Denzel Washington Sets the Stage for Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Church

"What an opportunity you have! Don't be depressed by it because we have to go through this, we're here now." These words, spoken recently by Denzel Washington, as he talked about the challenges his faith walk brings to millennials, are simply an enhancement of the stand he recently took by deciding not to be present to speak at the Global Leadership Summit, a gathering that also drew Bill Clinton as a guest speaker in times past.

Why would anybody turn down such an opportunity? If you’ve kept up with what’s going on in Willow Creek Community Church near Chicago lately, you might instantly know. Willow and its pastor Bill Hybels, now accused by a growing number of sexual abuse of congregants, has been the model for many a young pastor for how to grow a thriving church. Without Willow, it’s hard to imagine what the Global Leadership Summit would be now, even if it survives. Yet Hybels is daring to use the same word I’ve used for thirty years to describe what church leaders commonly do, in circling the wagons around a pastor at a time like this—yes, using the word “collusion” to describe what he accuses the women of doing. Ganging up on HIM, mind you, as if they all just have it in for him!

All of this was in the cauldron, about to blow, at Willow Creek while Denzel was cautioning the younger generation in an interview last November about his role as a defense attorney standing up for his convictions in his soon-to-be-released film Roman J. Israel, Esq. He could just as easily have spoken these words to the leaders of Willow Creek recently, had he thought them receptive. However, those leaders of the Old Guard weren’t on his mind at all the day he voiced that advice to a much larger audience, of course. Vibrant youth were.

 "You have to be unafraid and unashamed to share …. the way your millennial generation knows how,” the sixty-five-year-old Washington went on to say in that same interview. 

Those words are exactly what's been on my heart since I was forty years old, as an older Baby Boomer, speaking mostly to younger "sisters and brothers” that I have tried to nurture as advocates fighting primarily gender-based violence in the evangelical community of “faith,” which many of my readers have heard me refer to frequently as the “community of fear.” It has been my privilege often to speak individually to those Washington's age and younger who have somehow stumbled, same as my husband and I once did, onto discovering a problem that has existed and gone unacknowledged publicly since before Jesus was born though suppressed among evangelicals, even by the mainstream press, until recently. Some of my readers have been professionals. Many more, once direct victims who have managed to find their voices along with new-found courage.

Victims of sexual or "domestic" violations they are, like those who went to their graves with secrets about persons in power in groups of old, same as many today. Not always churches, sometimes the predators have been in public schools or in medical settings, or in their own homes, of course. No doubt including the sadducees and Pharisees who colluded with elected government officials, little different than many in power today in Washington, who put Jesus to death. How many other secrets did these arrogant characters have hidden?

Shooting the messenger. That's the game whenever revelations are made. It's been played along with many other games of collusion that are occurring right now at Willow Creek, even in the language that was recently used to smoothly frame what's going on in that congregation with a document, serving like a cheap piece of celluloid placed to “protect” the deceptive institution doing the "investigation" as churches like to call it when they do their own investigating. Sad for a congregation where many are now laying in tatters by wounds while leaders are dealing with their own wounds of self-inflicted denial. All in the name of transparency and egalitarianism. 

It seems nobody has told these leaders—or if so, they didn’t get the message that they all need to step down and join the mourners while someone else from outside comes in to re-paint this picture. May I suggest one of the former Catholic priests I’ve known who could eloquently do the job, as they tried to do for the bishops, until lawyers came in to do the teaching?

Sexual abuse perpetrated by a leader, no matter what faith group it is, always uses secrecy and is an act of misogyny whenever the perpetrator is male and the only direct witnesses are the female victims. Anyone who tries to cover this picture over, declaring the institution, where its leader has now suddenly decided (and been given permission) to retire early, as "transparent" and "egalitarian" in today's world will become the laughing stock of anybody outside the system with half a brain.

It's time the leaders of these megachurches quit trying to fix themselves!

