Always take allegations of sexual abuse seriously

Stephen Rowland’s column appears Wednesdays in The Daily Herald.

Why is it that pastors (or priests), of all people, are often the ones who stonewall an investigation into sexual abuse claims in their churches/parishes?

It’s a definite problem — we all have followed the news in times past about the Pope apologizing to victims of sexual abuse perpetrated by certain priests. It was suppressed and covered over for decades. Then there was the Southern Baptist organization apologizing to sexual abuse victims not long ago. The burning shame of these humiliating ordeals is that you would think a church is the last place on earth to find such atrocities.

I think the sad truth is that sexual abusers can be found in practically any large group of people, religious or secular. They fly “under the radar” carefully disguising their hidden motives. They sometimes volunteer for youth activities, mentoring programs, youth ministry in churches specifically to increase their chances of finding a “grooming victim.”

That’s why it’s so important to run background checks on potential volunteers in your youth programs. Also check with their friends and family members to see if there is any hint of improper actions of a sexual flavor in their histories.

A church where I taught adult Sunday School classes in Michigan had the unthinkable happen — an adult man had sexually abused a little boy in the men’s restroom. Guess what the pastor did when word got out? Go to the police? Nope. He did his best to sweep the whole affair under the rug. It didn’t work.

In a couple of weeks, practically the whole congregation had heard what happened. They booted the pastor out of the church and let the police know.

I think the first gut level reaction some pastors have is this: “Oh no, this will hurt the reputation of our church greatly. The whole community will hear about it. Our reputation will be permanently stained and we might have members leaving our church. Prospective visitors will not darken our doorway now, that’s for sure! They will think we have perverts attending here. Our church finances will suffer. A long standing church member will have his life ruined — jail time, lose his career, possibly lose his marriage. Shouldn’t we just ask him to apologize to his victim, then forgive him? Isn’t forgiveness a big part of our Christian message?”

That type of thinking is dead wrong on several levels. It ignores the emotional/mental/physical damage done to the victim that may require years of professional counseling. It magically absolves the perpetrator of any real world consequences thus enabling him to prepare more “grooming victims” in the future. It also makes a mockery of true forgiveness.

Forgiveness is predicated upon true repentance. Genuine repentance entails being open and honest with everyone involved, including the police if a crime has been committed, while being willing to make any appropriate restitution to the victim and fulfill any civic duty/penalty involved.

The famous theologian and Christian apologist CS Lewis once remarked “If a Christian man has committed murder, then the appropriate Christian thing to do is turn himself in to the police and be promptly hanged.” Perhaps it’s “life imprisonment” in much of our modern society, but you get the point. You would be surprised at how startling and shocking that concept is to many in church leadership today.

The Apostle Paul commanded Christians to be in obedience to the civil law, as long as it does not contradict God’s law. God’s law in the Old Testament (combining theological and civil law) prescribed various penalties, including capital punishment, that even devout believers were expected to comply with if they committed a crime.

I personally would have a great deal of respect for a pastor who openly addressed a case of sexual abuse in his church seeking restoration for the victim and true repentance for the perpetrator. I certainly would be more apt to attend a church like that as opposed to the “cover up” pastor worrying about the church’s reputation.

Susan worked with a counselor in sexual abuse cases 20+ years ago, and she can spot the signs of a nascent developing sexual abuse case in a nanosecond. Our pastor had singled out a girl and was grooming her. He was giving the girl rides home by himself and often sat with her in the church service. Susan expressed her concerns to the parents, which they blew off. They truly loved this man and couldn’t see the signs. A little while later, a full sexual relationship blossomed; a trial followed with a conviction, and the pastor was sent off to prison.

Always take allegations of sexual abuse very seriously; don’t cover them up. False allegations are far and few between and they get weeded out in the investigative process.

Support the victims. Demand accountability from the perpetrators. That’s the path towards true Christian forgiveness.

This article originally appeared on The Daily Herald: Stephen Rowland: Always take allegations of sexual abuse seriously

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