Like any other institution churches are susceptible to the twin plagues of the abuse of power and sexual misconduct. How should a church respond when such things are alleged or exposed?
- We need to acknowledge to ourselves and publicly that the problems of abuse (child sexual abuse, rape, physical abuse and clergy sexual abuse) are not just out there; they are also in here with us.
- We need to approach this work carefully and with great humility. Churches often have little to no education about these matters. Most seminaries never speak about abuse. We have not invited victims to tell us their stories and learned from them. We have not been taught about offenders and how they work. We have not developed policies and safeguards for the children under our care. We teach about God, marriage, sex and parenting but we do not usually include the topics of sexual abuse, rape or domestic violence.
- We often assume that when sin occurs in a relationship it is always a 50-50 proposition. We have assumed that with rape, domestic violence, verbal abuse and with clergy or counselor sexual abuse. We look for an external cause for sin. “I hit her because she…”
The Bible does not support the assumption of an external cause. Jesus said that it is out of our hearts that evil proceeds. Abuse is an exposure of the abuser’s heart, not the victims.
- One of the things both research and experience make very clear about those who offend is that they deceive themselves about their actions, their motives, about the victim and about the impact of their behavior. They have habituated deceit. That means that the words and tears of the offender are never sufficient indicators of the reality of what is going on inside his/her mind and heart. Such deception is very entrenched and slow to change. An abusive person can eventually lose the capacity to discern truth from lies. Because of that, we must not just be concerned with protecting the vulnerable from the offender but also with protecting the offender from himself. Proverbs 1:18, 19 says, “They ambush their own lives…violence takes away the life of the possessor.” When we do not understand the level of deceit we make it is easy for the offender to continue in deception and sadly, often call it “grace”. If it lacks truth then it is not grace. If we love the abuser we will know that one of the most powerful weapons of deception for a pastor or church goer to use is the use of spiritual language. We will not be deceived.
- When abuse is alleged or exposed you are working with a devastated victim and most likely a family, as well. Abuse of any kind is shattering to the victim and to those who care for her/him. Victims need safe people to walk with them for an extended time, not to instruct, but to be with them in their confusion, fears and suffering. We cannot “instruct” victims out of the damage of abuse. We can patiently accompany then on a difficult journey.
- The church is called by God to tend his lambs. We are not called to protect our institutions nor do we protect the name of the God of truth by covering up sin and/or a crime. To do so is to “protect” the cancer – and cancer kills. We honor God by caring for the wounded and by dragging sin to the light and calling it by its right name.
- Keep in mind that to be a predator is to be a deceiver. That means there are some in our midst who do not look like what they are and because we are unaware of any known cases does not mean we are safe. Protecting our children and all vulnerable ones should be part of the DNA of the church since we are called, like our Lord, to protect His lambs. “Let the little ones come and forbid them not…” should be part of all that we do. To fail to be watchful on their behalf – be they children or adults – is to fail to be like Him.
- Both humility and wisdom ask for help when facing a new and complex situation.
- If a child discloses any form of neglect or abuse (sexual, verbal or emotional) the first and immediate response is to call the civil authorities. A failure to report abuse is a crime and subject to fines and/or jail time depending on the state.
- The investigation of a report of any kind of abuse requires an experienced and independent investigator or organization (e.g., www.netgrace.org ). Independent means not from the circles in which the abuse occurred. Choose someone who has no investment in hiding whatever truth is found or in getting a particular outcome other than what is true.
- When considering an investigator(s) or organization ask questions about previous work – with whom, outcomes, and the response of victims.
- Those chosen to investigate must be known to have credibility with victims. They must be known for protecting people over institutions. The investigative body is not there to protect the institution but to deal with abuse disclosures and protect the vulnerable.
- The experts should have documented history in abuse/rape investigations or as prosecutors in abuse trials. An investigative organization should be comprised of individuals from multiple disciplines e.g., law enforcement, professional counselors and lawyers. It is also best to hire those who understand the dynamics of a faith-based institution or church.
- If possible speak with or hear from victims (anonymously if needed) about their experience with the investigator. Victims are by definition vulnerable and require protection. Safety is often at risk for children and for those in violent relationships. If they do not trust the investigator, find another one or your investigation will have no credibility.
- Inquire about the investigators’ training in the nature and impact of abuse, the patterns of abusers and also how they work with those who have experienced abuse.
- Ask the investigators if they have the experience and expertise to help implement the recommendations they make to the church or organization as a result of the independent investigation. Ask to see examples of previous recommendations and how they were implemented.
- The investigators should also have expertise and experience in when and how they confront alleged perpetrators as well as how to inform a congregation or organization without doing further damage, releasing confidential information or doing further damage to the victim.
- Caregivers for the victim (and the victim’s family) need to have knowledge of abuse and its effects and how to walk alongside during and long after the process. It is advisable to have people in the church (both men and women) who have read about abuse and perhaps gotten some training from professionals.
- It is also recommended that pastoral staff – prior to a crisis – look into local professionals with training and experience in abuse and trauma. Meeting with them and asking about their training is a wise way for a shepherd to care for his sheep prior to an emergency. The church plays a vital and necessary role. So do professionals. The work of healing from the damage of abuse is difficult and often protracted. Trained and licensed counselors with experience in this area are needed so as not to create further damage. Their role is critical.
- Finally, abuse of any kind is deeply damaging to victims as well as for many others in their world. The people of God are called by him to name things in truth, to sorrow with the sorrowing, to help free the oppressed and to comfort the grieving. Sadly, we often fail to follow him in these ways. I pray that we as his people learn how to demonstrate in the flesh before a watching world that our God loves truth and is a true and certain refuge for his sheep.