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by Karen De VriesNOTE: Names have been changed.

Shattered Faith
As a teenager Joanne Ravensbergen was abused by her brother-in-law, now a retired CRC pastor. After her brother-in-law pleaded no contest to indecent assault, Ravensbergen said she “could not worship in a church that had [the abuser’s] picture in the council room.” Even worse, the abuse “destroyed my faith,” she said. “I’ve burned my Bibles.”

Suzanne*, an abuse victim in a longstanding case that still hasn’t been resolved either in the CRC or in court, had to be treated for depression. Her family has left the CRC and now worships elsewhere. “We see no reason to go back,” Suzanne said. “Our lives have changed completely. We’ve spent years in pain trying to rebuild our marriage and family. We’ve had to explain to our children that the pastor was dangerous and they couldn’t trust him.”

“I was made out to be the person at fault,” Suzanne said. “He [the pastor] has played the victim. And because of that, there has to be a person to blame. It’s been me. We don’t want to go back to that environment.”

When justice doesn’t happen inside the church, some victims, emboldened by the increasingly powerful voice of women in society, have turned to courts of law to administer justice and compensation—and they’re getting it.

In the United States, clergy in every state can be criminally prosecuted for having sex with anyone under age 18. In 17 states, clergy who provide psychotherapy as defined by state statutes and have sex with a client face felony charges. Minnesota and Texas have criminalized any pastor-counselee sex, eliminating the defensive argument that spiritual counseling isn’t psychotherapy. Some clergy also have been charged with rape for having nonconsensual sex with parishioners who were under the influence of alcohol or drugs, such as post-operative painkillers. Pastors in Canada, too, can be charged with criminal sexual assault for the same kinds of behavior, and the statute of limitations is so broad that even decades-old cases can be prosecuted.

Suzanne still is trying to work with local law enforcement to close some legal loopholes that have allowed her former pastor to dodge criminal charges. She believes it’s the only way justice will be served.“When a church finds out about abuse, they’re so emotionally tied to one or both parties that they don’t have the means to make logical decisions about what’s happening and what the minister is telling them,” she said. “Because there are no guidelines, the victim is pushed aside and the minister is listened to. Even if the minister resigns, it’s still not adequate. The Bible is very clear about restitution, and here there is no restitution.”

Other pastors have been convicted, though. The British Columbia Supreme Court, for example, ordered Ravensbergen’s brother-in-law to pay her $11,000 in restitution and sentenced him to two years’ probation and five months’ community service. He must also complete sex-offender counseling and may not be alone with females younger than 18–including his grandchildren.

Congregations Suffer Too
Pastors aren’t the only ones who get punished. Churches who don’t respond appropriately to charges against their pastor are also culpable. Many cases are settled out of court with gag orders, so specific details of the settlements aren’t known. But Visser and Swagman say that some congregations have had to make room in their budgets to pay punitive damages.

The structure of the CRC is such that individual congregations hold ministerial credentials and have the most authority in polity matters. So it’s “highly unlikely,” Swagman said, “that the denomination or classes would be liable in any of these matters because they are just a collection of congregations.”

One international expert on clergy abuse doesn’t think that hierarchical protection will continue, however. “A great many churches with a similar structure have been sued, and in many instances efforts to get the case thrown out have not worked,” said Gary Schoener, a Minnesota clinical psychologist and abuse consultant who has testified in many clergy sexual-misconduct cases. What’s more, he said, such a structure makes it “more likely that abuse can occur by repeat offenders.”

The latter is apparently true in the CRC. Swagman notes that in the cases she’s aware of, the abuser has had multiple victims in multiple locations. In any case, Schoener said, “The local church is quite sueable, and so are the members of its managing board—elders, church council, deacons, etc.”

“Another risk that church officials seem not to have thought of or taken seriously,” Schoener said, “is that the state can require them to have insurance to be able to operate. This is required of contractors and many types of professionals. Ironically, it is not required of psychotherapists and not churches. But if there are enough of these [abuse cases], the solution is likely a legislative requirement to ensure that a victim can be compensated.”

