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How Should Churches Handle Allegations of Abuse?

child abuse

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.

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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-headshot

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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25 Comments

  1. Avatar
    Randy

    Here is one of my great quandaries. How can the church, which is supposed to be a safe haven, especially for children, become a bastion of sexual abuse? Why does this seem to be a recurring theme? How can men who call themselves messengers of God and church leaders have affairs, molest children and use the church as a vehicle to further their sexual escapades? Why do the men who say they are closest to God often harbor the most vile sexual behavior of anybody? What exactly is happening here? How do we stop it?

    • Avatar
      Michael Mock

      Honestly? Stop equating Christianity with morality. The idea that it’s impossible to have morality without a religious basis often gets inverted into people thinking that anyone who’s religious (and particularly, anyone who’s “one of us”) is inherently trustworthy — and that simply isn’t so. But people look at the labels, at the surface identities (“Oh, he’s a professed Christian! He’s part of our church!”) and don’t watch patterns of behavior. So they don’t take elementary precautions (background checks aren’t enough by themselves, but they’re a good start) and when someone’s behavior is inappropriate or suspicious they tend to disregard the possibility that what they’re seeing is actually a sign of bad behavior. This is doubly true when looking at someone who has status as any sort of moral authority: pastors, police, teachers…

      Basically, people in these positions are far more likely to be able to engage in these behaviors (and, as a result, people who want cover for their behaviors are far more likely to seek out these sorts of positions) because the people in religious communities have been taught to trust, respect, and in many cases defer to people in those positions.

      So: background checks are a start. Educating parishioners on what grooming and other predatory behaviors look like will do more — and it’s good general knowledge for people to have in any environment. But what’s really critical, I think, is having an organization — a culture — where everyone, and especially leadership, understands that people in positions of authority will be held to the same standards as everybody else.

      • Avatar
        Randy

        Let me rephrase my question / quandary. Do you think these abusers intentionally enter into positions of authority with an ulterior motive to harm others (sexual abuse, etc.) or something happens to them over time? Do you think they really believe in and fear some type of almighty deity or just use their “faith” as a guise and ruse to lure people into their traps? It really shakes the faith I have when I consider these things. I see so many leaders in it for the money and the prestige and then see all this dirty, illegal, abusive stuff happening in the church underbelly. It really bothers me and haunts me a lot. Even though I am in ministry, the people I trust least are others in the ministry. I didn’t grow up in church. I only got involved in my thirties. Some of the nicest people I know are “unbelievers” “unchurched” and atheists and agnostics. Some of the worst people I know are “Christians.” I tell folks all the time: one thing has not changed since I converted from atheism to Christianity – Christians are still my greatest enemy.

        • Avatar
          Brian

          Randy, it is difficult when the choices you make naturally, lead you away from the fold. I wish you great personal strength to simply be yourself. There are bad bipeds in and out of religion. I prefer to deal with life without belief because for me it is the simple and honest choice. All the best to you….
          I want to offer you my opinion: I do not think that people who enter the ministry do so with the intent to harm. Abuse of others has to do with our own deep damage and that is most often quite unconscious by the time people are of an age of choice of profession. Your question is quite naive, Randy. Are you seriously considering that the ministry makes people become abusers? I think it is a tool but not the motivation in itself. Finally, we must take responsibility for our actions and this is human. It is why evolution is not devolution. The question for us, Randy, is at what point do we become responsible as individuals for our actions?

        • Avatar
          Michael Mock

          “Do you think these abusers intentionally enter into positions of authority with an ulterior motive to harm others (sexual abuse, etc.) or something happens to them over time? Do you think they really believe in and fear some type of almighty deity or just use their “faith” as a guise and ruse to lure people into their traps?”

          I’m going to disagree with Brian… at least, I think so. (It’s possible that we’re not disagreeing as much as I think we are.)

