When Abusers Have "Done A lot of Good"
By Alan Stucky
The thoughts in this article stem from Marissa Buck’s article on the website Our Stories Untold. Marissa’s sister Lauren wrote an article about her experience of an abusive relationship with Luke Hartman. Marissa's article mostly addresses Lindale Mennonite Church and their response. Reading Marissa’s article will help set the stage for what follows.
Last month my wife sent me the link for Marissa Buck's article on Our Stories Untold. I poured through it, which then made me go finish reading Lauren's original article. And before I say anything else I have to say, Yes, I believe them, it is abuse, and it is heart breaking. I really don't have the words to describe my emotions to their stories.
The main question that I've been pondering is how so many church leaders start by trying to appropriately respond to an abusive situation, and yet, eventually find themselves a part of what appears to be a cover up of abuse. Yes, there are people who try to cover up abuse in a genuinely manipulative way. Those people certainly exist.
However, my sense is that the majority of pastors, leaders, and institutions find themselves making a series of small decisions that don’t seem inherently evil at first, yet wind up leading down a road from which it is very difficult to turn back. As a pastor, my personal reflection on Marissa’s article has revolved around understanding those small decisions.
How does one start down that road towards “keeping things quiet,” rather than bravely bringing things to light? What's that first small impulse pushes one in that direction?
The light bulb finally went off for me when I read one particular line repeated in Marissa's story; "But I've seen them do so much good!"
The light bulb finally went off for me when I read one particular line repeated in Marissa's story; "But I've seen them do so much good!" That's it. That right there is the crux of the whole impulse to keep the abuse quiet and unpublicized.
See, it's not that a leader who is trying to respond to abusive situations doesn't actually care about the victims of the abuse. I genuinely think that they care about the victims, even if they fail to respond to them correctly. It's also not that they don't think that there's a problem that needs to be dealt with.
In all cover ups there is always some form of an attempt at "accountability," which means that they know that something wrong has been done.
The issue is that when this kind of a story comes to light, there is a momentary pause in the mind of the listener. And that pause is caused by at least two things.
First, the thought, But I've never experienced this person in an abusive way, so how can this be true?
Second, But they've done so much good and if this comes out it will negate all of the good that they've done.
The thing is that abusers often have done a lot of good.
Luke Hartman has touched the lives of thousands of people for the better. John Howard Yoder was—and continues to be—the most influential Anabaptist theologian of the 20th century. And the truth is that yes, exposing a scandal feels like you’re undoing all of that good.
To be clear, the abusers themselves are the ones who have actually undone themselves by their abusive actions. That responsibility, in reality, lies with the abuser. What I'm saying is that for those who are presented with the story, there's a feeling that, If I help to expose this abuse, then I will be seen as undoing all of the abusers good works. It's that feeling that leads one to want to keep the abuse quiet, even while attempting to hold them “accountable.”
As I lay in bed thinking through all of this, I realized that this leads to a particular conclusion. It’s a fairly blunt conclusion that others may already know, but that I don’t feel like I hear articulated very often.
The bottom line is that there is a moral calculus being made. I don't think anyone would consciously think or say this, but in effect when abuse is “kept quiet” or “covered up,” what we are really saying is that it is better to sacrifice the lives of one or two people in order for the lives of thousands others to be changed for the better. The gut level, emotional reasoning is that it is better for Lauren's life to be destroyed than to undo all of the positive impact that Luke had through coaching, teaching, speaking and so on.
It's basically the same logic that Caiaphas uses in John 12 when he plots to kill Jesus in vs. 49-50: "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."
The key here, is that ultimately this logic isn't true. For starters, like I said, while the person helping with the cover up feels like they're undoing the abusers good works, it's actually the abuser who undid themselves by engaging in abuse. More importantly, however, when someone helps to cover up the abuse, they are not actually protecting the good of the abuser, but rather they are actively undoing their own good works by participating in the cover up.
All of this leads to some particular lessons for how I need to respond if, and when I am presented with a story of abuse.
I need to remember the following:
1. The abuse itself has already undone that person's good works and it will come out eventually. There is no way that I can stop that from happening.
2. By keeping it quiet and not being a victim advocate I am actually undoing my own legacy and my own good works.
3. My participation in a cover up will eventually come out and that I can't hide that either.
Hopefully this will help reshape how I respond to abuse when it is reported to me.
Alan Stucky is the pastor of the First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kansas. He is married to Katie Best and together they have one son, Levi Stucky.