Recently, a Lifeway sexual abuse survey found that “10 percent of Protestant churchgoers under 35 have previously left a church because they felt sexual misconduct was not taken seriously”. In other words, far too many people do not view the church as a safe place. That is tragic.
So what can churches—both leaders and members—do to ensure their congregation is a safe place? Here are three simple things.
1. Have A Plan
It is absolutely imperative that you have a child protection policy in place. Don’t simply grab policies from another church and paste them into your context. Instead, wrestle through the needs of your own community, think through how to safeguard your facility, and figure out how to effectively account for who is in your building. Work hard to clearly communicate these standards to staff, volunteers and parents, and err on the side of over-communication.
Don’t just let these policies sit on a shelf—share them, teach them, revisit them often. Have clearly defined and communicated policies around who can work in your children’s and youth programs and who those workers are accountable to. There are many organisations that can help you develop that plan if you do not have one.
2. Implement the Plan
The sad reality is, if an abuser wants to abuse, they are often able to find a way. He or she is like a wolf among the sheep, slyly and masterfully creeping around looking for moments to enter the sheep pen and attack the weakest and most vulnerable. Far too many churches are like sheep pens with gates wide open, allowing wolves to enter unnoticed in order to entrap and savage our weakest sheep. The fact is that in most of our churches, it is just too easy to hide in plain sight. Abusers see the church as an easy place to hide.
Abuse always requires deception. Just because you know each other, are familiar with one another, and trust each other, does not mean you are immune from needing to implement a plan to protect your children and adults from predators. We must do our best to prevent the unthinkable.
Perform all necessary background checks. Check references on any potential staff workers or children and youth leaders. Appoint someone in leadership who is responsible for ensuring your plan is being robustly implemented.
3. Respond and Report
But what do we do when the unthinkable happens? The tragic truth is that sometimes the abuser—the predator—just won’t be stopped, no matter how strong a plan we have in place. So we must know what to do when the unthinkable happens.
If someone shares with you that they have been abused by someone in the church, ask questions. Listen to them. People who have been wounded by sexual abuse need someone to listen to their story and take them seriously. Just as you would with someone in great physical pain, we must empathize, pray, and weep with them. Dignify their story. Make sure they know that you are taking what they are saying dead seriously.
Remember this: It’s not your job to uncover exactly what happened. You’re not an investigator. Neither are you a lawyer or a doctor. In cases of illegality, you are not bound to confidentiality—when a law has been broken, you must report it. No ifs, ands, or buts. In matters of abuse, you must report because abuse is always a legal matter.
As church leaders, we must recognize that in situations of physical and sexual assault, although a sin has occurred, a crime has also been committed. This is not simply a ‘church matter’ or a case of church discipline (as serious as those things are). Whenever someone has been abused, a law has also been broken. It is a legal matter and must be referred to the appropriate authorities. As pastors, we are not trained to properly investigate crimes. That is never our job, and we should never think it appropriate to do so.
Don’t ‘Protect Your Own’
Now, what if the situation involves a pastor or a volunteer? Far too often, it can be tempting to want to deal with it quietly when we are not completely persuaded by the accusations. But the best response is always to err on the side of transparency with the congregation. When you do so, you are not declaring judgment. Let me be clear about that. Suspending a person from all positions of leadership is not a statement about their innocence or guilt, but it is a proactive step to validating the seriousness and bravery of the accused stepping forward.
Even if the accusation turns out to be false, your decision to take it seriously sends a signal to genuine victims that you will take them seriously too. Notify the church of action taken, immediately suspend the accused from all positions within the church, make it clear that you are not in a position at this stage to pass judgment, but you are actively working with the legal authorities to do their job in investigating the matter.
Acting immediately to identify and remove the accused from any positions does not presume guilt, rather you are simply implementing a mutually agreed policy. If every employee, ministry volunteer, or church member has affirmed that child protection and safeguarding policy then they should not object to it being carried out, even in the event that they are being falsely or mistakenly accused.
We must be sure that we are not more concerned about protecting the reputation of the church over the well-being of victims. This is where I feel so many well-meaning churches get into trouble. A concern to prevent scandal from harming the name or reputation of the church, or a leader in the church, is never a good motivation for failing to be appropriately transparent. The reputation of the church becomes compromised when the church looks like we are actively working to cover up a scandal rather than to pursue truth and to care for any potential victims.
In these matters we need to be conscious of both Romans 12 and 13:
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord.(Rom. 12:17–21)
On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong.(Rom. 13:1–3)
In summary: Listen. Report. Respond. Communicate.