Dealing with and Follow-up to Child Abuse
In the Bible
Fathers, do not provoke your children, lest they become discouraged (Colossians 3:21).
Abuse of children is a provocation to anger (Eph. 6:4), and it also leads to discouragement. Parents can provoke their children not only by abusing them, but also by not defending them against abuse. The provocation is made more serious when the victim is blamed or portrayed as delusional.
Religion that is pure and undefiled before God the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).
Abuse is one of the afflictions widows and orphans faced then, and face now. How can we visit (care for) them?
“… then hear from heaven and act and judge your servants, repaying the guilty by bringing his conduct on his own head, and vindicating the righteous by rewarding him according to his righteousness” (2 Chronicles 6:23).
While we pray for God to hold the guilty accountable and to vindicate the innocent, do we hear Him calling us to be part of the answer to that prayer?
Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil (Ecclesiastes 8:11).
Delaying or denying judgment by covering up abuse encourages and enables it to continue.
Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy (Proverbs 28:13).
Exposing abusers and holding them accountable is an act of mercy for them if it leads them to confess and forsake their sin.
In the News
Across the nation - While the cover-up of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church has been making headlines for over a decade, the same thing has been happening in evangelical churches - liberal and conservative, large and small. Joshua Pease wrote in "The sin of silence - The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church" that Christians' compassion for sinners also leads them to not take accusations seriously when dealing with abuse in the church. Add to this concern for the church's public image - this leads to silence and denial, especially when the abusers are pastors and elders.
Washington, D.C., 1968-1971 - Baptist pastor Fred Taylor, co-founder of For Love of Children, worked with a counselor at a public orphanage to expose physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. This led to the closing of the institution and the prosecution of offending officials.
The January 2020 series of articles concerns preventing and dealing with child abuse. In this article we consider how to respond to child abuse in our church by:
- Reporting and Investigation
- Ministering to Persons
- Improving Policies and Procedures
Right now, you should know about our free Child Protection download - "A Code to Live By: A Childcare Giver's Code of Conduct for Your Church's Safety Ministry." Click this link to get it.
Responding to Abuse in the Church
Even when we establish policies and procedures in the church to protect our children from abuse (physical, sexual, emotional, spiritual, and neglect), even when we diligently carry out these policies and procedures, and even though we are ever watchful and alert, abuse can still happen. So, what now? How do we handle this? How do we respond?
Our response to abuse in the church - or to children and youth in the church - involves three stages: Reporting and Investigation, Ministering to Persons, and Improving Policies and Procedures. If anything, we do not want an unfortunate and embarrassing incident to become a scandal. On the other hand, we want to come out of the situation better than we went in with effective ministry, and with our children, youth, and vulnerable adults better protected.
The Sheepdog Church Security training course "Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse in the Church" guides us in what to do if we find out that children and youth or vulnerable adults in our church are being or have been abused.
Reporting and Investigation
Reporting is the mandated part of this stage. Investigation will contribute to a final report, inform us in ministering to those involved, and show us where our policies and procedures can be improved or better followed.
There are two primary ways of learning about abuse. One is to witness it. The other is to hear about it. Either way, we have an obligation to properly report it. Federal and state laws require reporting of child abuse - all kinds. The laws may vary from state-to-state as to who the mandated reporters are and to whom they report. Also at issue is when the confidentiality of privileged communication is protected.
Any person working in the church or at a church function or event, whether staff or volunteer, who observes abuse must report it. If it is physical abuse which results in immediate great bodily harm or death, we are justified in defending the abused person. Many times, calling attention to our presence will cause the abuser to stop, but if not we may intervene physically.
We report the abuse to a leader, such as the Safety Team Leader, the Safety Director, one of the pastors, or an active elder. Physical defense will require reporting not only the abuse, but the use of force. The person in leadership is required to report the abuse to the authorities, whether law enforcement, social services, or the health department.
