After a few decades of publicity surrounding the issue of sexual abuse in the broader culture, one might think that churches have developed better ways of handling it. However, there are regularly reports that indicate otherwise. Especially churches without a Safe Church program are vulnerable to mishandling sexual abuse allegations. This is highly problematic because it further victimizes victims and often emboldens and protects abusers. To help churches in developing policies and procedures, I want to share some best practices. We have to do better and perhaps this can help to further the discussion and create safer communities for the most vulnerable among us.
Let me first say a few words about definitions. In general, abuse is inappropriate conduct towards another person. It can be a single event or a pattern of behaviour. In particular, sexual abuse is “the sexual exploitation of a person or any sexual intimacy forced on a person (either physical or non-physical). Child sexual abuse can include taking advantage of a child who is not capable of understanding sexual acts or resisting coercion such as threats or offers of gifts. Sexual abuse includes harassment by means of verbal or physical behaviour of a sexual nature, brought on by an individual and aimed at a particular person or group of people with the aim of obtaining sexual favours.” These definitions come from the Child Abuse Policy of the Free Reformed Church of Launceston. Additionally, child sexual abuse occurs when age of consent laws are broken. For example, in Canada, children under the age of 16 cannot legally give consent to any person more than 5 years their senior, or who is in any position of authority over them (a coach, or youth group leader of any age).
Since it is the most common form of sexual abuse, I will be referring to the male as the abuser and female as the victim. Also, statistics reveal that over 50% of women have experienced sexual violence and 25% have experienced rape – however, only 1 in 26 men report having been raped. Sadly, the statistics are similar inside of church communities.
Three caveats are in order.
First, this list of best practices is not exhaustive. Even with the ones listed, I haven’t said everything there is to say. That would take a book.
Second, this list does not cover every conceivable situation. It is a general set of guidelines. The application may differ in cases of historic abuse, abuse involving a church leader, or incest. Again, to cover all these different situations would require a lot more than what I’ve written here. If you see such words like “as a rule,” please realize that there might be exceptions. These are complex matters and guidelines cannot cover every permutation.
Third, though I may know more than the average church member, I don’t claim to be an expert in this area. I have pastoral experience, I have had many conversations with sexual abuse survivors, and I have read more than one or two books on it. I am drawing mostly on the last two here. I was particularly helped by this document prepared by an Australian expert in this area. She’s an experienced counsellor and has also helped churches in developing better responses to sexual abuse. I was also helped by advice from a retired pastor, a long-time professional Christian counsellor, and several sexual abuse survivors – they read a draft of this document and provided feedback.
Obey Mandatory Reporting Laws
All jurisdictions have mandatory reporting laws – see here for Tasmania’s law. Tasmania’s law requires that a church leader inform police if he has reasonable grounds to believe that an abuse offence has been committed against a child under 18. It does not require a church leader to inform police if the complainant is over 18 (reporting abuse that happened when under 18) and does not wish it to be reported to police. It is the responsibility of church leaders to be familiar with the mandatory reporting laws in their own jurisdiction and then follow those laws. That is a matter of obedience to what Scripture says in Rom. 13:1. Sexual abuse is a crime and it needs to be dealt with as such by the civil authorities in the way they have laid out. If a church member was murdered by another church member, would you keep it in-house, even for a short while? Know the law, follow the law.
Protection is Paramount
Whatever policies or procedures are developed should always keep in mind the safety not only of the complainant, but also of others potentially at risk. “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the second great commandment according to our Lord in Matt. 22:39. This means that just as we instinctively protect ourselves from harm, so we should also protect others. Certainly that means giving thought to how we protect the most vulnerable among us. We need a perspective of protection.
