Survivor-Sensitive Approach to Handling Allegations Pastors, priests, churches, congregants, leaders, volunteers, staff etc too often do not respond properly to allegations against church officials and others in the church. The recent example of Stewart Ruch (bishop at Wheaton’s Church of the Resurrection), which was a pastor-led, church-focused approach, pressed me into articulating a Survivor-Sensitive approach. You can read about the story @ladyjessicahaze. I apologize for the length of this newsletter today, but I think you will see why.
I feel like I have had a special seat for this one. My wife has been counseling survivors of sexual abuse for some 30+ years, mostly in the Protestant world. But she was also the Victim Assistance Coordinator for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter. As an Episcopal priest I was called back to Pittsburgh for sexual abuse prevention training in 1995, so I have seen what the ecclesial community was doing. And now I have gone through training in three Catholic Dioceses and have seen how them implement the Dallas Accords (2002, revised in 2006). And once I was hired by an institution to replace a faculty member who was imprisoned for incest and saw how that was playing out in the denomination. What I note is that evangelicals are lagging far being Episcopalians and Catholics in this regard; And schools (especially universities and seminaries) are lagging being within those communities (at least in the Catholic Church high schools and and elementary-middle schools are often under a church or diocese, so the diocesan standards apply.
If we want to deal properly with this issue, it means mandatory training for all clergy and lay ministers and also for all volunteers working with children and youth. This needs to be renewed regularly.
Second, when one spots abuse (and we include physical abuse and elder abuse in this spectrum) the first thing one observing does is report the observation to the appropriate legal authorities if it is a reportable offense. One does that before notifying church authorities.
Third, the one observing abuse or grooming behaviors also reports it to the appropriate church authority. Grooming behaviors might be handled by a supervisor ("You know, Jack, having a child or youth in your car without another trained adult present is unethical. We need to talk about this."), but actual abuse is handled the equivalent of the diocesan level. In the Catholic Church the first thing that happens is the suspect is put on administrative leave and the pastoral/sacramental needs of the community are covered. The VAC is asked to see to it that any desired material or emotional assistance is provided to the victim (I like the term survivor, but prefer to reserve the term for those who have healed enough to have survived abuse). Notice that the VAC is caring about one thing: the well being of the reported victim. What they learn does not get communicated to the bishop or to any investigation.
The diocese will appoint an investigation team that includes professionals in social work and psychology and investigation as well as some clergy, but that team does not really start functioning until the legal authorities either indicate that the issue is outside their range of concern or else have concluded their investigation and have either brought charges or chosen not to bring charges. In other words, the diocese avoids every appearance of interfering with the legal process. When the legal process is concluded, the diocesan investigation team determines what probably took place and reports to the bishop. Notice that a clergy may have an affair with an adult volunteer or staff member and that would be of no interest to the legal authorities, but it can be abuse of power. We were clearly told in the Episcopal Church that if a single clergy person discovers themself getting romantically involved with an adult in the congregation either they must break it off or one of the two must leave for another congregation - the issue is that to make a free choice one must not have power over another.
Also notice that there are professionals in various social disciplines and well as in investigation on the committee. That limits the "he says" - "she says" issue. It is true that 95% of the sexual abuse claims are true. It is also true that to trained eyes there is more evidence than simply the victim's statement. I have a friend or two who have been falsely accused, and they deserve to be fully and thoroughly cleared.
Eventually the bishop must make a decision for the good of the church and the good of all involved. In a sexual abuse case if the person is found guilty, especially if a minor is involved, the clergy will be defrocked (in the Catholic Church the report with that recommendation goes to Rome, so there is a second level of checks) and non-clergy will be fired and their clearance revoked. The likelihood of reoffending is too great. I have also known of cases in which the bishop is convinced that the clergy person is innocent (and the legal officials have indicated that they do not have a case to pursue) in which the person is retired either because the situation under which the clergy person was accused or for the good of the church - that is, that a reasonable person would realize that even though the legal officials and the diocesan committee had done their work and cleared the clergy person, the public would claim a coverup if he were returned to ministry. Every clergy who is involved in ministry realizes that this is a cross that they may be called to bear - at least they should if they have listened to their training carefully. I am sorry I have left out details here, but I cannot put in any data that might possible be identified.
