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Responding to Abuse Toolkit Step #4: What Are the Options?

When the allegation or disclosure of abuse involves a church leader, the consequences can be especially damaging for individuals as well as the entire church community. We hope this toolkit will help people, especially church councils, understand what their options are. It will also be important to know what the denomination has to say about it. See, Responding to Abuse Toolkit: Denominational Position Statement and Summary of Church order related to abuse.

Option 1: The Advisory Panel Process:

One of the mandates of the classis safe church team is to provide an Advisory Panel Process when allegations of abuse are brought by an adult against a church leader. The Advisory Panel Process is described in detail in the document, “Guidelines for Handling Allegations of Abuse Against a Church Leader” which were revised and adopted by Synod 2010 and also revised slightly again in 2019. A simplified flow chart of the Advisory Panel Process is also available.  

A few notes:

The Advisory Panel Process depends on voluntary participation and is followed when:

a) the claimant is a legal adult (there is no statute of limitations, so alleged abuse may have taken place when claimant was a child or adolescent), and

b) the alleged abuse involves a CRC church leader and is physical or sexual in nature

The Advisory Panel Process is usually requested by the claimant, the one bringing the allegation. A request for the process may come to a church council, a safe church team member, or directly to Safe Church Ministry. The process is ecclesiastical in nature, and its use does not prevent the claimant from also taking criminal or civil action if deemed necessary. Members of the panel are safe church team members specifically trained in the Advisory Panel Process. So, the process also depends on having trained people who are able to serve on a panel. They may not be members of the church of either the accused or the claimant, nor may they have any ongoing affiliation with the accused or the claimant. This makes the process more neutral and avoids the biases and entanglements that come from trying to respond to an allegation amidst ongoing relationships within a church community. The Advisory Panel Process guidelines provide important safeguards for all parties, and therefore should be followed carefully. The role of the panel is to determine whether the allegations are more likely than not to have happened and whether they are serious enough to warrant further action. After hearing from both the claimant and the accused, the panel presents their report to the council, who will then determine what actions to take. Note: If the accused is serving in a church leadership role, best practice requires that he or she step down from all leadership responsibilities until the situation is resolved.

The claimant may request a safe church advocate or may bring an advocate of his or her own choosing into the process. The advocate is to be present at the panel hearing and again when the report is presented to council. Communication with the claimant and advocate is important throughout each step of the process.

Option 2: Restorative Practices

The CRCNA has affirmed principles of restorative justice and urged congregations to employ restorative practices when possible (Synod 2005, Synod 2014). In addition, the Abuse Victims Task Force (Synod 2010) includes a significant discussion of the role of restorative practices in cases of abuse or misconduct by involving a church leader. That report notes that justice is defined by right relationships, and when justice is violated, we are called to right the wrong, to restore broken relationships, and to reestablish peace within the community as much as we can. The report recommends increased use of restorative practices to foster healing and restore community.

Restorative Practices, as a social science, has grown and changed significantly over the last decade or two. The practices go beyond addressing harm and can also be seen as a prevention strategy, a way to strengthen communities by facilitating open communication and building healthy relationships. Restorative Practices can provide a facilitated space to talk about what has happened, how each person has been affected, and what needs to happen next. In the case of sexual abuse, power dynamics must be taken into account. For this reason, it’s especially important to use a trained facilitator who has had experience working with these kinds of situations.

Restorative Circle Process Description

A Restorative Circle process may be used in cases where clear harm has been done, as well as in situations of general tension or conflict. In the case of harm done, the Restorative Circle provides an opportunity to talk about what has happened, and how each person has been affected. The process itself creates a safe environment to share experiences, feelings, frustrations and struggles and gives an opportunity to be heard and to hear one another. In addition, the process can encourage working together to determine what, if any, appropriate next steps might be to bring about an acceptable resolution.

In the circle, a talking piece is used. Only the person with the talking piece in hand may talk. Everyone else may listen. In the circle, everyone is on equal footing. Each person has a chance to share his or her own thoughts, feelings and personal impacts. The process itself does not allow for back and forth communication, which can quickly escalate the level of conflict. It also does not allow a few to dominate the discussion.

Each participant responds to questions, which have been scripted ahead of time. Common questions include: What happened? Or, what do you think about what has happened? What were you thinking at the time? What have you thought about since? What has been the hardest thing for you? And, what do you think needs to happen now? Answering these questions leads to increased understanding and builds trust.

If next steps are agreed upon, it may be helpful to have those written down so that everyone is literally “on the same page” in terms of expectations for the immediate future. In addition, it is also a part of the restorative circle process to have an informal time afterwards where people have the opportunity to talk with one another.

If you would like more information, if you have questions about the restorative circle process, or if you would like help in finding a trained restorative practice facilitator, please contact Safe Church Ministry.

Option 3: Something Else

Church Councils have a lot of flexibility to choose how they will respond to disclosures and allegations of abuse. Every situation is unique and contains numerous variables to consider. Often input from a Safe Church Coordinator or team member, who understands abuse dynamics and impacts, can offer a valuable perspective in these sensitive conversations about how to respond to various situations. Please remember that if a child is in harm’s way, it is up to you, as an adult, to protect that child and contact the proper authorities immediately. Also, remember that when adults experience abuse, their need is to be empowered again by making their own choices about what happens in their own situation. It is best when they are engaged and involved in every step of any process that is considered. As far as possible, decisions should rest in their hands. Ask the one who has been harmed, what do you want to see happen? We stand with Jesus when we stand on the side of the oppressed and the hurting.

A Patient Journey

As much as we want to be done with an allegation or situation of abuse, these things take time. Many factors are involved; it can feel like a web into which you are getting more and more entangled or an onion with never-ending layers. There are no shortcuts. Trying to rush through to be done with it, or leaving issues unresolved, can lead to hidden wounds that fester and cause bigger problems later. A long-term perspective is needed to get through the difficult places and come out stronger on the other side.

One common pitfall is moving too quickly to forgiveness. Forgiveness is an extremely difficult process for someone who has experienced sexual abuse. The process must remain authentic, and not be demanded, coerced or rushed. It is important to separate forgiveness from reconciliation or restoration. Where trust has been broken, it may take time to build it back again, or it may never be restored. Forgiveness does not always mean that things go back to the way they were. There are consequences for sin that remain within the context of forgiveness.

It can take a lifetime for an individual, and a full generation for a congregation, to be free from the trauma caused by a situation of abuse. The healing journey is long and winding. Blessed are those who have someone to walk alongside, who are not alone on the difficult journey. We are deeply dependent on God’s wisdom, strength, and transforming power as we respond to situations of abuse, and as we walk alongside in the journey towards healing. Therefore, we over and again must commit ourselves and our work to the Lord, seeking wisdom and grace from above for each step of the way.  

Questions to Prayerfully Consider:

  • Who is responsible to respond to allegations and disclosures of abuse at our church? Do we have a designated abuse response team? Do we know what processes and resources are available and where to get assistance as needed?
  • Does our classis have a safe church team, trained and ready to facilitate an Advisory Panel Process should one be requested? If not, what can we do to make that a reality in our classis?

Ideas from Safe Church Ministry:

Use Safe Church Ministry brochures — Keep a Safe Church brochure at the information table or gathering area at church. Be sure to include contact information for your Safe Church team leader or or classis Safe Church Coordinator. This helps everyone know that in this church, we take abuse seriously and that resources are available.

Participate in training and educational opportunities — Safe Church offers many opportunities for training. We also partner with organizations to promote participation in training outside of our own. Training in Restorative Practices, Trauma Healing, and the Circle of Grace program are good examples.

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