Churches and sexual abuse are in the news all too frequently today.

First it was the Catholic Church. Then other denominations started to be looked at–most recently in a huge expose of the Southern Baptist Convention (700 victims in 200 churches; read the Houston Chronicle’s report).

I do believe that churches are rife for sexual abuse simply because pedophiles will naturally gravitate to places where they can get access to children, and churches are one of those places. It’s the price we pay for being in community. But that’s all the more reason that churches must be vigilant about enforcing child protection policies, and in reporting any suspected abuse to the proper authorities. Unfortunately, as these exposes have shown, (and as I’ve written before, especially about the Southern Baptist Convention), that hasn’t been done. That needs to change.

So I thought I’d share a reader’s story today, and then make this post a bit of a collaborative effort, asking you all to share your input or to share resources where people can get help.

A reader writes:

Reader Question

Within the last 2 years we discovered our young daughter was being sexually abused by a family member. Walking through this process has been isolating and painful, at best, and has left me with a lot of questions. In our journey we have dealt with the abuser not being confronted (by family or church) the family AND the church isolating us and supporting the abuser, the abuser still being allowed to serve in the church etc.  We were going to a separate church at the time and our pastor was supposed to sit down with the abuser’s pastor and discuss how some of this was mishandled but, as far as we know, that conversation never took place. We are currently attending yet a different church and haven’t been around long enough to see if it’s any different.  It seems there is very little accountability for pastors to address abusers and very little support for the victims.

I corresponded with her a bit more, and it turns out that they did report the abuse to the police. The case was mishandled, and charges weren’t filed. The pastor is thus saying that the abuser has been cleared, which is not the case. It’s only that charges couldn’t be filed.

So what should the church do in this situation, and what should the parents do? Let’s look at some general principles about how churches should handle sexual abuse first, and then we’ll look at her specific situation.

How should churches handle sexual abuse allegations?

Every church should have a child protection policy in place

Every church should have a child protection policy that is enforced, which should include never allowing a child to be alone with one adult or with two adults of the same family (so if you’re driving kids, you can’t drive with your spouse, you have to split up into different cars); every person looking after children must pass a thorough police check which must be repeated at regular intervals (say, every year); every person working with kids must attend child protection training once a year.

Remember, too, that background checks, while important, are relatively useless at discovering abusers, in my opinion, since most abusers are never reported or caught. Just because a church does a background check does not mean that your children are safe. The church must have policies that are followed about adults not being alone with children.

I ran a youth group for years, and this really was rather cumbersome. We used to take the kids out of town on several retreats, and the parents always had to split up into different cars, so that we never had two related adults with the kids. We often needed extra volunteers, and that was sometimes hard to find. But you just have to do this stuff. Kids’ safety matters first.

In Canada, I believe that insurance companies are now requiring churches to have a Plan to Protect policy in place (that’s one such program; there are others). All our local churches, in all the different denominations, have this type of policy and this type of training. And you can’t get insurance coverage without it.

If sexual abuse is ever disclosed, it must be reported immediately to the police

I have seen churches send out letters to parents saying, “we found out that a basketball coach had been abusing kids. If your child has been hurt by him, please contact us.” WRONG.

If your child has been hurt, contact the police. You may also tell the church, of course, but the first course of action should be to go to the police.

Even if you only suspect that something is off, it’s worth calling the police. They’re trained to investigate this stuff. You can report anonymously, and you don’t have to be 100% sure. But sometimes police are watching someone, and they don’t have anything concrete to go on. The more people call in, the easier it is for the police to make a case. If you feel something is off, do something about it.

In many jurisdictions, too, clergy are mandatory reporters. If they suspect abuse, they must report. A lot of people believe that they have to be 100% sure to report, so if they only suspect, they’re off the hook. Nope. That’s not how it works. If your pastor heard that someone was abusing a child, and your pastor did not report, that, in and of itself, may be a crime, and can be reported.

ANY sexual contact between clergy and parishioners is considered sexual abuse, regardless of age or willingness

Remember that sexual abuse encompasses any sexual contact between clergy, including youth pastors, and church members. There’s a power differential, and that means that it’s automatically abuse, similar to how psychiatrists can’t get involved with patients. In many jurisdictions, this is also specifically against the law, and should be reported. (In Canada, it appears to be encompassed in Section 273(1) of the Criminal Code, which notes power differentials that negate consent). If there is a power differential, then a person can’t technically consent, even if they seem willing. We’re often quick to blame someone for seducing the pastor, but legally, it’s always the other way around.

If sexual abuse is ever discovered, it must be reported immediately to any families who had children who may have come into contact with the abuser

Too often churches have been quick to worry about their reputation, rather than reporting the abuse to parents. Currently, two megachurches are in trouble for doing just that. (Just Google Paxton Singer and Harvest Bible Chapel coverup or The Village Church and Matt Tonne). They dismiss someone, but they don’t fully reveal to parents why they did so, and parents only find out after charges were filed.

But what if sexual abuse is only suspected?