Now rather than go into the history of the stages through which at least Catholic dioceses came to this conclusion, I should simply note that this is hard for most evangelical communities. The lack of diocesan structure means that it all tends to happen within the local community where victim, clergy, volunteer, and the making the decisions are known, even known to each other. It is difficult for someone to play the role of the VAC and create a safe place for the victim, listening basically to their needs, and providing for them. And it may be difficult to find the trained professionals to serve on an investigating committee. There may not be facilities to which the accused can go while on leave of absence. Etc. I have rarely seen good handling of such situations within evangelical communities. But again, I cannot given examples.
Still the outline you give, Scott, is a starting point, even if it in my mind it is difficult to actualize in denominations without a strong, aware, and trained central leadership.
Very helpful post. As a survivor of abuse in the church from a pastor, I had no voice in decisions made concerning how my story was presented to the church. Even though staff from GRACE were involved in the initial process, and GRACE told the church that this was a clear case of abuse, even these conversations did not include me. GRACE sent our church tremendous resources, that included videos from Dr. Langberg. Church leadership watched the videos and are without excuse about what happened moving forward. Because all decisions were made by the church elders, their chief concern was protecting the reputation of the church. My husband and I were sent for counseling in another state, and while we were gone the church held a church wide meeting and invited even people who were not members to come. The elders agreed to read a statement that my counselor helped me write at the meeting which explained the former pastor's grooming process and abuse. I learned later that this letter was edited when it was read. The elders only read the parts where I apologized for any pain that I caused. People walked away from the meeting believing that there was simply an inappropriate relationship between myself and the pastor, even though I had gone to the pastor early on for counseling concerning childhood sexual abuse. My husband and I confronted the elders about not telling the truth. We were told that they were sorry that they "handled things the way they did." We were told that the matter would not be discussed anymore. Our family was so traumatized we felt we had no choice except to move several hours away to start over. I have read one story after another of these types of events happening within religious institutions. We have attempted to attend churches, but we are retraumatized when we do. I was in counseling for 5 years. I believe God is not going to stop bringing this darkness into the the light in the church. Things have got to change. If churches want to truly honor His name, they need to recuse themselves from any decisions made when abuse is reported. An objective third party like GRACE needs to do a complete investigation. I wish I had never reported the pastor's abuse to the church. But at the time, I naively believed that they would do the right thing. If you have been abused in a religious environment, please go to the police or an attorney first. Thank you for this post. It helps me to understand how things could have turned out differently. I pray the church will listen.
Loved this! My thought is this is all great in theory but how does a person who has been abused know who to approach first? This seems to be a key to navigating this process but the victim may feel such shame and guilt that they may not choose a "safe" person. How can a church "advertise" such a group without seeming like they are guilty of it?
I kept thinking of the term ombudsman. The role of an ombudman enhances accountability. They are a neutral party, and one to whom people go knowing there will be no repercussions. They have no role in the institution. They guide toward the proper next step. As you said, Scott, if a crime is committed, going to criminal justice. I think the church would benefit much from a clear protocol and am grateful you are looking at this so specifically.
Thanks Scot. Really helpful considerations here. I have a couple of theological, ecclesiological, and practical questions. Would love help thinking through these from Scot or anyone else!.
The first is around ecclesiology. You suggest bringing in a "third party" -- very much a general "best practice" with such accusations, given conflicts of interest, etc. Until churches show how they can protect victims and survivors (and prove it), such measures are necessary. Maybe they always will be. But it seems that we need a *theological ecclesiology* for understanding the role of such third-party accountability in the Church.
Their very necessity will *always* be a symbol of judgment on the Church's failures as the Church [i.e. St. Paul on lawsuits (1 Cor 6); Christ's disciples needing humility b/c "I appoint unto you a kingdom that ye may sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Lk 22:29-30)].
The second is a more pragmatic question. Given the rarity of false accusations -- and the endless stream of church failures to handle abuse allegations rightly -- it is quite right for churches to presume the good-faith honesty of an accusation. Hence, when accusations arise, those accused of abuse or cover-up *must* step aside so long as they have not fully cleared their names.
