How Can A Church Witness Well in the Aftermath of Sexual Abuse?

Imagine that a woman tells you she has been sexually abused by a leader in your church. What should you do?

No leader wants to think about sexual abuse being present in their church. But with the #Me Too campaign spilling over into #Church Too, we dare not close our eyes or deny the reality of sexual misconduct by Christian men1 inside the church. The tragedy of sexual abuse presents a unique opportunity to embody what we truly believe about truth, repentance, justice, and forgiveness. The tragedy of sexual abuse presents a unique opportunity to embody what we truly believe about truth, repentance, justice, and forgiveness. Click To Tweet

Every situation is unique and complex. We must pray and discern wisdom. What I am seeing is that church leaders commonly fail in their response to sexual abuse in two critical ways: by failing to report the accusation of abuse to authorities outside the church, and by failing to adequately disclose the sin inside the church.

When the church fails to act in both ways, the credibility of the Gospel witness suffers.

Why You Need to Report Abuse to Legal Authorities

Reporting sexual abuse to legal authorities is essential, and here are two reasons why.

First, reporting abuse may be the law. If the incident involves a minor, most states require you to report the abuse within 24 hours. If the abuse involves an adult, you may not be legally obligated to report the issue, but you still have a pastoral responsibility in helping the victim notify proper authorities. Often, authorities will not act without an official complaint from the adult abused. The church can play a vital pastoral role by offering support for a woman overcoming her fear and filing a formal complaint. Every credible complaint of sexual abuse should be reported to the proper outside authority.2 In the end, the question you will be judged by is, “When did you learn of the abuse, and what did you do about it?” 

Unfortunately, many church leaders fail to report sexual abuse because they want to protect their reputation or the privacy of the people involved. Some pastors reason that the steps outlined by Jesus in Matthew 18 must replace, or come before, secular law. But this thinking sets up a false choice. As a church leader, you can follow Matthew 18 and give due diligence to the law. You can do both because the function of each is necessary, and the purpose of each is quite different, which leads to the second reason why you should report incidents of abuse.

Second, reporting abuse to authorities is crucial because often the story you hear about the accused is not the first or only incident of abuse. Furthermore, discovering the extent of the issue requires relational detachment and forensic skill that you do not possess. You are not an investigator or prosecutor. You are not independent or unbiased. You know and love the people involved. You may even be close to the accused. Your desire to come alongside him may cause you to doubt her at the very time she needs your trust and he needs accountability.

Your job as a pastor is not to act as prosecutor or defender. Your goal is to shepherd healing, to allow truth to be revealed, to hear confession, and to wisely navigate forgiveness and reconciliation through the power of the gospel.

How to Communicate Abuse in Your Congregation

So, you have reported the abuse to authorities and have begun shepherding the abused and abuser. Now what?

Following Jesus through the aftermath of sexual abuse can feel like a quagmire. It requires both uncompromised truth and unconditional love while tending to all of the following:

  • Faithful pastors will walk with the abused as they seek hope and healing. This cannot be stated enough.
  • Faithful pastors must also wrestle with what it looks like to walk with the abuser—to invite the abuser into truthful examination, confession, repentance, and hopefully, restitution. (When it comes to the abuser, look for worldly sorrow versus godly sorrow. Worldly sorrow is being sorry “I got caught” and doing the minimum possible to make the problem disappear, including denial and defending oneself or discrediting the accuser and attacking the church. In contrast, Godly sorrow is being so grieved about sin that “I will do whatever it takes” to make right and pay back for the harm caused.3 Worldly sorrow about sexual sin is factually ambiguous and spiritually misleading, adding confusion to mistrust.)
  • Additionally, there is a congregation to keep in mind which is also affected and is in need of a shepherd.

Your role is invitation, not coercion, calling all to the way of Jesus.

As #MeToo and #ChurchToo stories have emerged, all too often, congregational leaders and pastors have failed to adequately disclose and address what has happened, leading to further pain for the abused and a damaged witness. Here, therefore, are seven features I recommend for public communication about sexual sin in the church (whether it is a sinner’s public confession or leadership making a public statement): Here are 7 features I recommend for public communication about sexual sin in the church. @Jvanyperen Click To Tweet

