Righteousness Over Reputation
By Melissa Morgan Kelley

Robert Cunningham, senior pastor of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church (TCPC) in Lexington, Kentucky, received a call in October that revealed credible sexual abuse allegations involving a worship leader who served his church in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that the allegations involved well-known Christian recording artist Chris Rice only compounded the pain.

This is the second time in three years that Cunningham has received a call about sexual abuse allegations related to Tates Creek, though both incidents occurred prior to his tenure. In 2017, allegations surfaced about the church’s youth pastor several decades ago, and an independent investigation verified those claims.

The devastation to victims is horrific, as is the fact that two incidents have been revealed from one church in a short period of time.  But remarkably, as these stories are exposed, investigated, and prosecuted, a new narrative is emerging from Tates Creek because of how it has handled the allegations — one of transparency, humility, and vigilance to build a church culture that prevents abuse from happening again.

Submitting to Experts, Then Taking Action

Few know more about confronting sexual assault than Rachael Denhollander, the lawyer and former gymnast whose testimony was pivotal in bringing down USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar in 2018. Denhollander now serves as an advocate for sexual abuse victims, and Robert Cunningham immediately turned to her when the Tates Creek allegations surfaced in 2017. That decision has made all the difference, according to Cunningham.

Cunningham and the Tates Creek elders reordered the priority of care that is typical when abuse is uncovered in a church.

“We were devastated when these allegations came out,” said Cunningham. “But we simply admitted that we’re not experts in this area. And that should go without saying. I followed Rachael’s counsel, and that is why things have gone so smoothly.”

Following the advice of Denhollander and abuse advocate Boz Tchividjian, Cunningham and the elders of Tates Creek reordered the priority of care that is typical when abuse is found. Rather than seeking to protect the church first, public perception second, and the victims third, they opted to turn that paradigm on its head: victims first, public perception second, and the church third — in effect prioritizing righteousness over reputation.

They demonstrated this victims-first mentality by choosing not to conceal the abuse, but rather to announce the allegations publicly and to pursue justice, no matter the fallout to the church.

Denhollander is quick to praise the church’s execution of this strategy and the fruit it has borne. “There are very clear hallmarks that Tates Creek has done incredibly well in both investigations,” said Denhollander. “They have communicated healing to the survivor community, as well as a desire for truth and an understanding of the evil of sexual assault and the damage that it has done.”

The first steps Cunningham took were to call the police and then immediately submit the church to an independent investigation from a qualified source — in this case Tchividjian’s organization, Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE). “At the end of the investigation, they tell you what you did wrong, and you repent where you need to repent,” says Cunningham.

He also made an immediate announcement to the congregation about the allegations and investigation, encouraging anyone who held relevant information to bring it to the investigators.

Denhollander says that churches are often afraid to announce an investigation because they fear they will open themselves to liability for slander or defamation. But this isn’t true, she says. “It merely states where to send people who hold a missing puzzle piece and explains how information is being vetted.”

A third step Tates Creek took was educating its congregation. This included teaching what abuse looks like so that congregations and leaders can identify it correctly, as well as strengthening safety protocols. But more importantly, Cunningham seeks to create a culture “where victims feel safe and predators do not,” using a Denhollander phrase.

Due to its transparency, pursuit of truth, and focus on victims, Tates Creek is being lauded as an example of how churches should properly handle abuse. “If you walk by sight you’ll want to circle the wagons and get control of the situation,” said Cunningham. “But Jesus honors acts of love and says that the truth will set you free.”

Making Churches Safe from Abuse

Though Christians would like to believe that churches provide more protection from abuse than other institutions, the unique structure of the church can lend itself to sexual abuse — especially when leadership is not aware of inherent risks.

Cunningham identifies several situational characteristics that make churches vulnerable. To start, churches provide powerful spiritual authority in the lives of congregants, and trust is embedded in that relationship. “You don’t find this kind of relationship anywhere else,” he said.

Churches also have autonomy to create their own subculture and normalize behavior that may seem odd in the broader world. In the wrong hands, such a community can begin to look cultish. And a church’s well-meaning “come as you are” philosophy can unwittingly welcome abusers into the fold.

Fortunately, these factors can be mitigated by churches willing to evaluate their vulnerabilities and make changes. As Cunningham and the Tates Creek elders refined their church’s culture in recent years, they created processes to hold leaders accountable, humbly submitted to abuse experts when appropriate, and set a high standard of connection in the church body.

“We are up front in our member class that people are not going to be anonymous in our church,” said Cunningham. “They are going to be known, through small groups and other connections.”

These safeguards go a long way toward creating a body of believers who remain clear-eyed about the risks that surround them and vigilant about preventing abuse.

One Survivor’s Story

Such safeguards were not in place when Greg (not his real name) experienced abuse at Tates Creek in the 1990s. That time in his life continues to impact him and his ability to trust those in authority.

But he found unexpected healing as he began working with Cunningham and the investigators from GRACE as they assessed the allegations revealed in 2017.

“I was one of the first victims, and I always felt guilty, like ‘Why didn’t I see the signs?’” said Greg. “I could have protected those who came after me.”

He was surprised that the investigators sensed his concerns right away and spent the first part of their interview speaking about God’s grace and how that covers everything, including the signs we miss.

“I was not used to that,” said Greg. “It gave me faith that God is alive and well — even in investigations for sexual abuse.”

Finally being able to speak the truth is a relief for many who have spent years hiding or minimizing abuse from institutions that promised to care for them. Short of erasing the past, the next best thing the church can do is to treat victims with the honesty, humility, and kindness they deserve. Even when it brings painful truths into the light.

But we needn’t fear that these painful truths will collapse the church, according to Denhollander. In fact, facing them can reveal His glory more clearly.

“When we speak accurately about evil, it allows us to speak accurately about God’s holiness and His justice and His goodness,” said Denhollander. “When we minimize or do not understand how to respond to evil we in turn diminish the goodness and glory of God.”

If speaking the truth at any cost magnifies God’s holiness and goodness, the leadership at Tates Creek Presbyterian Church has affirmed the gospel with its actions, according to Greg.

“There are so many sources of noise and chaos, manipulation and lies in the world. To work with someone who would rather lose his job than contribute to those things is invaluable. And … it is evidence that our Savior is with us.”

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