What should a church do if someone reports sexual abuse?


Sometimes it is hard to acknowledge what we know to be real. Such is the case with sexual abuse that happens in churches or by a church leader or volunteer.

It is real. It is tragic. It is devastating to lives. It is damaging to the cause of Christ.

The Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News have partnered in producing a three-part series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches. This is not the kind of news any Southern Baptist wants to read, but it is exactly the kind that we must read.

Reporting possible crimes

Any charge of sexual misconduct should be taken seriously. If it involves possible criminal activity, law enforcement should be immediately contacted. Keeping it quiet within the church is not a option.

If we think a store has been broken into, we call the police. If we think money has been embezzled, we contact authorities. If there is any indication a sexual assault has been committed, a church needs to report it.

The wise approach to any instance of alleged sexual abuse or assault is to call the police, says Kathryn Freeman, the Christian Life Commission’s director of public policy. Reporting such crimes is also the law in Texas.

Church policies should be established to deal with such situations before they ever occur.

Churches should have clear policies that outline for all members how these claims are going to be handled,” Freeman says. “These should include provisions for victim support, how and when all church members will be notified that an accusation has been made, and keeping detailed records of the incident should another church make inquiries.”

I realize a false accusation may occur, but it is very rare. Ministry Safe says this:

False allegations are rare; studies from academic and law enforcement contexts indicate that 92 to 98% of outcries are real and factual. Because false allegations are rare, you must assume the allegation you have received is likely factual, and multiple victims may exist. This is particularly likely if the alleged victim is male.

A minister or employee generally should not be fired because of an allegation, unless there is a clear pattern of behavior that has led to the allegation. Generally, the minister or employee should be put on paid leave until law enforcement can investigate. We respect both the victim and the person accused.

Scripture does not prohibit calling police

When a sexual assault is reported, church leaders may be tempted to invoke the Apostle Paul’s instruction in 1 Corinthians 6:1. “If any of you has a dispute against another, how dare you take it to court before the unrighteous, and not before the saints?” (CSB).

That passage is dealing with what we in the U.S. call civil lawsuits, where church members were asking the Roman courts to rule on disagreements between church members. “As it is, to have legal disputes against one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?” (1 Cor. 6:7, CSB).

This passage is not dealing with sexual assault. If a Christian in Corinth had murdered someone at a church meeting, the church, I think, would have called the local authorities to have the person arrested before he could kill anyone else.

This “anyone else” has to be at the forefront of our thoughts. Sex abusers generally repeat the offense. This is why the State of Texas registers sex offenders. But the state cannot register a sex offender if an offender is not reported and prosecuted. In the absence of legal consequences, the offender is likely to abuse again.

Ephesians 5:11 provides the best instruction for churches. “Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them” (CSB).

Sexual assault and rape may be broader than you think

Dealing with legal issues can get complicated quickly, but we need a general understanding. Before getting into these details, let me clearly state that assault does not necessarily involve physical touch; you will see this reflected in the examples below.

The U.S. Department of Justice says sexual assault is “any nonconsensual sexual act proscribed by Federal, tribal, or State law, including when the victim lacks capacity to consent.” DOJ’s National Institute of Justice goes into more detail, and the legal issues may be broader than you realize. The institute website says:

Sexual assault covers a wide range of unwanted behaviors—up to but not including penetration—that are attempted or completed against a victim’s will or when a victim cannot consent because of age, disability, or the influence of alcohol or drugs. Sexual assault may involve actual or threatened physical force, use of weapons, coercion, intimidation, or pressure and may include—

  • Intentional touching of the victim's genitals, anus, groin, or breasts.

  • Voyeurism.

  • Exposure to exhibitionism.

  • Undesired exposure to pornography.

  • Public display of images that were taken in a private context or when the victim was unaware.

Rape definitions vary by state. ... Most statutes currently define rape as nonconsensual oral, anal, or vaginal penetration of the victim by body parts or objects using force, threats of bodily harm, or by taking advantage of a victim who is incapacitated or otherwise incapable of giving consent. Incapacitation may include mental or cognitive disability, self-induced or forced intoxication, status as minor, or any other condition defined by law that voids an individual's ability to give consent.

Prevention is important

It is hard in Baptist life to prevent a predator from moving from one congregation to another because we are a church-centered group and a local church has no external earthly authority. Hard, however, does not mean impossible. If churches report possible crimes to prosecutors then there are legal processes in place to help a perpetrator at one church from victimizing people in another church in the future. But we have to report.

There are tools available to help on the prevention side. Texas Baptists have a partnership with an effort called Ministry Safe that can help churches prevent sexual abuse. I went through this training along with the rest of the BGCT staff and strongly recommend it. We really need to get serious about prevention, and this is a good start.

Honor good leaders by exposing bad ones

Most ministers and church leaders are extremely trustworthy. These leaders need our honor and appreciation. One way we can honor them is by appropriately dealing with those in their ranks who abuse their positions of trust and victimize vulnerable persons. Get the bad ones out so the good ones can do their work.

This problem is not going away. It is important to be proactive in addressing these issues because the personal and congregational devastation has been great.

I encourage churches to contact Katie Swafford of Texas Baptists Counseling Services. She is a great resource for helping victims and for connecting churches with preventative approaches.

Related articles: A Time to Mourn, a Time to Repent