by Danny Bell

By Danny Bell, September 26, 2013

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period was not the strident clamour of bad people, but the appalling silence of the good. –Martin Luther King

I sat watching in disbelief. The program was a local ABC 730 Report interviewing sex abuse victim Todd Jefferis. From 1975 to 1990 hostel warden Dennis John McKenna sexually abused 11 boys including Jefferis under his care while employed at the Katanning St. Andrews School in Western Australia.

McKenna is currently serving a 6 year jail sentence for the abuse but a court inquiry wants to know why so many leading community members did nothing despite being complained to on many occasions. From town council members to police and even the school principal, all are now fronting the enquiry to explain why they did not act in favour of victims and their families.

I was dumbfounded as I heard their excuses and poor explanations. Some even denied the victims came to see them at all. The enquiry heard that letters written to the school’s board never turned up and were never recorded. It was shown that the sufferers were in some cases expelled or victimised by the school for bringing the allegations. The documentary ended.

The natural question that arises from such a shocking story is how can this happen? How can people be deliberately selective in their memory of the events? How can so many be told yet no action taken? How can a small community where everybody knows everybody, not know about the allegations and not talk about it among themselves? What was the common factor that allowed this perpetrator to go unchecked for 15 years, abusing kids under the noses of friends and colleagues?

The answer lies in behaviour I have seen common in small, close-knit communities isolated from larger society. These communities are all around us. The geography and reasons for existence are varied but the ingredients for such a massive failure in duty of care are all too common. Schools, small towns, sporting clubs, charitable organisations and even churches can exhibit worrying signs of being detached from reality and a law unto themselves.

I saw this on a number of occasions while pastoring. People would offer their full support to me leading up to crucial meetings where important decisions had to be made. In the heat of the moment, however, when it looked like an idea was failing, they would back down and grow strangely silent. Some would even deny later that they offered me support at all. I remember feeling confused and betrayed. I was surprised by this strange behaviour. It was something I had never seen or experienced before coming to Christ; at least I didn't expect it to be in the church.

There was a situation once when a church would not even carry out discipline of an elder who had seriously breached church guidelines. After board meetings he would go home and phone his mate, telling him all that was said at the board. The man he phoned would become irate and begin stirring up the whole church. This led to the elder’s discipline, and so at a special meeting the charges were read by the clerk. The elder surprisingly rose to his feet and said he would dismiss himself from the board – he was caught red handed. Instantly the family and friends of this man on the board stood up and sat him back down and said, “Poppy, you’re not going anywhere.” Church discipline obviously didn’t apply to this man, and the vote was defeated in favour of the elder.

Individuals that do damage can thrive in environments where there are no checks and balances, getting a good reputation through charm or manipulation. As in the McKenna enquiry, it’s not just the abuser who is complicit in the crimes. Those that allow their community to be infiltrated by manipulators and power brokers are at fault as well. The truth is that all who partake in dysfunctional communities have something at stake. Like a feeding station, these parochial environments create roles where everyone has a part. Unlike larger communities, smaller nad close-knit ones provide opportunity for individuals to accelerate through the ranks faster. People are believed and given credibility because of their obvious commitment to “the cause.” That cause is usually a self-serving system where conformity is rewarded with recognition and status.

Any challenges to these well-ordered communities is viewed as an attack. Reputations and positions are at risk, so the agitator must be expelled. Many in these environments have spent years building up a personal stake, so any change is seen as a threat to their ordered way of life. Change that upsets the delicate balance must be eradicated and opposed at all costs. Fear grips individuals who have the most to lose and a state of denial becomes natural, keeping the cold reality of the world outside where it belongs, so to speak.

Churches especially are in danger of creating these types of cultures and dysfunctional styles. We don’t need to be reminded that we have the ingredients. We have seen such disasters unfold in church communities already. When the gospel focus is substituted for a self-fulfilling cause, when we are swept up in a pantomime of selfish desires and ambitions, then we have lost our way and abuse can happen; not just sexual abuse either. An intense need for acceptance and approval can override our sense of right and wrong, and we can become blind to abuse and intolerant of those who irritate us. Environments where the overriding desire is to keep up the status quo, holding on to forms and ways of doing things hide potential communities that will fail those who they are meant to protect and support. Our churches should be places that have a willingness to strive to be better, not be closed minded, repelling change or new things just because it cuts across how we have always done them.

Jesus sent a timely warning to those communities of faith who are living in the last days. He saw how narrow and self-sufficient Christianity would become and warned, “You say, ‘I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing(Rev 3:17). Surprisingly, this is a strong characteristic of communities that have allowed abuse on their watch to go unchecked. There can be a delusion that all is well when in fact the opposite is true. The reward of high personal status and selfish protectionism is apparent with communities that abuse and suffer abuse on their champions. Abuse comes in many forms and can have a spiritual impact on those who are most vulnerable if it is not recognised and challenged.

It has been said that denial is the sin that cannot be forgiven because those under its spell see nothing to admit. Jesus is coming; let’s make a thorough spring cleaning of our hearts, holding nothing back, listening out for the cries of the vulnerable and the disenfranchised in our midst. Let’s not like so many sheep play follow the leader while wolves and other menaces to the church ravage the flock of God.