The world is watching Willow Creek and others caught in similar scenarios as much as it has been watching the bishops in Chile, who have done the noble, unprecedented act in history, by stepping aside, same as Denzel Washington has done, leading by example, by refusing to be a part of this group's current agenda. 

What the bishops of Chile know, along with the pope, is that this is not the time for worship or any other events in the name of "The Church" in Chile. This is a time for a funeral, same as it is for Willow Creek, because so many lives have been impacted by the actions of the spiritually blind. “Blessed are they that mourn” is not to be forgotten here, even though contrition has been expressed.

The mourning must be for the Church that now must be totally re-built from the ground up, only after bowing to the survivors. Yes, the survivors, who have already been humbled beyond belief, must take the lead now if they choose to do so. They must be given center stage to speak and to lead with their public testimonies in the pulpits, same as Dr. Larry Nassar's victims have been, rather than being forced to speak only in the back rooms behind sanctuaries. Yet, even if they choose to speak and are given permission to do so, do not expect to hear beautiful words about forgiveness for a long, long time. Why? Because forgiveness is not in order at this point, and it may never be. Accountability and true confession is—and that’s not just for Bill Hybels, who has devoured or driven away his sheep rather than shepherded them.

How dare forgiveness be one of the first words out of the mouths of people who remain in power!  Immense ignorance this shows, and there's nothing spiritual about it. They have ignored the real forgiveness issue , which is their need to “forgive” the innocent survivors, rather than condemning them for stepping forward.

Likewise, there's nothing wise or spiritual about speaking of restoration at this early stage of the game. "There is now no condemnation" is a sermon to be preached long after every leader at Willow Creek steps down, not only Bill Hybels. Yes, turning in their resignations because they have doubted the preponderance of evidence is already in. Truth is totally different than piling up a bunch of facts in a courtroom. Seven women (or even 2-3 gathered together to speak in one voice) is evidence enough in a case of "sexual misconduct," which is a term abhorred by so many of us who have stumbled onto this problem that belongs entirely to the perpetrator and his cronies in every situation! As the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune has long reminded us, it is the preponderance of evidence we must look for—at least until every state, and every country beyond America, decides that what Bill Hybels did to his victims is a criminal offense.

Only the naïve would use the word “restoration” to set the stage for the future. Because this word, as loaded as the word forgiveness, suggests that Bill Hybels can be restored to a position of power, which the leaders may very well have in mind. After all, this is the crazy thinking of all naïve people who use simplistic, anti-intellectual, “miracle” approaches to problems that are far more than spiritual and are rooted far deeper than these leaders can begin to understand—just ask anybody in the mental health field, except for those making big bucks claiming the “fix” perpetrators, the kind who stupidly equate sexual offenders with homosexuals and claim to be able to “fix” them, as well. If that’s the kind of fixers that Willow Creek is looking for, they’ll definitely find them; but woe to them who swallow this nonsense!

This is both sexual violence and spiritual violence, no matter what the violation. A double-whammy! This the pope knows now, though it took him much too long to wake up. And the same with all the bishops in Chile.

So, why aren’t evangelical Christians in America following suit? I suspect that's what Denzel Washington is thinking, as well, though I've not spoken with him to validate this. I can assure you this is what most everyone on #churchtoo is thinking. That is now the real question of the hour that wise journalists will soon be asking, with the focus currently on a handful of major stories besides Willow Creek:

1. the Andy Savage case, which actually started in another state, first in a Southern Baptist community
2. the Paige Patterson story of women in the SBC finally waking up at the same time Patterson's historic "partner-in-crime," Paul Pressler is being brought to judgment
3. the backlash that seldom is successful, but many survivors fear, of being sued by their own offenders for defamation--again a Baptist offender claiming playing the role-reversal game, claiming to be the falsely-accused victim, same as Bill Hybels, which feeds right into the belief that victims of both genders just sit around making things up

As I have often imagined Jesus was saying when he turned over the tables of the money changers in the temple: "Just who do you think you are?"

