How Should Churches Handle Allegations of Abuse?

by Bruce Gerencser cross posted from his blog The Way Forward

First of all, churches shouldn’t “handle” anything.  This is what gets churches, pastors, and church leaders into trouble to start with. Instead of immediately doing the right thing when someone makes an allegation of abuse they often:

  • Consult with the pastor
  • Consult with the deacons or some other church board
  • Call a denominational leader and ask what they should do
  • Consult with a few church members to chart a course of action
  • Pray about it
  • Seek out counsel from other pastors
  • Wait to see if the “problem” goes away
  • Interrogate the individual or the person making the allegation
  • Investigate the “character” of the person making the allegation

All of these things are the WRONG thing to do. Far too often, the church or pastor is more concerned about protecting the church’s testimony in the community than they are protecting the person who might have been abused. This often comes off to the community as the church being more interested in its own reputation rather than ending and prosecuting any abuse that might be going on.

In most states, pastors and church leaders are required by law to report suspected abuse. It is not up to the church or the pastor to decide if the allegation is valid.  That’s what the police, prosecutor, and child protective services are for.  They will investigate and act accordingly. Even in cases where the abuse took place years before, once a church or a pastor has knowledge of the allegation they have a moral and ethical responsibility to report it. A failure to do so can, in many states, leave the church or pastor criminally liable. (and I wish more prosecutors would charge and prosecute pastors and church leaders for failing to report)

Once an allegation has become common knowledge, it is in the church’s best interest to make a public statement about the allegation. Yes, it is up to the police and the courts to determine guilt, but the church can state exactly what they have done in response to the allegation. They can further state what they will do to make sure that abuse does not happen in the future. It is not ENOUGH to just tell the church, the board, or write a generic letter to church members.

I know of one church that has had several problems with sexual abuse in their bus ministry. The pastor of the church has never fully disclosed to the church the complete details of what happened. Outside of several news stories, the public has no idea about what the church did or didn’t do.  The pastor says to the church, trust me and he says to the world, it is none of your business.  Yet, this same pastor and his church go out into the “highways and hedges” and try to get people to come to the church.

Churches like this want people to come to their church and they want people to trust them.  However, the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church, the Evangelical church, the IFB church, and countless unaffiliated churches, is a poignant reminder that no one should, by default, trust a church or a pastor. I for one, would not let my children or grandchildren out of my sight while attending church. I know too much and I have heard too many stories. If this makes me untrusting, cynical, or jaded, so be it. Better to be this way than naïvely turn people I love over to people I don’t really know in the hope that they are what they say they are.

Some churches give the illusion that their church is safe. They tell new families, we do criminal background checks on every worker in the church. While this is certainly a good idea, a one time background check accomplishes what? If the person has never been arrested or convicted of a crime, their background check would come back clean.  Background checks are little more than a band-aid over a festering sore.

I know of one pastor who refuses to do background checks. His rationale for refusing to do them? After a person is saved, their past sins are “under the blood.”  The person, no matter what they have done in the past, is completely forgiven by God. (after all, God forgave Paul, the murderer and David, the adulterer/murderer, right?) This kind of naïve thinking is why churches are havens for predators. It is not hard to stand before a church and give a wonderful testimony of God’s saving grace, yet be a predator. It is quite easy to learn the lingo. My family and I could dress up this Sunday, go to church, and every one of us would likely be considered wonderful Christians. We know the talk, the walk, the songs. We know how to do Evangelical. Yet, in REAL life we are atheists, agnostics, Catholics, and Buddhists and most of us are, shudder to think of it, Democrats.  Anyone who has spent any time at all  in church can easily FAKE it.

But, Bruce, the Holy Spirit will let the church know they aren’t real Christians. Do you really want to trust the welfare of the church children and teenagers to the Holy Spirit?  Are you really saying that a Christian could NOT be a pedophile, abuser, or predator? (and if you are a Baptist, please explain this to me in light of your “once saved, always saved” belief)

I am often asked about how I handled abuse allegations when I was a pastor. Simple. I reported them each and every time. When I heard an allegation of abuse, even if it was a second-hand report, I immediately called Children’s Services.  Years ago, we had a couple with a baby living in our church basement. (they had been homeless) One day I came into the basement and the baby was screaming uncontrollably. I went to check on the child and I asked the mother why the child was screaming. She told me she didn’t know. I suggested she should take care of the child. Her reply? When she was done eating she would get around to it.  This, along with several other things I had noticed, was enough for me. I called Children’s Services and they came out the next day to investigate. The couple was told that any further complaints would result in them losing the child. They knew I had reported them and were furious. Me? I couldn’t have cared less about what they thought. The baby was who mattered.