If a witness tells us about abuse, we are required to report it. This does not mean every "I wonder if ..." type of speculation, but knowledge of or reasonable evidence of abuse. This includes a child or youth telling the witness that they have been abused in a manner defined by law. For instance, keeping a child from seeing a movie is not legally abuse, but deliberately burning them is.
If a child tells you about abuse - even if the child does not recognize it as abuse - you are to report it. Do not assume the child is lying or mistaken - Report it. Let the investigation determine the facts. Our goal is to protect the child and end the abuse. Rachael Denhollander told about being sexually abused by Dr. Nassar 16 years later. She had been molested in a church group at age 7, and learned to keep silent after her parents were told they were overreacting and nothing meaningful was done about it.
File a written report for each instance of abuse you discover. Documentation helps the investigation, both internally and by the local authorities. It will also help counsellors know what happened as they minister to the victims.
Ministering to Persons
There are several persons to minister after a child abuse incident.
The first and most important person is the victim. This child or youth has been harmed. Innocent people need to be assured that they are not to blame, even if the abuser told them, "It is your fault, because …" Treat the victim with compassion and understanding.
The second most important persons are the victim's family. If the offender was not a member of their family, then they all need compassion. If the offender was a family member, the rest of the family needs compassion as wellas wise counselling
Teachers and groups leaders of the child or youth (if they are not the offender) need counselling to deal with the situation. Then too, the congregation needs healing.
Finally, the offender needs help beyond repentance and forgiveness. Being held personally and legally fully accountable, even if forgiven, is necessary for personal transformation. Then the offender needs counselling and guidance within an accountability relationship.
Some churches will put a sexual offender into a monitoring program which sets boundaries around them in church activities. For instance, the offender may come to a worship service but must leave immediately afterward. If he leaves the sanctuary to go to the restroom, he is followed by an appointed monitor or a member of the Safety Team. While these and other restrictions protect the offender from himself, the primary purpose is protecting the children.
Improving Policies and Procedures
The investigation will show how well the church's Child Protection Policy and the related procedures are working:
- Were the procedures faithfully followed?
- Screening - Was the volunteer or staff member properly vetted? This includes both background checks and checking all employment and volunteer work references. Was there an annual or biennial updating of the background check?
- Safeguards - Was the Rule of Two followed? Was access control used?
- Have all childcare workers read and signed the Childcare Giver's Code of Conduct?
- Does the Child Protection Policy need revision or updating?
- Do procedures need to be revised or updated?
- Was the incident properly reported?
Child abuse wounds the church as well as the child. If abuse occurs, we must respond in a lawful and effective way.
There Is More
This series on Protecting Children from Abuse has four articles. The other three are "Hear the Cries" (The Cries of Children being Abused), "On the Front End" (Preventing Child Abuse in the Church), and "Riding Shotgun" (Guarding against Child Abuse).
- Kris Moloney, Sheepdog Church Security Training Courses: "Protecting Children from Sexual Abuse in the Church" -
- Training Materials (Classroom) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse-in-the-church-training-bundle],
- Online (Individual Training) [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse-in-the-church].
- Joshua Pease, "The sin of silence - The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," Washington Post, May 31, 2018 [https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/posteverything/wp/2018/05/31/feature/the-epidemic-of-denial-about-sexual-abuse-in-the-evangelical-church/].
- Elliot C. Williams, "Pastor Who Helped Shut Down D.C. Orphanage Riddled With Abuse Has Passed Away," DCist, November 27, 2019 [https://dcist.com/story/19/11/27/pastor-who-helped-shut-down-d-c-orphanage-riddled-with-abuse-has-passed-away/].
- Kris Moloney, "A Code to Live By: A Childcare Giver's Code of Conduct for Your Church's Safety Ministry," Sheepdog Church Security [https://sheepdog-church-security.thinkific.com/courses/protecting-children-from-sexual-abuse-in-the-church].
- "Rachael Denhollander," Wikipedia, n/d [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachael_Denhollander].
- Sheepdog Church Security landing page on Protect My Ministry [https://protectmyministry.com/sheepdog-signup/].