Scorcese's fine film Mean Streets, which predates the Godfather movies, to see the use of confession in people who kill others). Ironically, usually these people don't feel that you have to show contrition - just that you confess.
  2. In some cases, of course, these folks don't even seem to truly repent and seek forgiveness. When I ask, they say they have prayed about it. When I ask what the prayers were all about, they just say that they "prayed."
  3. When I push it is that they prayed for forgiveness and they know that "God forgives me." The prayers do not involve actual thought about the matter, analysis, discussions with God, requests for insight, requests for awareness, requests for healing for those who suffered due to their misconduct, or any of the above...they involve a simple request for forgiveness, not preceded by real contrition.
    If you repent and find Christ, this washes away all sins. So, you can ordain as your pastor a drug dealer and sleaze - bag, or a sex offender, as long as he is saved.
  4. That if you are a person of faith, somehow, in some vague way, the fact that you do wrong or evil is not a problem (rent the wonderful but disturbing film THE APOSTLE for a chilling example...one of the truly great films about this).
    That as long as you can rationalize that what you were doing helped the church, it's OK (rent an even earlier Duval/DeNiro film TRUE CONFESSIONS about this)
  5. If it isn't in the Ten Commandments it doesn't count -- e.g. cheating, lying, and a variety of ethical offenses are OK as long as you don't practice idolatry; if you are not married it can't be adultery, etc.
  6. That somehow we don't need to think of the offenses in terms of ethics or morality -- an almost unbelievable inability or unwillingness to even consider that this conduct is subject to an ethical or moral examination. It's really just the sort of "mistake" or "indiscretion" or who knows what...
  7. An incredible inability to look at the behavior and its antecedents. I cannot be helpful unless we can figure out what led up to it -- what was the person thinking and what were they feeling. These data seem out of reach and require incredible probing -- it's enough like dental work that I feel like I am pulling teeth to get the info. I guess if simple rules can tell you how to live, then you don't need to pay attention to thought or feeling before acting. Thought is not necessary beyond checking something against the Ten Commandments.
  8. NO PROBLEM IF IT'S IN THE GRAY AREA. Anything that is in a "gray area" where here may be any sort of extenuating circumstances, or a weak excuse, is no problem at all. Every time I try to focus on the offense, they give me a long list of the things OTHERS DID or how the situation was tough. They don't even readily make the jump to "this is what I did due to these factors and obviously I blew it big time" or "I didn't handle that situation well" -- it's just back to the situation and what others did.
  9. What some of you have heard me call THE PONTIUS PILATE approach. If it is messy, bring on the bowl and let me wash my hands. "OK, it's over... I need to put it behind me...what do I need to do to get back into my job... I can't dwell in the past..." Of course, the problem is that they weren't even really psychologically, intellectually, emotionally, or morally PRESENT in the past. They did what they did and then jumped into the future..let bygones be bygones.
  10. Likening themselves to Christ on the Cross. After (9) above there is a quick shift to and focus on how they are being persecuted and how others have done the same thing and gotten away with it, how even murderers get off at times, and how unfair this is. (I remember a conference in Philadelphia. when some bishops were grousing about the fact that "you make one mistake and you lose your career" and a priest offender with whom I shared the stage silenced them with said, "You know, I hurt some people pretty badly, so I guess when you talk about consequences we might want to look at it from their perspective -- I paid a price, but they paid a bigger price." Amazingly, the grousing returned later, and he quieted them with a great non-sequitur: "Well, I paid a big price, but who am I to question God's will?") Fundamentalists always seem to want to run ahead to getting over it and putting it behind them. (Again, THE APOSTLE is an extraordinary example of this.)

    THESE OBSERVATIONS APPLY TO FAR MORE PEOPLE THAN RELIGIOUS FUNDAMENTALISTS AND EVANGELICALS, and I have seen them in plenty of non-Christian fundamentalists. But, it is interesting when the offending doctor or psychologist or nurse is also a fundamentalist or evangelical. They are, by the way, very difficult to help, or even to evaluate.

Gary Schoener, M.Eq., Licensed Psychologist & Executive Director,
Walk-In Counseling Center


Gary Schoener was also asked to comment on why missionaries, mission organizations and mission leaders are so resistant to addressing and responding appropriately and quickly to both individual occurrences of abuse and to institutional abuse.


  1. There is always a sampling bias when you deal with those who go abroad to serve others -- it requires a particular kind of sacrifice that is different.
  2. Some missionaries back in their home countries are not well socially adapted and do not feel at home, and a number do not have primary relationships.
  3. They are put on pedestals by the community they have moved into because they have money and because they have relative power, or can bring safety. Since the vast majority, except for Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses, are almost exclusively deployed to third world countries, these are major issues.
  4. They are admired, revered, and trusted by those back home because they are making a sacrifice that many would not. For some it is the ultimate test of faith since some are killed, some die of diseases, etc. (Remember Eric in CHARIOTS OF FIRE who went on to be a missionary in Africa where he died and how that was romanticized.)
  5. They ultimately have to create their own world with its own rules... they are not of the culture where they are, nor of the culture they left behind. (This sort of thing reminds me of the dynamics in places like the Mt. Cashel Orphanage in New Foundland where terrible abuses took place as the internal culture became more and more deviant. Even though that was located in a western social setting, the authorities did not intervene. UNHOLY ORDERS by Harris does a nice job of portraying this.)
  6. Like servicemen and others who are serving overseas in a different culture, it is easy to rationalize deviant acts -- somehow they don't "count" because we "aren't at home." We get this in American and Canada from foreign-trained professionals who will use what I have termed the "foreign doctor defense," claiming that they don't know the culture. One guy from Kuwait sexually exploited a patient and gave this defense that he didn't know the customs. I pointed out that in Kuwait what he did carried the death penalty. Bear in mind that these same phenomena can be found in mission schools, in Canada or isolated groups in the USA. In fact the Canadian government has been investigating the widespread abuses of aboriginal peoples (the Canadians call their tribes "First Nations").

    One is also reminded of the refrain in Kipling's White Man's Burden which went something like: "...go send your sons to exile to serve your captives needs..."

Gary Schoener, M.Eq., Licensed Psychologist & Executive Director,
Walk-In Counseling Center