Criminal and civil punishments that could financially and spiritually bankrupt churches—coupled with the very real possibility that abuse could be happening—mean that local congregations need to be ready to act when charges arise. Churches should prepare themselves now by taking the following actions:

  • Establish classical Abuse Response Teams trained in fact-finding. “The dynamics of abuse are more difficult to discover and understand than if someone is arrested for drunk driving,” Swagman said, so special training is necessary. According to an Abuse Prevention office brochure, the teams also “give the accuser and the accused a non-adversarial environment to discuss the allegations” and should be a well-advertised resource for victims who might not otherwise know where to turn.
  • Educate the church council about the problem before it happens. If council members don’t see clergy sexual abuse as a serious problem, they’ll minimize the charges when incidents do occur. Although it should not be their primary motivation for taking charges seriously, make sure they know that churches are increasingly legally liable, especially if victims feel the matter was not handled well in the ecclesiastical setting.
  • Carefully screen pastoral candidates. Be aware of any criminal records and talk frankly to several members of the candidate’s previous congregations about the pastor’s behavior.
  • Eliminate nonspiritual counseling from the pastor’s job description. Any requests for mental-health counseling—or any counseling expected to last more than two or three sessions—should be referred to qualified mental-health agencies.
  • Establish written protocol for preventing abuse. Draft common-sense rules to prevent unsupervised one-on-one contact, such as putting windows in the pastor’s office door or scheduling counseling sessions only when other church staff members will be nearby. Require pastors to keep detailed records of all handwritten, phone, and electronic communication.
  • Establish written protocol for handling charges of abuse. AdvocateWeb, a nonprofit organization that maintains an extensive Internet site for survivors of professional abuse, offers advice on evaluating complaints and developing policies as well as links to sample policy statements by other churches (, also see
  • If charges are made, immediately suspend ministerial credentials until guilt or innocence is determined, and inform the congregation. The natural reaction to charges is to protect the pastor and the congregation by trying to dispose of the accusation quickly and quietly. But churches can’t let affection for the pastor or even public penitence cloud decisions. “Forgive and forget” doesn’t work in these cases, Visser says. “If you allow it to go undercover,” he explained, “chances are the church won’t deal with the problem, and it will be acted out again. If the church is going to be pure, it has to be open.” Being up-front about the charges may also encourage other victims to come forward.
  • Help victims deal with their pain. Corporate turmoil shouldn’t obscure the needs of the primary victims, and victims shouldn’t be made to feel guilty. Suzanne, referring to the parable of the good Samaritan, said, “I feel like I’ve been beaten up and left on the side of the road. Instead of helping me, people have gone to the robber and forgiven him, and they come to me and say I really need to forgive that robber. But the parable is about helping the person who is wounded.”
  • Get outside legal help.
  • At minimum, depose guilty pastors for several years, and don’t be afraid to revoke credentials permanently. Visser recommends a minimum removal of three years, with reinstatement decided on a case-by-case basis. But Swagman says that in most cases the abuse is egregious enough that reinstatement cannot be considered. 

In his book The Stain That Stays (Christian Focus Publications, 2000), Baptist pastor and consultant John Armstrong contends that in most cases of clergy abuse, the betrayal of trust is so great that the pastor will never be able to serve effectively again. “Sexual sin is especially able to deceive, to harden the heart, and to bring untold harm and destruction to those touched by it; thus it destroys pastoral leadership whenever it occurs,” Armstrong says. Deposing a pastor doesn’t preclude forgiveness or rehabilitation; it only prevents the sin from happening again in a pastoral context.

Legally, Schoener says, “Churches have power over their clergy that is unparalleled. The Supreme Court has pretty consistently turned people down who are clergy and who lose their positions, so it is hard for a pastor to oppose any action of a church.”

Though classes and the denomination may still be somewhat buffered from legal liability, victims and their supporters say the CRC must nevertheless provide clear leadership in preventing and handling abuse.

John M. Piersma is an Indiana attorney and an elder in his church. He has been frustrated with how certain denominational leaders have been handling a long-standing clergy abuse case affecting his congregation. Piersma contends that such leaders must recognize their moral and legal obligation to deal openly with abuse matters and to implement plans that lessen the opportunity for its occurrence. 

“We need to review and update the Church Order with guidelines to assist the local church, classis, and synod through the deposition and any possible reinstatement requests,” Piersma said. “I realize it’s difficult to maintain a common goal or purpose; however, certain issues, such as pastoral abuse, require it.”

Above all, churches need to put clergy abuse in proper perspective. Yes, the church is at risk of financial devastation and embarrassment, but to address abuse only to protect our pocketbooks is just as bad as ignoring it. Morality demands that we stop abuse before it happens, that we act as God’s agents of justice for the abuser and of grace for the abused, and that we show the world that while God forgives, God also demands righteousness.

*Name has been changed. 

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