Home Christian News When Churches Find Out About Alleged Abuse, Calling the Police Is Not...

When Churches Find Out About Alleged Abuse, Calling the Police Is Not Enough

churches abuse
(Photo by Karolina Grabowska/Pexels/Creative Commons)

(RNS) — When leaders of Immanuel Baptist Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, found out in 2016 that a former church staffer had been accused of sexually abusing a child, they called the police and reported the information.

Then they went silent for seven years.

An assistant director of children’s ministry, Patrick Stephen Miller was arrested, charged with second-degree sexual assault and later convicted of a lesser offense. Immanuel Baptist pastor Steven Smith and other leaders never informed the congregation.

In early December, Smith finally explained the episode to Immanuel Baptist’s members, but only after the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette had reported on Miller’s attempts to have his court records sealed. Smith apologized for withholding information about the abuse and Miller’s conviction.

RELATED: Third-party report details ACNA leaders’ inaction on sexual abuse allegations

“I wish we had told you about these crimes sooner,” Smith, the son of a former Southern Baptist Convention president, said at a church service on Dec. 10, according to a recording posted online by the Democrat-Gazette.

Pastor Steven Smith preaches at Immanuel Baptist Church on Dec. 10, 2023, in Little Rock, Ark. (Video screen grab)

Earlier this year, Smith had informed the congregation of another incident, in which a former volunteer had been allowed to remain in ministry after sexting with a teen at the church, according to the Democrat-Gazette. In that case, church officials reportedly did not inform law enforcement for years.

Smith has since resigned as a faculty member of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he was named a preaching fellow in 2017.

“Dr. Smith recently informed the seminary that he’s stepping away from external ministry responsibilities, including Midwestern Seminary, to focus on Immanuel Baptist Church during this season of ministry. Thus, he’s not currently serving on our faculty,” a spokesman for the seminary told the Democrat-Gazette.

The delay in telling the congregation at Immanuel Baptist echoes a similar case in northern Illinois, where Bishop Stewart Ruch of the Upper Midwest Diocese of the Anglican Church in North America delayed telling members of his diocese that a volunteer at a church in the diocese had been arrested on sexual abuse charges for nearly two years. That volunteer, former ACNA lay pastor Mark Rivera, was sentenced to 15 years in prison this past March after being convicted of felony child sexual abuse and assault. He was later given six additional years.

Ruch told members of the diocese that church leaders were waiting for the legal process to be completed—and that caused the delay. Ruch would eventually take a leave of absence and is now facing a church trial on allegations of mishandling cases of abuse.

While churches have made progress in recent years toward addressing abuse, including contacting law enforcement when learning about allegations of sexual abuse, they can still be reluctant to inform people in the pews about abuse that may have happened in their midst, said Jimmy Hinton, a longtime advocate for survivors of abuse.