There are a lot of reasons victims’ stories of abuse or assault are often not taken seriously in the church, such as the reputation and status of the person accused and the difficulty believing something like this could happen in the church. One particularly deep-rooted fear often haunts people so much they default to a posture of skepticism towards victims: the fear of a false accusation. We can hardly imagine the trauma of being accused falsely of such a grave crime; we’ve heard stories where it seems someone was accused falsely; we shudder to consider the personal and professional consequences of a false report being believed. If we hear about any given allegation, therefore, we may default to, “Maybe this story is a lie.”
Alan Stucky’s piece “Stop Living in Fear of a False Report” (which I highly recommend reading in full here) is a helpful source for deflating the emotional weight of our fears of false allegations. Stucky begins wondering, “How often do false reports actually happen?” The National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), referring to three different studies, finds a false allegation of between 2 to 7 percent, while another analysis of seven studies comes to a figure of about 5 percent of allegations classified as false. As low as these percentages are, they become even lower when you consider that often the terminology and standards used by law enforcement are inconsistent. The NSVRC summarizes, “rates of false reporting are frequently inflated, in part because of inconsistent definitions and protocols, or a weak understanding of sexual assault.” For example, often law enforcement will (wrongly) believe that a delayed report makes an allegation implausible, and, based on such faulty criteria, categorize even a report that might very well be true as a false report.
A second factor to consider is that these percentages only take into account data compiled from assaults or abuses that are actually reported. Disturbingly, the NSVRC has found that 63 percent of abuse cases are never reported. This number jumps to 80 percent of cases involving children. Keep in mind that numerous studies over the years have consistently found that up to 25 percent of women and 16 percent of men experience some form of sexual abuse before the age of 18, while 27 percent of women and 30 percent of men have experienced physical abuse.
All of this means that while false allegations are quite rare, abuse is not at all rare. It continues to be a devastating epidemic and an injustice that demands the church’s full attention. How can the church do justice to the reality of abuse—which means we need to hear more allegations, not fewer—without being controlled by a fear of false allegations? Stucky points to the crucial need to have a strong and clear policy in place to help church leaders know both what they are qualified and required to do, and what they should not do, such as assessing an allegation, advising about pressing criminal charges, or providing clinical counseling. “These skills, and many others, are not generally part of most seminary educational training.” What church leaders are required to do is to support victims and report allegations to persons qualified to assess them professionally and respond appropriately. In most states, pastors are mandated reporters for suspected abuse, but in all cases, church leaders are morally obligated to report suspicions of abuse to persons better qualified to respond, for example through the 24-hour hotlines available in all states.
When churches have a clear policy in place for assessing allegations of abuse, the fear of false allegations can fade, for “if we are appropriately working with outside people who are trained in interviewing victims, those false reports will almost always be identified correctly.” Clear policies and role differentiation allows pastors and church leaders to focus their energies on what they are qualified to do: providing spiritual guidance, supporting survivors, and working towards a climate where victims feel supported and encouraged, both to report abuse and in their journey towards healing.