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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