This is where things get tricky. I know a situation where a youth pastor groomed and was sexually active with a child in his youth group, but that child was above the age of consent. It was thus considered “an affair”, even though he was her youth pastor (very similar, actually, to the Andy Savage situation at Highpoint). Charges weren’t filed for various reasons, and the pastor was fired, and did confess to the church a big sin in his life. But that sin was not revealed to parents.

This former youth pastor has no criminal record. He would pass a background check. And because parents weren’t made aware of the situation (largely to protect the victim’s reputation), no one knows what really happened. He could go on to another church and do the same thing.

What I have heard is that insurance companies are telling churches that they cannot disclose suspected abuse, when no charges were laid, or else the former pastors can sue for ruining their reputation and making them unemployable. Many churches are afraid of being sued by former pastors, and they’re just firing them and letting them go away, without warning others, to protect their insurance coverage. That’s wrong.

Also, to not tell parents means that you’re believing the abuser’s side of the story–that there was only one victim. You can never assume this. If someone grooms and abuses one young person, it’s very likely they have groomed and abused another. The church needs to tell parents so that parents can talk to their kids.

It protects a church’s reputation more to be up front than to cover it up

I know that abuse happens anywhere. What I want to see in a church, then, is not a church with no abuse accusations, but instead a church that is absolutely up front with anything that happens.

My best friend received a letter from the summer camp that her son had attended. The letter stated that they had discovered that a camp counsellor had been texting one of the boys inappropriately. He had been reported to the police, and was arrested. The camp had done a thorough background check and nothing had come up; and the camp had endeavoured to make sure that he had never been alone with any camper. But now the camp was notifying parents, to let them know of the issue so they could talk to their sons. And the camp said that they would update parents on the case.

And they did.

And my friend sent her son to that same camp the next year because she knew that the camp took abuse seriously. That didn’t ruin the camp’s reputation to her; it enhanced it, because she knew if the camp ever thought anything was off with any staff, they would deal with it appropriately.

So, with all of that said, what should this family do?

This family knows that someone sexually abused their child. That man is currently volunteering in a church. No charges could be filed, but when someone abuses one child, it’s almost guaranteed that they have abused others.

They have talked to pastors, and the man’s pastor is saying nothing can be done. Their former pastor did nothing to help. So what now?

Here are just a few of my thoughts, and I invite you to add some thoughts in the comments:

  • You are under no obligation to be quiet about this. You filed a police report. It is fine to tell others, “You are aware that a man who is volunteering in your church has had a police report filed about sexually abusing a 3-year-old, right?” That is not slander. That is truth.
  • Many churches are required to publish minutes of elder’s meetings. So I would write a letter to the elders and ask for it to be read at the elder’s meeting, so it could be entered into the record.
  • If a church is allowing someone who has been suspected of sexual abuse to serve, then they may be in violation of Plan to Protect (or whatever program they receive child protection accreditation from). Talk to the the Plan to Protect coordinator at the church and ask if they are aware of this situation.
  • If that individual does not help, then remember that not following Plan to Protect guidelines can cause a church to lose their insurance. So I would find out who their insurance company is and I would contact them.
  • If there is a local ministerial association (in my town, for instance, all the evangelical churches join together for certain events, and there is a steering committee for that), you can also contact that larger group and tell them
  • If the church belongs to a denomination, you can contact the district that encompasses that church and report it

UPDATE: Rebecca and I were just talking, and she suggested adding this point:

  • Write a Google review of the church and a Facebook review of the church mentioning that you reported that one of their volunteers had sexually abused a child, and the church did nothing. Don’t name the person, but it’s okay to say that. Then ask for your friends and family to vote that review as helpful so that it shows up near the top of the list.

Forgiveness is not the issue with sexual abuse of children

Our reader also said this:

I am also shocked at how common it has been for people to tell us we need to forgive, we need to pursue reconciliation, we are awful for not allowing them into our children’s lives (it was a relative), we have disrupted family unity etc. To me it’s not a matter of forgive, forget and move on hoping for the best. I have a very traumatized little girl who I am accountable to protect and I can’t get behind the idea of forgiveness that results in “reconciliation” and false unity at the expense of their safety.

I completely agree with her. Too often when someone does something wrong, we want the problem to go away. And in Christianity we seem to have a really nice way of making sure it does: we tell everyone they should forgive! Then, when someone says, “Um, that’s not the issue,” we use Scripture in an abusive way, saying, “Jesus forgave you, and you are to forgive like Jesus. You are in sin.” Suddenly the victim has become the perpetrator! And it’s wrong.

Safety of children comes first. You are never called to reconcile with someone who is a danger to you or your children. You are not in sin if you warn others about this person and if you refuse to see him or let him near your children. You are caring for your kids, and that matters to God.

Luke 17:1-2

Jesus said to his disciples: “Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
Let me know: Have you ever dealt with a sexual abuse issue in church? Was it handled well? What do you think this woman should do? Let’s talk in the comments!
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