          Yes: I think some kinds of abusers (child abusers in particular) enter into positions of authority because it gives them cover for their activities. They may or may not believe in any sort of higher power; I’m not sure it really matters, and I don’t know of any studies that have attempted to sort out whether the people who do that are sincere believers, or are cynically using the appearance of belief as a type of social camouflage, or some combination of both. This is what I was thinking of when I wrote my earlier post: how to try to prevent such people from getting into such positions, how to spot such people when they are in positions of authority, and how to make sure they don’t have access to potential victims once you’ve spotted them.

          But the other side of your question — the leaders who are in it for the money and the prestige, or who get up to all sorts of shady, immoral, and possibly even illegal behavior — I think it can work both ways. I think some people look at ministry, see that it’s possible to become rich, influential, and famous — especially in some of the more fundamentalist/evangelical denominations, where the preacher’s word is all but law, and there are extensive mechanisms in place to shield the preacher from criticism — and go into the church because they want that kind of power. I think other people start out with good intentions — grow their churches, plant new ones, bring more souls to Jesus — and if they’re successful, pretty soon people are deferring to them all over the place and taking their word for the most ridiculous things, and it just goes to their head.

          I read an article years ago (over a decade ago, actually) on one of those in-flight magazines, of all things. It was talking about the then-recent crop of people who had gone to jail for insider trading, including Martha Stewart. The title of the article was, I think, “It’s Not Greed. It’s Arrogance.” The gist of it was that the problem wasn’t that these people were being greedy; they were already rich, and a little more money (while it might be nice) didn’t make that much real difference to them. The real problem was that they were rich and successful and well-regarded enough that they didn’t think the rules should apply to them.

          I think that happens in the ministry, too. And I think it happens, in no small part, because people let it. Individually and collectively, they don’t act to stop it.

          Two examples: in the (Episcopal) church of my youth, the head priest was (apparently) a serial embezzler. He was eventually ousted, and the diocese sent him to another church in another city. (I have no idea whether the diocese told them about his behavior, but I’m not optimistic.) But, here’s the thing: according to my parents, this action only took place after the third time that evidence of this behavior was brought to the vestry — and brought by someone who, by all accounts, was thoroughly conscientious and had no personal or political stake in the matter. He did it, and continued to do it, because nobody acted to stop him.

          More recently, my mother-in-law’s church took on a trainee pastor (still in seminary, but looking for a church where he could get some experience in actual ministry), who… “wasn’t a good fit”. He wasn’t a good fit because this was a Disciples of Christ church with a small, aging, but close-knit church family, and this guy really wanted to be the charismatic, up-and-coming pastor of some sort of Baptist megachurch. He caused a lot of friction; he caused a lot of hurt feelings and disaffection; he basically did the exact opposite of pastoral care. And nobody told him to go away. They just let him keep at it. By the time he finally left — on his own, mind you — the church community was shattered, attendance was down to maybe a fourth of what it had been, and the only reason it hadn’t closed completely was because if it did, Idiot Pastor would be entitled to a significant fraction of whatever they got for selling off the property, and apparently several of the remaining parishioners dug their heels in to make sure that didn’t happen. And again: he did this, and continued to do this, because nobody acted to stop it. Nobody reigned him in. Nobody told him that what he was doing was bad for the church and for his flock. Nobody felt it was their place to tell him to go away.

          The implications for faith are difficult. (I don’t share your faith, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of empathy or imagination to feel that.) God, if he’s out there, doesn’t act to prevent evil from taking hold within the church — presumably for much the same reasons that He doesn’t prevent evil from taking hold in the world. If anyone is going to prevent these things from happening, it will have to be people. And the first step towards people preventing these behaviors is asking exactly what you asked in your first comment: what exactly is happening here, and how do we stop it?

          Which is why my first answer was, essentially: recognize what the patterns are, teach people how to recognize them, and make sure that the mechanisms are in place to deal with these sorts of problems correctly when they inevitably come up.

