When Leaders Abuse, Your Response Matters

The subject at hand has been churning inside me at an ever-increasing speed and intensity. Every day brings to light another prominent leader who has done or said egregious things with little apparent remorse. One has to wonder if the Lord himself isn’t flushing these leaders out into the open to be exposed for who they really are.

When Leaders Fail You

For the purpose of this article though, the leaders I’m referring to aren’t limited to those who have been elected, appointed, or in the public eye. We all have had people in positions of authority over us. Parents and teachers, doctors, pastors, priests, coaches, and mentors. Most of us have been disappointed by some of them, and far too many of us have experienced life-altering damage because of their moral and ethical failures.

My first experiences with this began in elementary school.

My fifth grade teacher was the school’s vice principal, and possibly the most out-of-control adult I’ve ever met. He had a bunch of peculiar rules and punishments for breaking those rules. Like having to write ‘yes’ 200 times for every time you responded to him with the word, ‘yeah,’ or having to have those little white reinforcement stickers on both sides of every hole in your notebook paper, or else you had to recopy all the day’s notes over again. He also had temper tantrums when he got angry–like kicking the large, metal wastebasket across the room so that it ricocheted off the back wall, and even hanging a boy by the back of his sweater on the coat hook. But the worst was when he picked up one of my friends by her feet, and literally swept the floor with her long, black hair. It was outrageous, and you’d better believe before long there was a whole panel of parents sitting in on his classes to watch his behavior. But because of his VP position (and presumably, his tenure), he kept his job all that school year and from then on, to my knowledge.

My takeaway as a 10 year old? His important position kept him safe, even if his students were not.

The following year, I had another male teacher who delighted in paying special attention to the little girls in his class. He would tease them with a wink and a smile, and he’d often tickle the girls at their desks, until they were bent over them, begging for him to stop. Lots of little girls that year (myself included) were wearing the kind of summer tops that tied at the shoulders, and he would love to walk by and untie them, laughing when the girls frantically tried to keep their shirts from falling down. It happened to me more than once, and I finally confided in another teacher what he was doing to me and my classmates. “Aw, I know,” the teacher said, “but he’s an old man and he’s very close to retiring–let’s just not say anything more about it.”

My takeaway that year? Don’t bother telling anyone else.

And I didn’t.

I didn’t tell when a family friend routinely forced me to kiss him and look at pornography.

I didn’t tell when my uncle (who was the pastor of my church) molested and raped me.

I tried to tell when a doctor so brutalized me that I spent nearly a week in the hospital, but unbelievably I was told again, “He’s old, he’s respected, he’s close to retirement…let’s not say anything.”

My friends, these things change you. They change how you think, how you behave, what you think about yourself. These kinds of events impair your judgement and your reason. Your trust in people. You are never, ever the same. Although you try to develop some kind of protective armor to keep yourself safe, it doesn’t really protect you from other predatory people. You just can’t make the healthy decisions a healthy person would make…because you’re not healthy anymore.

Even with lots of good counseling, ministry, and care, the road to healing is long and difficult and bumpy. So many ups and downs. Some wounds may never heal completely this side of heaven.

And it’s important to note two things here:

  1. Leaders who abuse use their power, authority, position, and influence like an access key to their victims. They have access because of who they are and because of the power differential that exists between them and those they lead.
  2. Leaders who abuse and are not confronted, disciplined, and removed from their position use that same access key to remain in power. The same character traits that lead to abuse are also employed to woo others into believing they are still worthy of their post.

As someone who has personally experienced abuse, the news as of late has stirred up an overwhelming sense of injustice. Though the responsibility for the despicable actions committed by men like Dr. Larry Nassar, Pastor Andy Savage, director Harvey Weinstein, and even the President most certainly rests on their shoulders, it is also true that they have been both allowed and enabled to continue in their behavior by those who knew and kept silent.

In fact, as an abuse survivor, the most disturbing aspect of these stories has been the widespread show of support they’ve received. 30 years’ worth of people who turned a blind eye to Nassar’s ongoing (and reported) molestation of gymnasts. A  20-second-long standing ovation by his congregation when Savage acknowledged his participation in a “sexual incident” with an underage girl. Actions and statements made by the President, once denounced and shamed by good Christian people, now dismissed as ‘irrelevant’ in the light of possible political gains. I cannot stress how much this tears me up inside.

Our responses to abuse matter.

Yes, many are now rightfully outraged, but it is somewhat easier to take that position when the case involves an abuser you don’t personally know. What happens when it’s someone you know and even like? What if it’s your leader? What do you do then? What do you say? “Let’s not say anything?”

These failures by our leaders must be addressed on their own merit and dealt with accordingly. And it’s then a call for new leaders to rise up and step forward. We are not sheep, helpless and incapable of thinking and acting apart from those who currently lead us. We must not accept the status quo and keep plodding forward in time.

It’s time to rise up.

To speak up.

And to lead the way forward with a much higher standard.

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash