The role of a minister often includes making tough decisions amidst a crisis, and most ministers enter their calling knowing this. Even with a mindset of preparedness, certain occurrences are extremely difficult to manage. Sadly, one such difficult circumstance has become more prevalent within the church: sexual abuse of a minor by a volunteer or paid staff member.
Although this problem can rarely be predicted or prevented by you alone, your response may determine the health of the individuals involved as well as the health of the ministry as a whole. Mismanaging allegations of sexual abuse exposes the ministry both to a lawsuit or even a felony charge. Most states require that sexual abuse of a minor be reported to an appropriate government agency.
Additionally, some members of the congregation may vehemently disagree with the chosen course of action by the church leadership. Some may have personal experiences of sexual abuse themselves. Others may have a loyalty to the accused staff member. Due to the many feelings and allegiances that can swirl around such an accusation, perceived mismanagement of the victim, the perpetrator or the issue, people may leave the church.
Though much of the complexities around a sexual abuse charge deal with the feelings and beliefs of others, as a pastor, you must not ignore your own feelings. It is only natural to feel betrayed by someone you work closely with in an environment where Christ is the example. It can feel like the staff member did this not only to his or her victim, but to you personally.
The following suggestions may help you deal with this tragic and delicate type of situation:
Your first priority should be legal concerns.
When it comes to your attention that a staff member may have abused a child, you must report the suspected abuse in order to initiate an investigation. For instance, in Arizona, if a clergyman, priest, counselor, parent or any other person having responsibility for the care or treatment of a child has reasonable grounds to believe there has been abuse, he/she must report this information to a peace officer or to the Child Protective Services (A.R.S. 13-3620). Failure to do so may result in criminal charges being filed against the individual(s) who did not contact authorities.
To report child abuse or neglect in Arizona, contact your local police department or you can call the State of Arizona Child Abuse Hotlines’ statewide toll-free number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week (888-767-2445). The report must include the names and addresses of the minor and his parents or person(s) having custody of the minor, the minor’s age, the nature of the abuse and any other helpful information.
Do not hide information from the authorities.
When allegations of abuse surface, our responsibility is to tell the truth and not try to protect anyone. I struggled with this issue the first time I was required to testify in court about a case I counseled. As caring and merciful Christians, we may not want to tell authorities everything we know about a situation because we do not want to get someone into trouble. We want to protect rather than condemn. However, doing so is not only misguided but illegal. Christians must never be afraid to tell the truth. We must obediently tell the truth and surrender the outcome to God’s control.
Protect the children, the ministry and the accused staff member.
Even if you believe the accused staff member to be innocent, your first obligation is to protect the children under his/her care. Suspension of the staff member from routine duties and exposure to children is usually necessary. This protects the staff member from further allegations, ensures that no further perpetration can occur and indicates that you have responded to the crisis.
In a recent situation, the accused staff member was a volunteer Sunday school teacher. She was asked to take a leave of absence from her class and not have contact with any children from the church until the investigation was completed. Fortunately, the allegations proved untrue, and the Sunday school teacher was reinstated.
Check your personnel policies and make sure you abide by them. How you handle the accused staff member can either instill trust and confidence in your leadership or cause doubt and concern. If you question what action to take, contact a human resource professional.
Know your role.
Keep communication channels open with both the alleged victim(s) and the accused. Act quickly, communicate well and be fair. Clearly explain to the accused individual that the actions you are taking are necessary to protect him/her, the ministry and the child(ren) until the investigation is finalized. Provide assurance to the parents of the alleged victim(s) that you are available to support them and pray for them. Do the same for the accused staff member. However, do not allow yourself to be trapped into siding with one party or the other. This is extremely important. The purpose of the investigation by authorities is to arrive at the truth. Your role is to provide interim support for both sides and not offer an opinion until all the facts are known and the investigation is complete. Even then, certain aspects of what occurred may not be clearly revealed.
Share information on a “need-to-know” basis only.
You do not have to announce all the facts of the situation from the pulpit or share them with everyone you know. The wounds of a talebearer are deep. A person’s reputation is at stake, and an allegation of abuse is not proof of wrongdoing. Even if the investigative results do not prove abuse, the accused staff member’s reputation may be sullied. The facts should be shared only with those integral to the investigation. If the result of the investigation
does not prove any wrongdoing, make sure you convey the positive conclusion to those who were told of the allegation.