  1. Speak God’s Word. When the church speaks about sin, we announce the gospel. We use the words God would use to describe sin while remembering the cost paid by the Word who became sin for us. I recommend that any public communication about sin be written out first. If the sinner is confessing, ask him to write a confession for your approval so that what is spoken reflects God’s Word and sorrow about the sin. If it is not the abuser but a church leader communicating to the congregation about the sin, that leader should write out every word. The act of writing forces you to listen to God and to speak the full truth in love. Often, it takes many drafts to find God’s voice over yours.
  2. Be Specific and Succinct. Name the sin exactly, in plain and easy to understand words that are not ambiguous. The sinner should say something like, “I abused power by forcing sexual contact with a sister in Christ.”4 The communication should be direct, stating the essential “what” and “when.” For example, “John committed sexual abuse when he was a youth pastor at another church 20 years ago.” While you do not need to go into detail or provide a long description, be succinct, honest, and direct.
  3. Take Unconditional and Comprehensive Responsibility. Sexual abuse is sin against a woman, and it is also a violation of the underlying ideals, beliefs, and values of your entire community. Sexual abuse violates everyone’s trust. State this clearly and completely. In confession, the sinner should take full responsibility for the consequences of his actions, regardless of what others did or said. Never use “if” in your confession, “If I offended you please forgive me.” Abuse is wrong regardless of whether people were hurt or offended. Similarly, do not use the word “but” to minimize or qualify the confession. Confession is about what you said and did, not about what anyone else said or did. In communicating sin to a congregation, be clear about unconditional responsibility, “John used power to sexually abuse a sister in Christ. He was wrong to do this. He has sinned against her, against God, and against us as he has violated the ideals that form our fellowship. We are asking John to accept full responsibility for his sin.”
  4. Express Genuine Remorse and Humbly Ask Forgiveness: When confessing or communicating about sexual sin, it is imperative to think through and express authentic empathy for the social, emotional, physical, and spiritual suffering resulting from the sin. “I realize that my abuse has caused great emotional pain and spiritual confusion. I was selfish and indifferent—treating a sister in Christ as an object rather than a child of God. I did not give her the respect and love as a woman made in God’s image. Further, my acts caused her emotional and spiritual trauma that has brought great grief and harm to her family and friends. I abused my covenant to love God and to love others, especially those in our faith community.”  The confession should express genuine remorse and humbly ask for forgiveness. “I failed. I am grieved and deeply ashamed of my actions. I am sorry. I ask you to forgive me.” If you discern no fruit of godly sorrow in the sinner, do not allow him to speak publicly until you do. Instead, communicate to the church what steps you are asking “John” to take to examine the harm his sin has caused.
  5. Submit to Change. Admitting fault and asking forgiveness is only half of what makes an authentic confession, and only the start of a reconciliation process. True repentance means identifying and correcting the dysfunction that led a person to sin in the first place. This requires an abuser submitting to a process that will reorder his thoughts, attitudes, and actions about women and power. Church leaders must create and invite the sinner into such a process, describing the pathway briefly to the congregation. The confessor states, “I never want to commit sexual abuse again. Thus, I am submitting to a process of accountability guided by others that will thoroughly examine the thoughts and actions that led to my selfish abuse, so that I can learn a new way to think and act that treats every woman with the dignity and respect she deserves.”
  6. Make Appropriate Restitution. Sexual abuse is inherently deceitful, undermining trust in all leaders. Congregants might ask, “Why should I believe you now?” Thus, every word confessed or communicated must be backed up with concrete action. A good start is restitution. Restitution means to “pay back” for the trust stolen or harm caused by the sin. Ask the abused what restitution might be best for her. Often, the primary concern of the woman is not for herself but for the protection of other women. If the abuser is a church leader, the first step should be to unconditionally resign his position in the church or ministry. When sexual abuse is clear, church boards minimize the gravity of sexual abuse by allowing the abuser to take a paid “sabbatical,” “leave of absence,” or in accepting his resignation with severance.  These steps make a mockery of truth, re-offend the abused and hinder the work God wants to do in the sinner. The goal of reconciliation is to restore a sinner to fellowship, not a leader to power. Thus, one more step of restitution might be for all church leaders to confess and ask forgiveness for not discerning sin and failing to keep one another spiritually accountable.  
  7. Seek Full Reconciliation. State hope for and encourage steps toward full reconciliation in Christ while acknowledging that this will take time. “I know you cannot trust me now, and may never be able to, but I am committed to change and to doing whatever I can to change my life and restore the trust I have broken with God, with you and with others.” The church must outline and announce an intentional process for the sinner to examine, identify, and actively address the dysfunction in his soul—to unlearn self-gratifying desires and to replace them with God’s “whatever is true, honorable and just.” This will take time and accountable community.

Sexual abuse in the church presents a great challenge to pastors.  But authentic expression of the seven features above will begin a healing process and bear witness to the power of the gospel.

1 While abuse can be perpetrated by both men and women, sexual abuse is overwhelmingly men misusing power over women, which is why I choose to use this masculine language.  The same principles apply, however, if it is a woman abusing a man or same-sex abuse.

By credible, I mean a description of abuse that has factual specificity and emotional authenticity.

See 2 Corinthians 7:10-11

It is my view that all sexual contact between two people (including “consensual sex”) where one person is in a position of power over the other person, such as mentor, pastor, counselor, etc, constitutes a misuse of power. It is abuse.

Jim Van Yperen is an author, speaker and the Founder and President of Metanoia Ministries, a non-profit ministry dedicated to “inviting Christ-followers to discover and embrace reconciliation as a way of life so that the church may flourish in true community.” Since 1993, Metanoia has served more than 95 conflicted churches in 45 different denominations. www.restoringthechurch.org


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