Pastoral Wisdom and the Mandate to Report Abuse

Published: April 02, 2014

I am a mother of five and, as a counselor, I work with children almost every day. Sadly, many of the children I meet experience tough, heart-breaking problems and some have suffered abuse and mistreatment. I am committed to educating myself and others on the importance of protecting the vulnerable. It is a personal passion for me. It is the way I have built my family and live my life. My goal for myself, and for the larger Christian community, is that we are knowledgeable, competent, and biblically wise when it comes to handling allegations of abuse.  

The legal and biblical mandate to report

It is very challenging to respond well to accusations of abuse. These situations generate a wide range of emotions from—outrage and a demand for justice—to fear, shame, disbelief and distrust. But when abuse is brought to our attention, we must work hard to not respond based on emotion or personal bias, but instead be willing to act wisely, justly and deliberately. Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate, it is a moral and biblical one as well. The laws are meant to protect the innocent and reveal the guilty, to define what is abuse and what is not. I’m sure we would all agree that protecting the vulnerable is a good goal, but to do that we must also accept that it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate an allegation or to dismiss one. 

Why some don’t report

Yet, despite these clear mandates, I find that churches and other Christian organizations are sometimes leery of reporting abuse when it comes to their attention. They look for ways to avoid complying with the law due to any number of reasons: fear of legal consequences, repercussions within the organization, or harsh reactions from the public. These concerns are further validated by horror stories where the authorities mishandle an accusation, and the situation explodes. Looking at all these possible negative outcomes, some begin to evaluate whether it is "worth the risk,” and some go on to justify not reporting because it "will only make things worse."  

The flip side of this is the implicit belief in an organization’s own ability to evaluate and respond well to abuse. It is easy for a ministry to become convinced that they will be more thoughtful, careful, and certainly more biblically-sound in their response. But in addition to violating the law, such a decision is unwise. It is not the organization’s job to investigate and "figure out the truth," and they are inadequately prepared to do so. No church or any other organization possesses the deftness, judiciousness, and discretion to interview well. The investigators know the signs of what to look for and the techniques to draw out a victim in a safe, illuminating manner. They are knowledgeable, skilled individuals who commit themselves to understanding and responding well to such issues. Churches and other ministries are not prepared to do this type of work and should not attempt it.

The need for ongoing pastoral care

But there are many things a ministry can and should do when an allegation of abuse arises. Mandated reporting and pastoral care are not at odds with one another. If an accusation is reported to the authorities, pastoral care doesn’t stop there; it has just begun! The ministry needs to have a continuing role in the situation. It must not “wash their hands” of the matter. Situations like these leave people reeling. Many will need care and follow-up as the investigation unfolds and for some time afterwards. 

Pastoral care should seek to walk alongside the abused with care and compassion. It should also consider how to care for the offender, and assess the rippling effects on family members of both the victim and the accused, as well as everyone else involved. Good pastoral leadership can provide guidance, support, nurture and hope. People need to see and experience the comfort of a loving God at a time when some will think he has somehow left them in their suffering. 

Pastoral care and mandated reporting of abuse go hand in hand; both are necessary and valuable. 

Mandated reporting is pastoral wisdom

The legal mandate to report abuse—whether it is on behalf of children, the elderly, the disabled, or those abused by authority/power—is our call as believers to protect the vulnerable. It is allowing the authorities to investigate and do their job. It is complying with the laws of the land, and it is walking along-side those who have been impacted with a sage affection. There is so much more to be said about ministering well to those who have been victimized, but it is essential that we understand that mandated reporting is pastoral care and wisdom.