          We’re human. We won’t get it right all the time. But we can set up systems and structures to reduce the opportunities for predatory and abusive behaviors, and to respond to them in ways that empower and protect the victims when they happen.

          • Avatar
            Brian

            Michael said: “…Yes: I think some kinds of abusers (child abusers in particular) enter into positions of authority because it gives them cover for their activities. They may or may not believe in any sort of higher power; I’m not sure it really matters, and I don’t know of any studies that have attempted to sort out whether the people who do that are sincere believers, or are cynically using the appearance of belief as a type of social camouflage, or some combination of both.”

            I think that your suggestion regarding some abusers being conscious is correct but I would hazard that most people are not sociopaths and most people who adopt abusive ministries do so believing they are serving God to the very best of their faithful abilities.
            When the onion peels in our minds and hearts, we can say in retrospect, ‘I missed the mark’ but to suggest that people do this consciously from the get-go (if that is your stance) is a real tough-guy stance. Life is full of near-misses and even full misses. How else would we ever get to a place where we could let go of some delusions, take down some of our fences and dare to be vulnerable and alone?

          • Avatar
            Michael Mock

            @ Brian – I think we’re mostly saying the same thing in slightly different ways, here. I don’t see anything in your comment that I’d actually disagree with, and I’d agree that the sexual abuser who seeks out a position that gives him cover is a very different pattern of behavior from someone who, for example, goes into the ministry and then creates a very toxic environment because he doesn’t recognize his behavior as bullying and doesn’t have anyone who can call him out when he crosses the line.

  2. Avatar
    Angiep

    I never realized how hard it must be to be a pastor and hear the awful confessions of your parishioners. Being told about infant deaths by shaking, murdered girlfriends, etc. is about as bad as it gets. It’s probably evidence of how well such secrets are kept by people in authority in churches, that I never heard about much of anything bad happening by or to my fellow congregants.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Angiep, the whole purpose of evangelical Christianity is the burying of the natural truth of life to be covered by the magical resurrection etc. You don’t feel great about facing the hard realities. Welcome to the peanut gallery.

  3. Avatar
    Melly Smuff

    When will those millions of guns be turned against clergy who are perpetrators and enablers of abuse? Given the increasing social dysfunction in the US it must only be a matter of time.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Melly Smuff, why would the guns of denial be turned against the great worshippers of denial? Gun runners and shooters will never choose to support anything that would question their holding their weapons as the very wish of the Almighty!

  4. Avatar
    Brian

    can someone with access to mablog please refer this post to that blog? Please! I have been blocked and cannot do myself but Doug Wilson needs to read Bruce Gerencser.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Years ago, I was acquainted with Wilson. I subscribed to his magazine. Loved it at that time. I now despise everything he stands for, including the things he hides and covers up. He is not a good man.

    • Avatar
      Brian

      Oh Melly, you’re kooky for Jesus and it is true that kookery is all over! Your statement “democrats (who are usually athiest) with guns” is something I want to ponder for some time so that I can soak in the wonder of your grey matter. Can you get back to me, say, next year. say mid- 2017?

    • Avatar
      Karen the rock whisperer

      Democrats are usually atheist? Not by the numbers. There are far more democrats than atheists, according to statistics. What are non-atheist democrats? Catholics, Mainline protestants, Jews, Buddhists, etc. Some are even evangelicals, though probably not a lot.

    • Avatar
      Becky Wiren

      Liberals and Democrats who believe in God would believe in a god of love and acceptance to all. So you may very well be right.

  5. Avatar
    Rebecca

    Pastors and church workers are required by law to report child sexual abuse. They are considered mandated reporters so to report or not report isn’t an option. Failure to report abuse in the state of Pa. could result in charge of up to a felony of the second degree.

    Also, I certainly can’t see that most democrats are atheists. Some of the most politically progressive people I know are part of mainline churches, and by the same token there are plenty of non-theists and generally secular people who are more conservative or libertarian, at least in my area of the country. I’ve also known politically liberal evangelicals as well.

