How the Church Should Respond to Sexual Misconduct
It’s agonizing to even imagine how many churches are currently either harboring someone who has been sexually abused or who will be accused of molesting a minor. Conservative studies show that, before reaching 18 years of age, one out of four girls and one out of six boys will be sexually abused, regardless of their socioeconomic or religious demographic.
As a church leader, I shudder to think about how dreadful it must feel when that call comes — the victim is hurting and afraid, the alleged abuser is cornered and the loved ones are in shock. Whether it’s Hollywood, government or ( I hate to even type this…) our churches, hardly a week goes by that we don’t hear of yet another innocent child being victimized or abused in some way. When the call does come, we who are church leaders must be prepared to take action to protect our children from more suffering. The reputation of the church or its leaders is not more important than the safety and protection of our children.
Although we pray this situation never unfolds, if there is someone among our church family who is being accused of sexual misconduct, what steps will we take?
We will follow the plan.
The North Central Church leadership team is currently reviewing our plans to help make sure our staff, youth workers, children’s workers and board members are screened, well trained and responsive. This is a vital first step. Not only are we taking the steps to reduce this risk among our church family, we are considering all the dynamics of the whole situation as it could unfold and enhancing our written response plan. If something is alleged, rather than pulling random triggers in a crisis-soaked panic we will pull out our pre-written plan and follow it.
We will protect the child.
Upon hearing of an incident, the safety of the victim is our first priority. We choose to prioritize the protection of minors over the accused so that the minors who report are believed to be telling the truth by default. There is wisdom in temporarily removing any suspects, whether they are staff or volunteers, from any position that puts them in contact with minors, so we’ll take any steps necessary to create distance between the alleged suspect and victim.
We will gather the facts quickly.
Then comes the fact-finding phase. Even though we will work to quickly gather as much initial information as possible, we do not believe that any church or leader is qualified to be the primary investigator of an incident. We will leave this to professionals. This fact-finding step is meant to simply try to understand what is being alleged and who is involved. As soon as possible after the initial fact-finding phase, we will make sure the mandatory reporting is done according to the requirements of New York State.
We will offer help.
Many victims and accused suspects report feeling immediately isolated and ostracized. For us, the accuser’s believability and credibility is assumed and they won’t have to prove their case before we respond and report. Too often, church leaders delay this process to their own peril. People of faith should offer the most gracious, careful and intentional pastoral care to all the possible victims and their families. Whether it’s the abused or the falsely accused, there can’t be any judgement, condemnation, isolation or shame. It’s vital that we meet with them often and offer tenderhearted prayer and a professional counseling referral.
We will always cooperate with authorities.
They have a job to do. We’ll rely on professionals, not insiders. We can’t pray it away. Obstructing or delaying their investigation not only disrupts getting the facts out, but may also tarnish our church’s public reputation.
We will pray about the whole incident.
Prayer is vital for all those involved and for the effectiveness of the church in ensuring that truth prevails and that lives are restored. We will pray that grace overflows and express compassion to all the victims affected.
All of these actions are vital aspects of a healthy response. Unfortunately, even the church is not immune to sexual misconduct and abuse — and leaders must be prepared to act in a way that leads to healing, not discord. If Jesus prioritized and protected the innocence of children, so will we.