Child Sexual Abuse and the limits of pastoral confidentiality

Child Sexual Abuse and the limits of pastoral confidentiality November 19, 2012

The subject of child sexual abuse is never far from our newspapers these days. As Christians, and especially as church leaders, I do believe that our duties are very clear morally. Although I am not a lawyer, I understand that in most jurisdictions they are also pretty clear legally.

If you are a pastor reading this you would do well to dig out your church’s child protection policy and make sure it is up to date, workable, and compliant with your local legal requirements, as well as moral imperatives. In the UK one body you can turn to for help is the Churches Child Protection Advisory Service. A list of resources that are useful in an American context is found on the Southern Baptist Convention website.

Of course, having a piece of paper is one thing, ensuring it is understood and followed by all your staff and volunteers is another.

One area where churches have in the past got into trouble is when approached for pastoral counseling to agree to total confidentiality with no limits on that. Clearly such a blanket promise not to tell anybody what is shared under any circumstances is unwise and has no place in today’s church. There should be important limits on confidentiality that are not just connected with child abuse.

About a year ago Al Mohler wrote the following in response to the Penn State child abuse scandal:

The moral and legal responsibility of every Christian — and especially every Christian leader and minister — must be to report any suspicion of the abuse of a child to law enforcement authorities. Christians are sometimes reluctant to do this, but this reluctance is both deadly and wrong.

Sometimes Christians are reluctant to report suspected sexual abuse because they do not feel that they know enough about the situation. They are afraid of making a false accusation. This is the wrong instinct. We do not have the ability to conduct the kind of investigation that is needed, nor is this assigned to the church. This is the function of government as instituted by God (Romans 13). Waiting for further information allows a predator to continue and puts children at risk. This is itself an immoral act that needs to be seen for what it is.

A Christian hearing a report of sexual abuse within a church, Christian organization, or Christian school, needs to act in exactly the same manner called for if the abuse is reported in any other context. The church and Christian organizations must not become safe places for abusers. These must be safe places for children, and for all. Any report of sexual abuse must lead immediately to action. That action cannot fall short of contacting law enforcement authorities. A clear lesson of the Penn State scandal is this: Internal reporting is simply not enough.

After law enforcement authorities have been notified, the church must conduct its own work of pastoral ministry, care, and church discipline. This is the church’s responsibility and charge. But these essential Christian ministries and responsibilities are not substitutes for the proper function of law enforcement authorities and the legal system. As Christians, we respect those authorities because we are commanded to do so.


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  • Nicholas

    Al Mohler is not the man to quote when it comes to the issue of reporting child abuse. Please consider his actual conduct here:

    • Phillip Maitland

      In connection with this at the recent Southern Baptist Convention, the following amendment was passed, also receiving publicity on Fox TV.

      “RESOLVED: that we encourage all denominational leaders and employees of the Southern Baptist Convention to utilize the highest
      sense of discernment in affiliating with groups and/or individuals that
      possess questionable policies and practices in protecting our children from criminal abuse”

      Objectively, this was in response to the allegations of child sexual abuse in Sovereign Grace Ministries and allegations of a conspiracy to cover this up by the leader CJ Maheney. As indicated, by Peter
      Lumpkins when interviewed on the Janet Mefferd radio show, the decision to pen this resolution was made after reading the second amended complaint against C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries. It is also in the context of CJ Mahaney being defended by associates such as Al Molher who posted on the internet the incorrect view that the allegations against C.J. Mahaney were really an attack on evangelical Christianity. i.e. were not being take seriously as allegations in their own right.

      In relation those defending C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries I can discern three main arguments for trying to halt any legal process or enquiry:

      It is too late and the events occurred so long ago that they should not be considered in a legal framework: This includes the so called statute of limitations which was used to halt the SGM case and is now being appealed. It should be noted that different States apply different standards concerning implementation of the statute of limitations and this might not have been the outcome elsewhere. An interesting comparison can be made with the BBC in the UK where clear child sexual abuse
      took place perpetrated by BBC personalities and employees. The BBC are not taking the view that it was too long ago to consider and have instituted an enquiry on this matter – the Dame Janet Smith review – and a number of people have been investigated by the police recently, and just recently a well known sports presented has pleaded guilty.

      It violates the USA first amendment which enshrines freedom of religion: This is used as a main form of defense against the allegations by Sovereign Grace Ministries. Freedom of religious should stop a legal progress occurring concerning alleged child sexual abuse. This was not tested in court but may be if the appeal is successful.

      People had different views on how to deal with child sexual abuse in the past and they should not be judged by present standards: However, this ignores the fact that the law regarding this issue has been in place a long time and the need to report any crime in this respect to the police. There is no excuse on the basis of being naive or covering up child sexual abuse by not reporting it to the police. In recent history there never has been. To take the BBC comparison, nobody is arguing that the sexual abuse that took place in the 1970s-1980s and the fact that people did not act can be excused on this basis.

  • Nicholas

    And concerning the SBC’s actual conduct, go here:

    • I don’t know the details of what may or may not have gone on in the past under a different understanding of the relative priority of confidentiality. But i do see a wealth of materials on the page i linked to on the SBC website which support the view I expressed in this article.

      We have to remember society has changed massively in its attitude to this issue in recent years. Churches ought to be at the forefront of those changes but as inherently conservative organizations sometimes haven’t. In the past some churches have also been too naive in their handling of apparently penitent perpetrators but that is a whole other story! Churches must absolutely stop trying to do the job of the authorities in these situations.

  • There are thorny problems, here, but there is a reasonable counterweight: sinners must be able to confess their sins *as such* without concern for whether they should also call their lawyers. That is, their confession of sin should not *automatically* take away from them the option to begin their penance by confessing their crimes and willingly suffering punishment; and their confession of possible sin, or thoughts of sin, or uncertainty how to respond to sin, should not be burdened with concerns that legal processes are *automatically* going to follow. Thus the absolute secrecy of the confessional, which nonetheless does not bind workers in church ministries and pastoral ministry from their legal (and ecclesial–I’ve signed a diocesan volunteer agreement, and it’s quite clear on the subject) *obligation* to take all necessary administrative *AND* legal steps to protect the vulnerable. The correct answer to this question is both/and, not either/or.

  • Alison

    Churches in the United States are required to follow the protocol for reporting set up in their state. Different states have different protocol, but most of them have become significantly more stringent in the past year because of the Penn State debacle. In some states you are required to call the police first. In other states you are required to call social services first, have them investigate, and if the charges are true, they contact the police. If the abuse occurred before the laws went into effect, that is a different issue altogether.