  6. Avatar
    Matilda

    Two things happened to me just this week – honestly – that made me think. First, a comment on child abuse by RC clergy over centuries, a commenter wrote that since being gay was an abomination over those centuries, some gay men saw entering the celibate priesthood as their only option. Imagine the horror of feeling same sex attraction in those circumstances. And suicide was as grave a sin as being homosexual. Second, I met a friend, raised fundy, disgusted at the abuse she saw all around her church and she’s now a worldly-wise atheist. She worked in a homeless shelter and, over time, met several guys she was sure were abusers. Recently, in a small town, she met her fundy parents for lunch and they encountered one of these dodgy guys in the street who was now in her parents’ church. She tried to tell them of his behaviour, but got the usual ‘He’s been born again, he’s fine.’ She knew he wasn’t and was further horrified to learn of another creepy guy who was attending their church and being praised by her blinkered family. It’s true that abusers seek out the gullible and exploit them. But since naive – and lying, hypocritical – x-tians, like my friend’s family’s priority is image, they won’t ever address the terrible problem of abuse. She said it’s not even swept under the carpet, it’s buried in the deepest hole as they jesus on saying everything is wonderful in their church. And if abuse happens, it’s always the victim’s fault and can be prayed away and forgotten about. Gah….makes me want to vomit!

  7. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Bruce, this post reminds me of why, the moment I started reading your blog (about four and a half years ago), I trusted what you were saying. You summed it up with one statement: “I am on the side of the abused.” That alone shows me that even though you and I once professed other notions we now find abhorrent or just quaint, you were, and are, humane—and in the end, that trumped (much as it pains me to use that word) other beliefs you preached.

    As you know, I have survived—just barely—sexual abuse by a priest in 1967-68. Before I talked about it, decades later, that priest died. (I didn’t know that at the time I “came out.”) Since then, I have talked with about 15 other people who’ve had experiences like mine and read accounts of many others. Some have remained in their churches; others, like me, are non-believers. (My abuse is not, however, the sole cause or reason for my non-belief.) But even the ones who are still observant do not trust church authorities as they once did. I, of course, don’t blame them. For that matter, I don’t trust any entrenched institution to deal with sexual molestation, abuse, harassment or assault. I speak from experience in the military, corporations and universities, the latter of whom, for all of their self-image as bastions of enlightenment, are just as ready to throw victims under the bus.

  8. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I just finished listening to a season on the podcast “Gangster Capitalism” on Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical university. Early in the season was an episode on sexual abuse, purity culture, etc, at the university that opened the floodgates for a couple of dozen women who had been former students or employees of the university to reach out to the podcast. The podcast personnel put these women in touch with a Title 9 group that is filing a class action lawsuit against Liberty University for its pattern of failures to address sexual abuse on campus. My blood boils hearing these stories of how the university systematically put its own reputation over doing the right thing. In many cases the victims themselves were blamed and/or punished for violation of “the Liberty Way”, the strict code of conduct for Liberty students. One young woman was silenced for her allegations against former Liberty football player Jesse Matthew who went on later to be convicted of the murders of 2 young women in Virginia – apparently, he was “practicing” his crimes while he was a student. I am sure that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    It’s really disgusting how some religions treat sexual abuse.

  9. Avatar
    amimental

    As a survivor of abuse and a mandatory reporter (my job requires it) I have NO understanding of why a person would not immediately call with suspicions of abuse. What the hell is wrong with people? (rhetorical question, I suppose, as actually listing the things that are wrong would take one hell of a long time.)

  10. Avatar
    MJ Lisbeth

    Amimental—Too often, the abuser is a respected or esteemed authority figure. Also, those who sexually molest, abuse or assault almost invariably have some sort of power—whether generational, organizational, political or social/economic—over their victims and, sometimes, those who could report on behalf of the victims. So they, and victims are afraid to report, whether out of fear of retaliation or simply not being believed.

    I am speaking from experience.

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Bruce Gerencser