No names were named. No communities were identified. But Synod 2019 delegates heard a story of abuse within a church that left a trail of pain, anger, and mistrust.
Seated in front of 180 synod delegates, Rev. Carel Geleynse was interviewed by Patricia Van Reenen, co-chair of the denomination’s Addressing the Abuse of Power committee.
The interview was part of a brief training for delegates on the nature of abuse of power, led by Van Reenen, who counsels abuse victims. Synod will take up the Abuse of Power Committee’s report tomorrow.
Geleynse told his story of picking up the pieces left by an abuser. One week after Geleynse became pastor of a Christian Reformed church, it was revealed that the church’s previous pastor had sexually abused a minor.
The abuse had occurred years before in a different church, but its shadow loomed large over what was now Geleynse’s church.
“The initial response was disbelief, denial, and silence,” said Geleynse. “In the formal life of the church, things tended to go on as usual… . But behind the scenes, comments started to bubble up. Others began to tell stories. Many didn’t tell anything until five to seven years later.”
“How did you feel?” Van Reenen asked.
“I had a range of feelings: shock, anger. It was infuriating, gut-wrenching stuff. And I had questions: What am I doing here? Why me, why now?”
“When one is betrayed, trust takes a big hit,” he added. “There was a hesitancy to trust me or any leader. Did my words match my actions? People were not sure, so they watched and watched and watched.”
“There was guilt,” Geleynse continued. “People said, ‘I did nothing about it.’ There were questions: Is God safe if his servants aren’t trustworthy? The church ought to be a place of refuge.”
“How hard was it to regain trust?” asked Van Reenen.
“Hard work indeed,” he answered. The church council watched and discussed a film about abuse in the church. “The council learned what sacred listening was about. We learned about not letting things go, keeping up pressure, naming the issue for what it was.”
Some church members had pushed for quick forgiveness. “Quick forgiveness can be incredibly cheap,” Geleynse said. “We needed time to explore the impacts, people’s thoughts and feelings, and talk to other victims … . Abuse cuts so deep, and its effects are so far-reaching that one cannot simply say forgive and forget. And there are consequences, too.”
Also, “without the [Christian Reformed Church’s] Safe Church office, we would have floundered,” he said.
The church council visited with pastoral and administrative staff members who had come and gone during the previous pastor’s tenure.
“All the visits culminated in a weekend of restoration, seven years after the original announcement. We had a joint sacred listening time with a sister congregation that had also experienced abuse. Together we listed our losses.” And even now, years later, the process of healing continues, according to Geleynse.
“I’m no longer there. I’m tired,” he concluded.
Following this compelling interview, delegates held table conversations about their own experiences with abuse of power in the church. They also discussed good practices for prevention of abuse and healing in response to abuse.
Stories like the one synod heard can often trigger feelings in those who have experienced abuse, according to Bonnie Nicholas, director of the CRC's Safe Church Ministry. For that reason, volunteers were on hand to talk and pray with anyone who needed support. Several people met with the volunteers, who all had experience of working with abuse survivors, Nicholas said.
Tomorrow or Thursday synod will take up the recommendations from the committee.
Synod 2019 is meeting at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., from June 14-20. For continuous coverage from our award-winning news team, download the Banner app on your mobile device or follow The Banner Magazine on Facebook or @crcbanner on Twitter. You can find more tweeting by following hashtag #crcsynod. News stories will be posted on The Banner’s dedicated Synod web page several times daily. Unless noted otherwise, all photographs are by Karen Huttenga.