How should churches handle allegations of abuse? Let me state right up front that I do not think churches should “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, pastors and church members 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
- Bury the “problem” in the deepest sea, never to be seen again
All of these things are the WRONG things to do. Period. End of debate. No discussion. Far too often, the church or pastor is more concerned about protecting the church’s testimony in the community than protecting the person who might have been abused. As a result, it often appears to the community that the church is more interested in its own reputation 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 true. 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, both have a moral, ethical, and legal 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 has been 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 rape and 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 in response to the abuse. The pastor says to the church members, trust me, and he says to the world, it is none of your business.
Churches like this want people to come to their church and they want people to trust them. However, the sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church, the Evangelical church, the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist (IFB) church, and countless unaffiliated churches, are 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. (Please see Black Collar Crime Series.) If this makes me untrusting, cynical, or jaded, so be it. Better to be this way than naïvely turn people I love over to someone I don’t really know in the hope that they are what they say they are.
Some churches give the illusion that their place of worship 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, his or her 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, past sins are “under the blood.” The person, no matter what he or she may have done in the past, is completely forgiven by God (after all, God forgave 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 congregation and give a wonderful testimony of God’s saving grace, yet be a child molester. It is quite easy to learn religious lingo. My family and I could dress up this Sunday, go to church, and everyone would likely think we are 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 church children and teenagers to the Holy Spirit? Are you really saying that a Christian could NOT be a pedophile, abuser, or predator?
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 of an allegation of abuse, even if it was a second-hand report, I immediately called Children’s Services or law enforcement. 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 they were furious. Me? I couldn’t have cared less about what they thought. It was the baby 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, an older woman was throwing booze and sex parties for 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 (and the sex with her) were wonderful.
Years ago ― well everything is years ago now ― I helped my father-in-law start a church. One day, the infant of one of our church families suddenly died. It was ruled as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Weeks after the death, the grieving 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, I was obligated to report it. I have never believed that what is said in confidence to a pastor 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 pleaded guilty and I did not have to testify. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Granted, these are exceptional circumstances. The people I pastored knew that 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 of past actions and “sins,” and they do so by talking to a pastor, a priest, or a good friend. When people write me and tell me their stories I always let them know that their correspondence with me will be kept confidential. However, if they confess to murdering their spouse or molesting a child, I would report it immediately,
This does not make me a saint. 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 by her father, raped by a brother-in-law, and sexually molested by a Christian psychiatrist (and they all got away with it). I have a family member who was sexually abused by her IFB father. (Her abuser has been in prison for over 20 years.) Add to this the horror stories I heard while 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.
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 the necessary steps to make sure that abuse does not happen in the future. It is tragic that some churches are magnets for sexual predators. In these churches, it seems that every few years a church member, pastor, deacon, youth pastor, bus worker, or Sunday School teacher is being accused of abuse. Perhaps churches such as these should be forced to have the equivalent of what we have here in Ohio for drunk drivers. Some judges require people convicted of DUI to get yellow license plates. 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.
Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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