The FIRST Thing Clergy Should Do When Suspecting Sexual Abuse (Or Anyone, Actually)

The priest at the church with raised hand

Yesterday various media outlets broke the story that Josh Duggar, eldest son on the show 19 Kids And Counting, had sexually abused multiple girls. As I read the reports and emerging details, I realized how “typical” this situation was to what I have seen in real life in Christian circles: sexual abuse within a family is often handled as a private “family matter” or occasionally as a “church matter” even though sexual abuse is neither of these things- at least not singularly these things.

Sexual abuse is a serious crime and is not something that can ever be handled as a private family matter or as an internal church matter.

The unfolding of the Duggar story is most troubling because it seems that Josh’s habitual sexual assaults were handled privately- first as a private family matter, and then a church matter. Yes, authorities did get involved at some stage in the story– but clearly it was a stage that was way, way too late. Additional girls had already been assaulted by this time (sexual predators will often keep moving on to the next vulnerable victim), and ultimately the statute of limitations for prosecution had expired (why abusing kids has a 3 year statute of limitations is beyond me).

I’ve seen sexual abuse be handled this exact same way in other cases as well– from the family “secret” so many keep, to a matter of “church discipline” (which often results in the victim being forced to “forgive” the predator who is often freed to prey again), sexual abuse is chronically mishandled in the Christian community. From Catholics to Protestants to everyone in between, we’re horrible at dealing with sexual abuse appropriately.

The reality is however, that sexual abuse is never a private family matter and it’s never a matter for your church to handle internally. Sexual abuse is serious.

A good verse to remember in situations like these is “Give to Caesar that which is Caesar’s” (Mark 12:17) which reminds us that yes, some things belong to us– but some things belong to the civil government as well. Managing a case of sexual abuse is not one of those issues that’s simply an ecclesiastical or family issue– handling sexual abuse is one of those things we must render to the civil authorities. Yes, we can come alongside the civil authorities and the Church can be engaged on the matter (as it should), but to handle something as serious as child sexual abuse “in house” is a failure to give to Caesar what belongs to him.

And in doing so, we have often destroyed lives- enabling abusers, covering up for abusers, and forcing victims to be re-traumatized and re-abused while allowing sex predators to roam the church like a lion, “seeking whom they may devour.”

So what’s the first thing a member of the clergy should do when suspecting or learning of a case of sexual abuse? You immediately notify the appropriate civil authorities, that’s what.

The notification of authorities is one of those “do not pass go, do not collect $200” type of moments in the world of sexual abuse of children– it must be done, and it must be done immediately. It is not on you to investigate a report, to try to substantiate a report, or to try to manage the situation– the primary thing we must do in those scenarios is report, report, report.

In the case of the Duggars, it appears their church leadership did not do that– a move that was not only inappropriate, but is actually illegal. Approximately 28 states, including Arkansas, place members of the clergy in the category of “mandated reporters.” That simply means that if one suspects or learns of sexual abuse (or any other type of abuse), they are legally mandated to report it to the civil authorities. Beyond a moral obligation to report abuse, the chances are you have a legal obligation to report abuse as well.

Even if you’re not a member of the clergy or in another profession that is legally required to report abuse, please do it anyway– because that’s what decent human beings do.

Pick up the phone, and report it- no matter how uncomfortable that makes you– because you may just help limit a predator’s wake of destroyed lives.

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