They are not going to go to jail on the basis of an accusation alone -- church accountability is not a court of law; it is not a criminal trial. But every NT passage about leadership qualifications (Titus, Acts, 1 Timothy, etc) implicitly or explicitly considers *reputation* to be part of the deal. No one has a "right" to church leadership, and no one -- no matter how gifted -- is indispensable to the Body. Leaders serve the good of the Church, and there is no way leaders can serve effectively under a cloud of suspicion.
Having said that, though, false or inaccurate accusations are rare but do happen. The sixth discussion point gestures towards that possibility, but it seems in tension with every other point.
Granted, a predetermination on behalf of victims would, statistically speaking, presumably more often result in justice of outcomes, but it would still be an unjust process. It would still betray an insufficient dedication to truth, charity, and justice.
So how do we assume good faith regarding allegations *without* predetermining the process in the other direction? How do we treat the *accused* within our commitment to charity and truth?
I like the Christ-centered, grace inspired approach to this difficult topic. Good redirect for the contentious way discussions to often go.
I do have an issue with the title of the article. It has two contradictory words; Survivor and Allegations. Survivor carries the connotation of “fact,” as in “One who survives, especially one who survives a traumatic experience.” Whereas Allegations is defined as “An assertion, especially an accusation, not necessarily based on facts.”
I pray that we can honor Christ by caring for his sheep. Christ have mercy on us. Sin is never just "out there." It is always "crouching at the door." By his grace, let's do justice and righteousness and come up with some more effective policies. Thank you for working on this.
Thanks for this. This is excellent and should be considered for all policy reviews.
I have a few thoughts for you...
I think this is a great outline and I am so grateful you are advocating for survivors. Thank you for being willing to use your influence to make an impact in our church communities. Survivors need the Christoform community (which is different than the church institution) to come together to create this safe space - it's in the interest of public safety to do everything possible to create that safe space.
When learning about sexual abuse, the most important thing is to prevent additional harm by the known perpetrator. 70% of child sexual offenders have between 1 and 9 victims and 20% have 10 to 40 victims. If a survivor has come forward, naming their offender, you have been given a gift. You now have knowledge that a perpetrator is among you and you can remove them so they don't hurt anyone else. This information must be made public along with the danger potentially presented by this person. In order to protect the public, it would be even better if the Christoform reformers would become very public in their advocacy for survivors and do what they can to encourage other survivors (and people who could be a witness) to come forward. If they are survivors, tell their stories in a safe context. We are talking about church folks, so you could have a community group study based on Dan Allender's "To Be Told" online course. I am going through that with a group of ladies, and it has been an excellent way for other survivors to come forward so we can heal together. We do not meet at our church and I did not get the pastor's permission to do the study. Confidentiality is extremely important in situations like this, so you wouldn't want to do this via zoom. This would be a great service to all survivors, whether they were abused in a christian environment or not.
I see these Christoform reformers as a sort of grassroots group who will focus on advocacy for the survivor. By forming a group like this, you will approach the issue of creating a safe space for survivors through a "psychosocial" approach. 1 in 4 women are survivors of sexual assault, and 1 in 6 men. The average age people come forward about this is 52. Survivors and other survivor advocates represent a focused, non-specialized support for the survivor. I would suggest they form relationships with different local advocacy groups (you can find them here: https://centers.rainn.org/?state=NC ) so they can point the survivor to someone to coordinate their care. This would be the best independent advocate for the survivor. (An advocate is similar to a 'guardian ad litem' that goes between the survivor and the court or medical systems and other systems/resources, although they don't fully represent them like a court appointed guardian ad litem would). Many organizations form SART's (Sexual Assault Response Teams). That may happen one day with an organization like GRACE, to be outsourced by the Christian environments. Until that comes, the Christoform community needs to get to know their local resources so they can point people in the right direction - those advocates can refer the survivor to a good therapist too.
