Church is intended to be a place that is loving and comforting for people in the midst of suffering, as the main space is called a sanctuary. The term sanctuary literally means safety from oppression. For many people, especially women who are survivors of sexual assault, the church is no safe haven. Bill Cosby was known for his likability and wit, which launched his career into comedy tours and eventually television shows. Cosby was the quintessential 80’s sitcom father who loved his wife, had a successful job, and gave his children sage advice. I grew up listening to my parents’ old vinyl records of his famous comedy bits and had episodes of ‘The Cosby Show’ memorized.
Bill Cosby has been convicted of all counts of sexual assault in his retrial, making him the first perpetrator to be convicted in the #metoo and #timesup era, while the accusations against him span decades. Cosby was famous for being good, upstanding, and charismatic, and at first it was shocking to believe that the allegations against him could possibly be true. The women who spoke out against him were ridiculed and slandered to protect this so-called likable man. Today we know that he is guilty and the victims, who many did not believe, are proven honest. Cosby’s persona and the reality of his character and crimes seem incongruent, but nevertheless, he is a predator.
Many of the other men accused of predatory sexual harassment and assault in the #metoo movement already had reputations of being violent, angry, or pushy. While many celebrities claimed to have no knowledge of Harvey Weinstein’s consistent and egregious behavior, several admitted that considering his personality, they believed the accusations. As a culture, we understand when predators are people that fit into our understanding that people who are mean or cruel are the monsters, not the friendly, likable, father figures.
Church is often a place that believes that people are basically good, and that the people in the pews are striving to be good and righteous Christians. Many congregations do not want to admit that people guilty of sexual harassment and assault sit in their pews and that the statistics of victims is the same in the church as it is in the rest of society. #churchtoo displayed just how prevalent this behavior is inside our sanctuaries. We in the church want our monsters to look and act like monsters, but we must learn to believe the accusations of victims, even when they seem good, likable, honest, and upstanding, and religious…and even when they are our leaders. The Bible states that evil can look like a wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing, but we do not always practice this belief when it comes to allegations of sexual assault and harassment in our congregations.
In college, a person with whom I was in a relationship sexually assaulted me. He was well liked, and became a leader and teacher, as he was charming and well respected. We attended church together as a couple, and many people were shocked when our relationship dissolved. I never told anyone around me in the congregation just how awful our relationship had been out of fear that they would not believe he was capable of such things. Some people in the congregation liked him so much that they actively invited and encouraged him to continue attending my church, despite our break-up.
He didn’t fit the “profile” of a sexual predator. I felt betrayed and unsafe in the sanctuary of a church that employed me. Yes, church should be a place of forgiveness and reconciliation, but it should also be a place that of justice and refuge for the vulnerable and disempowered. Just a few weeks ago, the church saw one of its most famous and likable pastors fall in the #churchtoo movement, when Bill Hybels resigned in disgrace from Willow Creek Church. Sexual predators are in the world and our churches. Our churches, the leaders and people in our congregations, must begin not only to listen to and believe victims, but also to stand up for victims. Bill Cosby is one proof that monsters don’t always look like monsters we expect, and we can no longer pretend that we are unaware of their existence. The church teaches that Jesus came to give sight to the blind, and the #churchtoo movement gave us sight. Now we must work to set the oppressed and victimized free.