Coming full circle, I return you now to the same quotes from Denzel Washington, imagining what he might have said this year to attendees at The Global Leadership Summit if he'd decided to honor them with his presence. Or better still what he might say to the Chicago survivors of Bill Hybels, who need encouragement more than those of the Summit, along with pertinent Scripture:

"What an opportunity you have! Don't be depressed by it because we have to go through this, we're here now."  Add to this Romans 12:12 "Be not conformed to this world" (ie. the church that is acting worse than those they call infidels), "but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove" (to yourselves and others, in time) "what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God."

Yes, it is the renewing of the mind, which must occur by going outside the institution wherever abuse occurred--that's what has worked for every single one of us, whether survivors or advocates, clergy or laity, who have encountered the highly-toxic poison of collusion with abuse in the faith community. With leaders going outside to call in people from afar who are not even a part of their group—real outsiders, it takes, who have never drunk the Kool-Aid.

"Be not deceived. God is not mocked." Do not stay where toxicity abounds. Healthy people do not hang around toxic places for their nourishment.  To flee these scenes is not an act of animosity, but wisdom. Take time. Be patient, and you will be led toward the Light, which can be found in many places. This I promise. That's how the Spirit works.

"You have to be unafraid and unashamed to share it in the way your millennial generation knows how,” the actor declares. He might as well have been saying “You Millennials pick up the torch and run with it. Tell your stories at will.”

 The torch of the #MeToo movement is yours now, and it’s burning bright. Some of us have known that since #LongB4MeToo, I’ll add. Young survivors, go out and be witnesses to the ends of the earth, telling what your leaders and a lot of old folks have failed to enunciate. This is your testimony that encompasses what the True Gospel of Liberation is all about." 


Miller's website has been a source of enlightenment for survivors and advocates since 1997. Author of six books, three specifically on the topic of collusion with abuse in the faith community, include her 2017 release, Enlarging Boston's Spotlight: A Call for Courage, Integrity, and Institutional Transformation (available also in Kindle form). 


  1. “Be not deceived. God is not mocked." Do not stay where toxicity abounds. Healthy people do not hang around toxic places for their nourishment. To flee these scenes is not an act of animosity, but wisdom. Take time. Be patient, and you will be led toward the Light, which can be found in many places. This I promise. That's how the Spirit works.”

    1. I have been blessed and challenged by these words written by Ms. Dee.

      I was banned from Willow for declining to appear for a hearing with NO notice of why I was being summoned. I was presented with an extremely vague email and then registered letter from the church attorney to not come to church, not seek prayer, not access services of assistance if needed( as I was barred from even speaking to ANY minister, staffer, volunteer, or attendee on ANY ministry subject) and there were months of refusal to answer questions on what was my “crime”; but I had a deep spiritual peace that what had occurred was God’s blessing and protection.

      When Willowgate and all the nastiness from the Bill Hybels, the Elders, Leadership, Staffers, Congregants, and Fans of Willow hit the public knowledge I knew why God in his mercy allowed a bunch of foolishness cause my removal from that community. I had mad deep love and God protected my heart and preserved his blessings in my life.

      I pray for Willow, but as Ms. Dee wrote, “ Healthy people do not hang around toxic places for their nourishment”. I was one who may have stayed right up in Willow serving and giving. I thank God for his mercies.

    2. So you got pegged as a troublemaker. Congratulations! You are in good company, a very large company, in fact, growing every day. FEAR motivates conservative power. HOPE motivates progressive power. That alone should tell you a lot about how you are different from Willow. For civil rights issues, whether in the church or elsewhere, are always issues of progressive people.

      I'll have much more to say about this in my next blog, so stand by and be glad. You are in the perfect place to nurture others now. A painful place at times--yes. A lonely place if you are looking just to the people you have known in the past, but not a lonely place at all when you begin looking beyond where you have been sitting for a long, long time, unable to see the Light fully because of the dried up "trees" towering above you, unaware.

      Everything is going to work out all right. Just you wait and see.


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