It would also be helpful to know local laws on: reporting standards, statute of limitations, what is sexual abuse - what is a felony and what is a misdemeanor, criminal v. civil remedies. The goal is to understand which resources will provide the most effective/streamlined care for the survivor so we can point them in the right direction. Here is some info about SART's: https://www.ncjrs.gov/ovc_archives/sartkit/develop/team-advocate.html
I am thinking of signing up as a volunteer community advocate - I wish I could do this professionally, but these types of organizations run on grants and the renewal of VOCA needs to be approved by the house of representatives. (Contact your congressmen/women to push them to pass this.)
Hopefully this is helpful in working out some of the tension between church involvement vs. independent advocates with the survivor in the driver's seat.
One thing that is important to remember... when we say "sexual abuse", it doesn't mean the same thing to everybody. If we don't educate people on what sexual abuse actually is, victims will not come forward, because they don't know that what happened to them is "abuse". I just listened to a woman's story who thought she was trash her whole life, she was incarcerated multiple times, addicted to drugs and alcohol like many survivors, and it wasn't until she was in her 30's that she realized she was sexually abused when she was a young child. She thought she was somehow complicit. I am sure that is part of the reason why people never come forward. I observe her story and I also see that a civil suit is extremely appropriate. She lost so much due to the abuse. The older I get, the more I see the recurring injury of the abuse. It definitely adds up. Whatever the "christoform community" can do to help this cause for another survivor is worth it and appreciated by all survivors!
Hope this helps.
Can you please say more about GRACE? Could not find it on line.
I very much appreciate Dr. McKnight continuing to lend his credibility, gravitas, and wisdom to help reform the church at large.
Can someone clarify. What are the circumstances that would/should lead to churchly investigations (including those done by independent 3rd parties like GRACE) rather than criminal investigation done by police? The more public survivor stories I’ve read seem to involve outright criminal conduct. But, is it fair to assume, that this post is referencing an entire category of immoral (but legal) behaviors that commonly induce trauma? What would be examples?
Peter David's letter is excellent. I think this is an accurate diagnosis and a good approach, informed by considerable experience, and if it were to be implemented at all levels, it would make a difference. But at the same time there needs to be a complete overhaul of gender-related attitudes in the church (including those of women themselves). How to achieve this I am not sure, given the depth of Sin in what used to be called "the war between men and women," explicitly originating with the Fall. Because of this, no amount of training will cover all the bases--and it will have to be enforced ad infinitum until the Lord comes--but Peter's clearly written proposals are spot on.
Like a couple of other commenters, I'd prefer another word than "sensitive"....too subjective. But the shift from "victim" to "survivor" is excellent.
This is a desperately needed project and I am glad to support it. Peter David's letter should be widely circulated.
Should be survivor-*centered*, not sensitive. The volume of unaddressed abuse is horrific. The idea we need to be sensitive pales in comparison to our need to center the victims, period.
The church is past being sensitive. It is actively hostile to survivors and sympathetic to perpetrators. The need is for everyone but survivors to shut up and listen.
Some thoughts: 1) Somewhere you need to discuss some relevant verses and how you/the church understands them in practice.
Deu_19:15 "The testimony of one person alone is not to suffice to convict anyone of any iniquity, sin, or guilt. But the matter will stand on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
Mat_18:16 But if he doesn't listen, take one or two others with you so that 'every word may be confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
Mat_26:60 But they couldn't find any, even though many false witnesses had come forward. At last two men came forward
2Co_13:1 This will be the third time I am coming to you. "Every accusation must be verified by two or three witnesses."
1Ti_5:19 Do not accept an accusation against an elder unless it is supported "by two or three witnesses."
2) A "player" (man or woman) can thrive in ambiguity and phrases and actions with double meanings, but an "innocent" may not even realize when such is the case.
3) I think the Scottish verdict of "not proven" could be a useful conclusion in some cases.
4) Jesus did things that were scandalous to a 1st Century Jew, breaking many man-made rules (including sexual taboos), but we know he was without sin. A person can be following Jesus into places that may "look bad" but I hope this is more to any negative report than that.
5) Some people are attracted to power or those with power. One way to mitigate this is to "de-power" as much as possible any individual leader, e. g., by having a plurality of leaders for a local congregation.
6) It can happen that single people share an attraction to each other. If one or both is/are a church leader(s), what happens?