I am a mother of five and a counselor. I interact with children all the time. Sadly, many of the children I meet with at CCEF experience tough and heart-breaking life circumstances, and some have suffered abuse and mistreatment. Through my work, God has given me a passion to help protect the vulnerable. I am committed to growing in wisdom on this issue and to see the larger Christian community become knowledgeable, competent, and biblically wise when it comes to handling allegations of abuse.
When instances of abuse first become known by a community of people there are intense reactions and a range of emotional responses—from outrage and a demand for justice, to fear, shame, disbelief and distrust. All of these emotions are understandable, but we must work hard not to respond based on intense emotion or personal bias. Instead, we are to act wisely, justly and deliberately. One of the primary ways we can do this is to report the suspected abuse to the authorities. Reporting abuse is not simply a legal mandate—it is a moral and biblical one. Laws are meant to protect the innocent, reveal the guilty, and to define what abuse is and what it is not. In order to live under legal authority, we must realize it is not appropriate for anyone, except the proper agencies, to investigate or dismiss an allegation.
To our shame though, many in the Christian community have been known to not report abuse. Why is that?
Why some don’t report
Every state has mandated reporting laws that outline what must be done when you believe abuse has occurred in your community. Despite these clear mandates, I find that churches and other organizations are sometimes afraid to report abuse when it is brought to their attention. They look for ways to avoid complying with the law for a number of reasons—fear of legal consequences, repercussions within the organization, or harsh reactions from the public may be a few. Looking at all these negative outcomes, some begin to evaluate for themselves whether reporting abuse is “worth the risk,” and some go on to justify not reporting because it “will only make things worse.” But Scripture challenges these fears.
Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God. Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. (Romans 13: 1-2 NKJV)
Sometimes an organization believes they can provide a better outcome than the state would provide. It is easy for church leaders to convince themselves that they will be more thoughtful, careful, and certainly more biblically-sound in their evaluation and response to a report of abuse. In addition to breaking the law, such a decision is unwise. It is not a church or organization’s job to investigate and “figure out the truth,” and they are inadequately prepared to do so. Churches do not possess the deftness, judiciousness, and discretion to interview well. Investigators know what signs to look for and which techniques will wisely and carefully draw out the victim. They are knowledgeable and skilled individuals who are professionally trained to handle these situations. Churches and other ministries are not prepared to do this type of work and should not attempt it.
What churches can do, however, is wisely respond. Here are two crucial components that make up a wise response:
- Report the suspected abuse to the proper authorities.
- Provide ongoing pastoral care to all involved.
Consider this complex scenario
A teenager at a church molests a child at a small group gathering. The families of both children are members of the church. These two families are deeply impacted by the actions and sin of one person. The church is required and mandated to report. The church is also biblically called to minister and walk alongside all those involved.
Unfortunately, I have seen this situation mishandled. Perhaps the family of the teenager is shunned and pushed out of the church. Or maybe the pastor reaches out to the offender but fails to minister to and protect the child (and family) who was victimized. Another tragic response might be that the pastor reports the alleged crime to the local authorities, but then withdraws from shepherding those involved. In any of these instances, all parties are left hurt, fractured, and unsure of who to turn to for support and direction.
So how should you handle this scenario? How do you report suspected abuse and wisely walk alongside those who have been impacted? There is much biblical wisdom needed to discern what that looks like. Wisdom is evaluating the situation at hand and what ministry looks like in any given scenario. Here are just a few considerations:
- Report the suspected abuse and inform the church’s designated person. This is often a children’s ministry leader or a pastor.
- Provide pastoral care and counseling for the child who has been abused. Seek help from a trained biblical counselor.
- Help parents process their own reactions while they seek to minister well to their child and any siblings.
- Walk alongside the offending teen and the teenager’s family. Consider who can and should walk with the teen.
- Consider what information is given to the church.
- Evaluate what procedures your church has or may need for this type of situation.
- Engage with the multitude of reactions from the congregation. Be prepared for a spectrum of fears and opinions.
- Equip people who know to respond well to the involved parties.
- Pray for wisdom. Seek God together as a staff.
I am sure you can feel the weight of this responsibility and can imagine the difficulty of navigating it all. As trying as it will be, consider the impact of not responding at all—leaving the families reeling, hurting, and left to figure it out on their own—navigating a legal system and attempting to worship together as if nothing ever happened.
The need for ongoing pastoral care
Mandated reporting and pastoral care are not at odds with one another. When an accusation is reported to the authorities, pastoral care doesn’t stop there, it has just begun! A ministry should have a continuing role in the situation. A church or organization can’t “wash their hands” of the matter. There will be a need for care and follow-up as the investigation unfolds, and for some time afterwards.
Pastoral care will walk alongside the abused with care and compassion. For families, it is a gift to have people in the church who understand the devastating effects of what has happened. For an adult or child to feel valued, cared for, and defended against any type of abuse should be the norm from a congregation.
Care also requires engaging with trained professionals and the legal system. It is a commitment to persevere regardless of the amount of time and difficulty you encounter. 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.
The legal mandate to report abuse—whether it is on behalf of children, the elderly, the disabled, or anyone abused by an authority—is a call we as believers have to protect the vulnerable. Mandated reporting is pastoral care. It allows the authorities to do the hard work of investigation. It complies with the laws of the land. It means walking alongside those who have been impacted with a sage affection.
This article recently appeared in the latest issue of CCEF Now.