Earlier this week, the Dallas Observer published a cover story about a former minister who was recently convicted of sexually abusing children in Mississippi. According to the article, prior to this offender getting caught for these crimes, he served as a youth minister in a Dallas area megachurch. The story reports that while serving in that position, a minor who had been part of the youth group stepped forward and disclosed to another pastor on staff that this individual had sexually abused him. The article reported that instead of reporting the youth minister to the police, the megachurch allowed him to leave town where he eventually found employment at another church. Not only did the church fail to report the offense and warn others about this offender, but it made no effort to find out if there were others who may have also been victimized.
Why do so many churches fail to do the right thing when they learn that one of their own has been accused of sexual abuse? All too often it’s because the victimized are repeatedly overshadowed by the need to protect a “righteous” reputation. I’m afraid it’s a rationale embraced by so many church leaders because it’s convenient and sounds so “godly”. Here is an example of this distorted thought process:
The reputation of the church will be damaged when the public learns that it employed an alleged child molester -> a church whose reputation is damaged will lose members -> a church that loses members is a church that loses income -> a church that loses income is a church that will be required to tighten it’s budget, including reducing salaries and laying off staff -> a dwindling church is a church that has less relevance in the community -> a church that has less relevance in the community is a church that is failing to impact the world for Jesus.
Tragically, this type of response to the evils of abuse destroys lives, emboldens offenders, and produces churches that are rotting at the core. There’s nothing “righteous” about it.
What is the right thing to do when a church learns that one of its own has been accused of victimizing a child? First and foremost, it must immediately turn its focus and care away from institutional reputation and towards the victimized and the vulnerable. Though there are multitudes of ways this can be done, let me suggest three basic first steps for a church that cares:
- Caring for the victim: A church that cares will encourage and assist the victim to immediately report the crime to the police, regardless of the consequences such a report will have upon the church’s reputation. A church that cares will immediately remove the alleged offender from the church staff and prohibit him/her from being on the church premises. A victim should never have to fear encountering this offender in the place that should be the safest. A church that cares will work tirelessly to connect the victim and his/her family with qualified and professional assistance and provide the necessary financial resources for such assistance…with no strings attached.
- Caring for other potential victims: A church that cares will inform its members of the allegations knowing that sexual offenders often have many victims. It will also encourage them to immediately report any suspected abuse to the police. A church that cares will not limit its efforts to only current members. It will reach out to those who previously attended the church and had interactions with the perpetrator and may have been targeted for abuse. A church that cares will not sleep until each and every person victimized by the offender has been found. A church that cares will offer to provide any newly discovered victims the resources to receive any needed professional assistance.
- Caring for other survivors within the church: A church that cares will work to understand the traumatizing impact sexual abuse disclosures have upon other abuse survivors within the church, some whom have never told anyone about their prior abuse. A church that cares will help to facilitate the development of a survivor support network and work to assist these survivors obtain professional assistance.
How would things be different if more churches cared by encouraging and assisting victims to report these crimes to the police? How would things be different if more churches cared by informing their congregations about the allegations made against tone of their own, knowing that there may be other victims? How would things be different if more churches cared by making efforts to locate and notify former families of the church about an alleged offender who had access to their children? How would things be different if more churches cared by reaching out to other survivors in their congregations who are struggling after hearing about an allegation of sexual abuse? How would things be different if more churches simply cared?
Though I don’t know the answer to all of these difficult and painful questions, I do know that a caring church reflects Jesus by treasuring, protecting, and empowering the victimized and the vulnerable.