As a rule, when there are allegations of sexual abuse involving a congregation member, the church leadership should inform the congregation in a timely and well-considered manner. Church leaders would do well to coordinate the dissemination of that information with law enforcement laying charges (since charges are only laid when there is a strong likelihood of conviction). Transparency not only prevents gossip and speculation, it also serves for the protection of the congregation. They have the right to know if there is potentially a sexual predator in their midst. They also ought to know the identity of the accused, but not the victim. According to one counsellor, suppression orders do not apply to public church announcements in a worship service (at least in Australia), although they do apply to written communications. Churches may and must announce the name of the accused, but the victim should never be identified. Furthermore, before any announcement is made, it should be discussed with the complainant (or with the complainant’s parents if he/she is a minor). The accused should also be informed of the announcement to be made. Afterwards, there should also be regular updates about the progress of the matter.
Transparency also means being clear and accurate in our language. Sometimes church leaders will soft-pedal matters: “A brother has been accused of having sex [or worse: inappropriate relations] with a girl.” No, he has been accused of rape and that is the word that should be used. Call sin what it is. And again, he should be named. If he has confessed to it, then that should also be mentioned.
Choose to Take the Victim Seriously
According to Michael Kruger in his recent book Bully Pulpit, “…the percentage of false accusations in cases of sexual abuse hovers between 2 percent and 7 percent. And given that most abuse cases are not reported, the actual percentage is probably lower still” (p.88). Think of the enormous price that complainants often have to pay for coming forward – it is a huge risk. Therefore, church leaders ought to choose to take complainants seriously. Taking them seriously means being respectful and careful with our conversations. Do not ask things like, “What were you wearing?” Or do not say, even to yourself, “There are always two sides to the story.” And certainly do not say, “Why don’t you just forgive and get over it?” Respect the victim and do more listening than talking. Finally, in cases of historic sexual abuse, it is not helpful or necessary to ask, “It’s been so long, why come forward now?” Every victim has their reasons and it is not your place to judge or evaluate them.
To Serve the Victim Best, Get Trauma-Informed
Sexual abuse involves trauma, even if it was experienced once. According to the American Psychological Association:
Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships, and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.
Many church leaders have made blunders in dealing with sexual abuse victims because they did not understand the complexities of trauma. If someone in your care has been abused, it serves their best interest for you to get the best understanding you can of trauma so that they are not hurt further. Two recommended books: Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (particularly the first three chapters).
Do Not Neglect the Care of Victims
It can sometimes be difficult and awkward, but church leaders should never ignore the pastoral needs of the abused person, especially as these may be long-term. According to Pierre and Wilson (When Home Hurts), a good rule of thumb for church leaders is “to move faster with caring for victims, and slower with correcting perpetrators” (pp.83-84). Once a perpetrator goes through the legal system, there’s a temptation for church leaders to think that the matter is finished. But it is not finished for the victim. He or she will have no choice but to continue to wrestle with it. They will need your loving spiritual nurture. You ought also to be willing to facilitate provision of third-party professional counselling to deal with the trauma.
For church members who are not in leadership, you also have a responsibility. One survivor told me,
The worst thing you can say is nothing to brethren you know are suffering. It’s not a competition between a perpetrator in the church and their victim, but if you only have the capacity to drop one meal over, to only say one prayer, etc. – make it to the victim over the perpetrator.
Again, do not forget that this is going to be an ongoing issue for the victim, often involving difficult mental health struggles. A Christian counsellor commented:
As a church community we are in a unique and blessed position to help those who are suffering. We can help to be the healing balm needed…If you do not know what to say, say nothing – just be present and honest. It is okay to say, “I am sorry to hear about this pain, I don’t know what to say, but I am here for you and with you.”
A recommended resource for churches: Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused, ed. Brad Hambrick.
Matthew 18 Does Not Apply
To expect an abuse victim to confront her abuser in the manner of Matt. 18:15-17 is both foolish and unbiblical. As Michael Kruger notes (pp.82-83), a few verses later Jesus tells the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. The servant abuses his fellow servant by choking him and then throwing him into prison. The matter isn’t dealt with by the principle of Matt. 18:15-17. Instead, the other servants go straight to the king. As Kruger says, Matt. 18:15-17 should not be “treated like a universal cure that can be applied to every situation” (p.82). Insisting that victims (including children) have to confront their abusers is foolish because it ignores the power dynamics of abuse. Because abuse by its nature involves an imbalance of power, a victim is going to be further traumatized by being forced to confront her abuser. Why would a church leader torture one of his sheep like that? Is that what Christ would do?
