Yet another story in the news about a church that botched report of sexual abuse on its premises. We are hearing about more and more, and there are still more besides, as the problem is certainly more prevalent than just what we see reported.
Quite often, in retrospect, these cases reveal not simply mistakes made but systemic dysfunctions in a church community and a church’s discipleship culture.
Below is a list of safeguards. Some are obvious bare minimums, others are harder to implement and run deeper than superficial processes and procedures, but all are ways to help establish a church community as a safe place.
1. All employees and all childcare and youth volunteers, or anyone else who has regular contact with children in the church or as a representative of the church, ought to undergo a criminal background check as thoroughly as possible. It will also help if volunteers in these areas are required to be members of the church, assuming membership in a church entails clear communication about covenant responsibilities and church discipline.
2. A church should have a membership structure, and a church should exercise church discipline.
3. Churches ought to have a “safe sanctuary” policy in place. Get consultation with an outside firm if necessary, but have a thorough, thoughtful plan in place that “intentionalizes” safety for children and others at risk. This plan should also include processes and procedures if a known sex offender or abuser wants to attend the church.
4. Every officer in the church should have real accountability. To elders, to the congregation, to real people with real authority in the church body, and to a network or denominational board outside the local body if the church is part of one.
And this must be real accountability, real authority, not figureheads or “yes men.” They should be a part of a community group. Church officers, including pastors, must be able to be dismissed, and it must not be inordinately difficult to do so.
5. It must be taught to pastors and counselors that confidentiality is a matter of discernment. Pastors are not priests or lawyers or doctors. They are not bound to confidentiality, nor should they be if someone is in danger. In matters of abuse, it must be taught that confidentiality should be employed only if it genuinely protects a victim, not simply because it will protect a church’s reputation or alternately out of some spiritualized fear of hurting an abuser.
6. On that note, we must educate our church what grace is, what repentance is, what forgiveness is and what reconciliation is. What do they look like?
We must understand the Gospel is often a severe mercy to abusers, even genuinely repentant ones, and so it means consequences—disciplinary in the church, legal outside—and accountability. Too often “grace” for the abuser adds more abuse to his or her victim.
But justice can be grace. It is amazing how often churches fail in this regard, pushing for relationships between victims and their abusers, spiritualizing some kind of reconnection as if it honors God when really it is a cheapening of grace and often just a way to sweep events under the church rug.
In the kingdom of God, the helpless, the hurting, the trampled on, the abused take precedence. Any truly repentant abuser would agree to that. We must remember a victim’s safety and healing is vastly more important than a church’s convenience.