Dark cloud. Sad day. Euphemisms like this abound regarding a report by the Houston Chronicle that found over 700 cases of abuse in Southern Baptist Churches over the last 20 years. Prior posts on the Church Law Blawg have discussed how we can prevent claims like this. We can implement stringent policies that govern who can work with children and under what circumstances. We can limit counseling sessions with members of the opposite sex by bringing in a trained professional or including more than one counselor in the session. We can install internet filters that prohibit and prevent access to pornographic or dating sites. These are designed to increase your church's security, but as the adage goes, "there is no such thing as absolute security." We live in a fallen world, and despite our best efforts to prevent sexual abuse and misconduct in the church, it will most likely happen again. The question then is not just how do we prevent it, but also how do we respond to it? Here are a few things you can do in your church:
1. Encourage Reporting. When the dust has settled from a report of sexual abuse in the church, there can be no ambiguity about whether a victim was encouraged to or discouraged from reporting. In fact, there are a great many pastors who this week will feel compelled to address their congregations about the Houston Chronicle story. What a great time to stand in front of your congregation and encourage people to report it if they've ever been sexually abused in the church.
2. Institute an Open Door Policy. Allegations of sexual abuse on staff should not be delegated to the worship pastor. Unless the senior pastor is the alleged offender, the senior pastor's door needs to be wide open to hear allegations of sexual misconduct. This is worth interrupting your study time to hear about. It is a big deal that threatens the flock much more than losing a couple of hours of parsing out Greek words and diagraming passages.
When the dust has settled from a report of sexual abuse in the church, there can be no ambiguity about whether a victim was encouraged to or discouraged from reporting.
3. Call Law Enforcement. Especially if the victim is a minor, and while you're at it call your state's child abuse hotline. Failure to do so not only makes matters worse for everyone involved, it is probably criminal. Do not ask a victim not to call the police. If the victim voluntarily asks that it be handled internally, call the police anyway. There can be no ambiguity as to whether you encouraged or discouraged reporting.
4. Isolate the Offender. Immediately. Don't wait. Don't take the night to sleep on it. Call the offender if he or she is on staff and tell them to stay home the next day until this gets sorted out. This protects the church by preventing the destruction of possible evidence. It protects the individual from the same accusation, plus a dozen more problems that could come about after the individual returns to work. Most importantly, it protects the victim. Keep the identity of the victim and alleged offender private from everyone except law enforcement, your attorney, and your insurer.
Call your church's attorney and then get out of the way... If you try to investigate and find out exactly what happened, you'll eventually find yourself having chosen one side and ostracized the other. That's not the place of the church's shepherd.
5. Get Help. Do not try to investigate this on your own. Call your church's attorney and then get out of the way. Cooperate with law enforcement and your church's attorney's investigation. Instruct your staff to cooperate as well, then go back to your office and pray for your church. Devote yourself "to the ministry of the Word and to prayer." (Acts 6:4). If you try to investigate and find out exactly what happened, you'll eventually find yourself having chosen one side and ostracized the other. That's not the place of the church's shepherd. Then follow the advice of your church's God-fearing attorney, who should be praying for your church right along side you.
Church General Counsel Managing Attorney Josh Bryant, J.D., M.Div., authors most of the posts in this section. From time to time, he will post articles from others in the field of church growth, administration, and operations.