What Churches Need to Know about Sexual Crimes

What Churches Need to Know about Sexual Crimes February 22, 2019

In light of the Baptist sex abuse scandal, as well as the Catholic sex abuse scandal, and the realization that these transgressions can likely be found in other church bodies, it occurs to me that many church people are ignorant or naive about the civil laws regarding sexual crimes.

Churches also have problems with sexual morality–adultery, fornication–but the state has no interest in those sins.  Churches need to address those too.  God’s moral law goes beyond that of the state.  Not just actions but thoughts (Matt 5:28) and words (Eph 5:4) are subject to God’s judgment.  Churches must find ways to uphold Biblical sexual morality among clergy and all their members.  That is a different topic.

The scandals in the news have to do with crimes.  Things that you can go to jail for.  Or be put on a sex offender registry for the rest of your life.

While the civil law as enforced by the state may not be as comprehensive as God’s moral law, do not assume that just because the “culture” or the “secular world” seems so sexually permissive that the society’s laws are not strict.  They are.  And they bear witness to the larger moral reality that God built into His creation and the human heart (Rom 2:15).  Recall to that God uses the civil authorities to carry out His wrath on evildoers (Rom 13:4).

So here are aspects of the civil law that churches need to be aware of as they work to prevent these crimes from happening and reporting them and dealing with them if they do.

Sexual Assault

Most of the sexual abuse crimes coming to light have to do with sexual assault.  Like manslaughter, this offense occurs in different degrees, ranging from groping to rape.  Here is a definition from the National Center for Victims of Crime:

Sexual assault takes many forms including attacks such as rape or attempted rape, as well as any unwanted sexual contact or threats. Usually a sexual assault occurs when someone touches any part of another person’s body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person’s consent.

Yes, inappropriate touching is a form of sexual assault.  It constitutes a crime.

Specific classifications vary from state to state.  Here is a site that gives the laws regarding sexual assault from every state.

Minors Can Not Give Consent

If a person is under 18 years of age, she or he is not legally able to consent to sexual activity.  That means that any time an adult has sex with someone under 18, that constitutes rape.

“But she wanted to do it!” a youth worker involved with a 16-year-old might say. “She seduced me!”  “We are in love!” “It was consensual!”  No it wasn’t.  By law, a 16-year-old cannot consent.  The adult who had sex with her committed statutory rape.

Similarly, any time an adult sexually touches a child, including a teenager under 18, that constitutes sexual assault.

Children may not be used sexually in any way.  Doing so is a heinous crime–usually a special category of sexual assault–and is harshly punished.  And rightly so.

Sexual Harassment

Though this is sometimes categorized as a type of sexual assault, sexual harassment is a federal offense and is usually handled somewhat differently.  Sexual harassment has to do with what goes on at work.  The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines the law, which is  violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, like this:

 “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature constitutes sexual harassment when submission to or rejection of this conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment.

Here is another description from a useful legal fact sheet about the provision:

The law defines sexual harassment as, unwelcome verbal, visual, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature or based on someone’s sex that is severe or pervasive and affects working conditions or creates a hostile work environment.

The office–much less the church office!–is not an appropriate place for sexual teasing, dirty jokes, or physical comments.  This is especially true if such talk comes from a supervisor.  More overt sexual overtures–such as asking for sexual favors or promising some benefit if the worker will do something sexual or threatening a worker if she won’t comply sexually–can constitute sexual extortion, another serious sex crime.

Reporting Sexual Misconduct

Sexual assault, like other crimes, should be reported to the police.   The victim of a sexual assault or the parents of a victimized minor should be encouraged to call the police.  Yes, it is sometimes hard to make that step.  Here is a hot-line for victims to call, which will give her confidential counseling and legal advice about her options.

When children are sexually assaulted, the police should always be called.  There are reporting laws that make it a crime not to report the suspected physical or sexual abuse of a child.  Those who work with children, such as teachers, are legally required to report any evidence of child abuse.  Eighteen states have laws requiring anyone who becomes aware of a case of child abuse to report it.

Victims of sexual assault will often complain to another authority, which is also appropriate.  A parent of a child used sexually  in Youth Group might tell the pastor.  A parishioner used sexually by a pastor might contact an elder or ecclesiastical supervisor.  Though the person in authority might confront the person who was accused, the person trying to deal with the matter must remember that at issue is a crime.  It isn’t necessarily that person’s job to conduct a thorough investigation to determine whether or not the crime took place.  That is what the police are trained to do.  That is their calling.

Yes, pastors, elders, and ecclesiastical supervisors must deal with the church discipline issues.  But the civil authorities also must be brought in to deal with civil offenses.  Failure to call the police can lead to charges of cover-up and of not taking sexual abuse seriously, as many churches and church leaders are discovering.

Sexual harassment in the workplace, including the church workplace, is usually a matter for federal enforcement and the civil courts rather than the police, as such, though the police would put the person who complained in touch with the proper agency.  Here is a way for a victim of sexual harassment to proceed.

The person who believes she or he was sexually harassed generally complains to the perpetrator’s supervisor, if there is one.  Organizations, including churches, should have policies and procedures put in place for how to deal with such complaints.  Supervisors must deal with such complaints forcefully, to the point of dismissing the perpetrator.

Here is a template for churches to use in developing their sexual harassment policies, prepared by the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod.

The LCMS has also published a useful booklet entitled Sexual Harassment and Misconduct:  Preventing a #ChurchToo Experience.

Care for the Victims

You would think it would be needless to say, but maybe it isn’t, that sexual abuse of any kind has no place in church.  But pastors, congregations, and denominations must be vigilant against such wickedness.

And when there are victims of such abuse, they need compassion and care.  Those who are sinned against are often not only traumatized by what happened, but they often feel a strange sense of shame, even though they are innocent.

I have heard of churches that pressure the person who was sinned against to forgive her tormentor.  In at least one case I heard of, the perpetrator was restored because he asked for forgiveness and his victim was excommunicated because she wouldn’t forgive him!  Maybe at some point in her spiritual life, she might come to the point of being able to extend forgiveness, but she shouldn’t be coerced or guilted into doing so.  The victim’s forgiveness, like God’s, must be a free gift.

But now we are getting into matters of church discipline.  I would just say that the church needs to take these sexual transgressions even more seriously than the state does.  And the state takes them very seriously indeed.

Later, I’ll post about some of the theological issues involved.


Illustration by geralt via Pixabay, Creative Commons



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