No Quick Repentance for Abusers
Sexual abuse is a serious sin. Those who are accused of this serious sin should be dealt with pastorally. Sometimes abusers will quickly confess and claim to repent. Church leaders should give ample time (normally months, at least) to see whether this repentance is genuine. Professionals recommend that church leaders should take things slowly with abusers. In Is It Abuse? Darby Strickland writes about men who perpetrate domestic violence, but what she says here is equally applicable to sexual abusers:
As you engage the oppressor [or abuser], you will want to lay out concrete ways for him to do battle with an entrenched sin pattern (such as by going to counselling, attending an abusive men’s group, reading, confessing, praying with overseers, or putting on humble and servant-like behaviours). The more detail you provide regarding what is required of him, the more it can be used later on to assess firsthand how teachable, broken, and earnest he is becoming. So be sure to create specific benchmarks that will help you to measure his progress. (p.209)
Whatever we do, it can never be a simple matter of, “He admits it. He has confessed to God and asked for forgiveness. So he’s clearly repentant. Let’s move on.” That approach cheapens repentance and does the abuser no good. It is theologically irresponsible and amounts to pastoral malpractice.
Withholding from the Lord’s Supper
Elders ought to ask anyone accused of sexual abuse, but who professes innocence, to nonetheless voluntarily withhold himself from the Lord’s Supper. This is not disciplinary, but a wise precaution until such time as his guilt or innocence can be established. If no clear conclusion is reached within a reasonable period of time, this measure would be reassessed by the consistory.
In the case of an accused abuser who professes his guilt, he ought to be immediately withheld from the sacrament. Like with other serious sins, this censure ought to remain in place until such time that there is a repentance which can be judged to be sincere. This is for several reasons. First, elders are responsible to ensure the Lord’s Supper is not profaned by unrepentant members. Judging true repentance takes time. Second, elders are responsible to ensure the abuser does not heap further judgment upon himself. Finally, the elders are responsible for the other members of the congregation who may be scandalized by the attendance of an abuser and thus unable to partake of the sacrament in the way intended. Imagine if you are a sexual abuse survivor and you have to partake of the sacrament with someone who has just recently admitted sexual abuse. Or imagine that you are the one who has been sexually abused by that person and you have to watch him partake of the sacrament. It is pastorally irresponsible to allow it.
A complainant should not normally be withheld from the Lord’s Supper. This is not your average vanilla conflict between church members. This is someone we believe to have been hurt and is in need of Christ’s love through the sacrament. In the case of a communicant member, you would only add to the hurt by preventing her from partaking in Christ’s body and blood. If an abuse victim is struggling with her emotions towards her abuser, this is not necessarily reason to withhold her. It can be difficult for an abuse survivor to untangle anger towards what happened to her from who did it to her. Moreover, we do not withhold people from the table who are genuinely struggling. Because this is so complex, it is normally best to leave participation in the Lord’s Supper to the victim’s conscience.
Any church confronted with sexual abuse ought to learn from its experience to develop policies. Regardless, every church should have policies in place to prevent sexual abuse in the church community. Every church ought to have guidelines for how they will respond to future allegations, including allegations against church leaders. Those guidelines ought to include consideration of when it is best to involve independent third-party investigators. Consider whether there should be policies regarding attendance at public worship of convicted (or even accused) sex offenders. Finally, if they do not already have one, denominations/federations should consider the benefits of a Safe Church program – like that of the Christian Reformed Churches of Australia. That would go a long way to ensuring that policies are consistent across the entire denomination/church federation.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” — Matthew 18:6