We operated a bus ministry for many years. There were several instances where abuse was suspected and I reported it. In one case, a grown woman was throwing booze and sex parties for the church teens. When I found out about it I told their parents and reported the woman. It was a no-brainer, even if every boy in the church thought the parties were wonderful.

Years ago, well everything is years ago now, I helped my father-in-law start a church. One day, one of our church families had their infant suddenly die. It was ruled as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. Weeks after the death, the father came to my father-in-law and confessed that he had shaken the baby to death. My father-in-law came to me and asked what he should do since the man told him this in confidence. I told him he had to report it to the police. He did and the man went to prison.

When I was counseling people, I made it clear that if they were going to confess to abuse or a felony that I was obligated to report it. I have never believed that what is said in confidence must always remain so. When a young man confessed to me that he had murdered his girlfriend, I encouraged him to turn himself in and then I let the police know what he had told me. I later gave a sworn affidavit in the case, Fortunately, the man pled guilty and I did not have to testify.

Granted, these are exceptional circumstances. The people I pastored knew they could trust me with their secrets. As long as their secrets didn’t involve abuse or a felony, their secrets were safe with me. People often have a need to unburden themselves from past actions and “sins” and talking to a pastor or a priest or a good friend is often exactly what they need to do so. When people write me and tell me their stories I always let them know their correspondence with me will be kept confidential. However, if they confess to murdering their spouse or molesting a child in the church, I would report it immediately,

This does not make me a saint. As a pastor and as a human being I have many faults. However, when it comes to dealing with abuse and helping those who have been abused, I am always on the side of the abused. My mother was sexually abused as a child, raped by a brother-in-law, and sexually molested by a Christian psychiatrist. (and they all got away with it)  I have a dear family member who was sexually abused by an IFB family member. (their abuser has been in prison for 20 years)  Add to this the horror stories I heard counseling church members and the emails I now receive from people who have been abused, I hope you will forgive me if I am passionate about this issue.

ohio yellow license plate

As far as I am concerned, it is quite simple for churches or pastors when it comes to how to handle allegations of abuse. REPORT IT IMMEDIATELY. Then take steps to make sure that abuse does not happen in the future. It is tragic that some churches are magnets for abusers. It seems every few years a church member, a pastor, a deacon, a youth pastor, a bus worker, or a Sunday School teacher is being accused of abuse.  Perhaps churches like this should be forced to have the equivalent of what we have here in Ohio. Some judges require people convicted of DUI to get yellow license plates. These plate stand out and everyone know their crime. Perhaps repeat offender churches need some sort of yellow license plate that warns the public that the church has been a haven for abusers or predators.

[Editorial Note: This article is written from the premise that the Bible is not the authoritative last word for faith and practice. If you are not one of those readers, please be understanding of the intended audience and refrain from commenting on whether the Bible should be taken as such. Please show some respect for the writer and others of their faith or own belief/nonbelief by discussing the topic, rather than questioning whether the topic is one that even should be discussed or attacking the author. We try to be supportive of everyone coming out of abusive theology and Religious Trauma Syndrome. For more info on the site please visit - Is NLQ an Atheist Website?]

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Read everything by Bruce Gerencser!

Spiritual Abuse Survivor Blogs Network member, Bruce Gerencser blogs at The Way Forward.

Bruce Gerencser spent 25 years pastoring Independent Fundamental Baptist, Southern Baptist, and Christian Union churches in Ohio, Michigan, and Texas. Bruce attended Midwestern Baptist College in Pontiac, Michigan. He is a writer and operates The Way Forward blog. Bruce lives in NW Ohio with his wife of 35 years. They have 6 children, and nine grandchildren.

NLQ Recommended Reading …

Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment‘ by Janet Heimlich

Quivering Daughters‘ by Hillary McFarland

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement‘ by Kathryn Joyce

 

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