Whenever a church member or leader is accused and arrested for a criminal sexual offense, there are serious repercussions in the entire community, both in and outside the church. Sadly, these situations are not uncommon and Safe Church has been consulted in many instances. Accusations need to be taken seriously. As people of God and disciples of Jesus, we are called to seek justice and healing where abuse has occurred, and with and for those who have experienced harm.
If and when an allegation of abuse against a congregational leader (lay, commissioned, or ordained) or member becomes part of the public conversation, that may be the time for the church to make a statement. At that point the media may come to you. Below are some very general guidelines for when an incident like this becomes public.
- Innocent until proven guilty is a strong value—we must not assume guilt in the face of an allegation. It may be difficult to navigate the narratives created by different perspectives within the congregation. Remind people that we must not assume; conjecture and speculation are not helpful. Our tendency is to deny an allegation of abuse, especially when it involves someone we know and admire. However, denying allegations too soon, or too strongly, can lead to greater future harm within the community. Instead, we must withhold judgment in an attitude of prayerful waiting until the process unfolds. At the same time, precautions must be taken to maintain a safe environment. To prevent potential future harm it is always wise to have the one accused step down from any leadership role until an investigation is completed. We must live in the tension of not knowing the full story. This can be difficult when we’d much prefer a quick resolution. Unity of the body needs to be held up as a common value, and pastoral care provided for all parties.
- Let the congregation know that the council is aware of the situation and is prepared to cooperate fully with any investigation (sometimes a letter to the congregation, or reading a prepared statement can work as a way of communication). Do not discuss the complainant(s) or their identities. If the complaint has involved an arrest by law enforcement, you should include that information. It may be wise to solicit others to come forward as there may be survivors who have not come forward. What becomes public may be only the tip of the iceberg, and the possibility that others may also have experienced harm should be considered.
- Remind the congregation over and again that gossip and speculation can add additional hurt to what is already a painful and difficult situation. Instead people should be encouraged to pray for those involved, praying that the truth would be known, and that the Lord would bring healing and comfort to family and friends who are suffering in the midst of the process.
- Designate someone, or a small group of people, that are available to respond to questions or concerns, or if people feel the need to talk about it. There may be others who have been victimized who have not yet come forward. Also note: many in your congregation may have experienced sexual abuse in another context, and this could act as a trigger for them. Having wise people, who are spiritually mature and good listeners, available to talk with those who have questions or concerns is very important. And having women as a part of the group available to listen and to talk to those who express that need is important, since women are over represented in the population of those who have experienced sexual abuse.
- Once the media is involved it's also a good idea to have a media "point person." Everyone in the congregation should know that they should not talk to reporters, but should refer any media contact to the media point person, whether that is the pastor or someone else. (Things can get very messy very quickly when various people are telling different things to the media and are not careful about how they are talking about the church or about the person who's been accused.)
- In communicating with the media, a general principle is that less information is better. Have a prepared statement ready, stick to it, and don't say more or answer questions. The prepared statement should acknowledge that: this is a very difficult time for the church community; any allegations of sexual misconduct are taken very seriously; the church is ready to fully cooperate, if needed, with any investigation; the church hopes for truth to be revealed and for justice to prevail; and prayers for all involved are appreciated.
It is best practice to seek outside intervention for both the one who has been harmed and the one who has perpetrated abuse. Beyond this, the role for the church is to provide the pastoral care and loving community that is needed for each person and for the church community to navigate through this difficult time. There may be some processing steps that could be helpful as the situation unfolds, offering space for people to process what they are experiencing around these events in a safe facilitated environment.