At this moment in our culture, the sin of sexual assault and abuse and our culture’s failure to address it is being brought to light. Each day we hear another story of past abuse as women come forward to tell their story – “it happened to #metoo.” The religious community is not immune to this moment, as God uncovers the hidden sin of sexual abuse and assault in the church. It happens in the #churchtoo! Women are courageously telling their story of abuse and how the church failed to address it, often enabling the abuser and silencing the victim.
If there is sexual assault and abuse in the history of your church, don’t wait for a #metoo moment to bring past issues back to the surface. Review past sin, even if you believe you’ve dealt with it already, and see if you have been thorough in these areas.
The role of the church when faced with sexual assault and abuse is not to preserve the ministry of the church. God can do that. Though such sin has consequences for the work and witness of the church, a far greater blight on the church is to have hidden sin and passed over abuse and assault. The role of the church is to do what is right and godly, to minister to the broken and hurting, to seek justice for the abused, and to deal thoroughly and biblically with sin. If the church failed to do that in the past, the time to address that past failure is now
Here are a few suggestions for how a church might address past sexual assault in it’s past, before a #metoo / #churchtoo moment brings sin to light for you.
- Do a thorough examination of church policies regarding how you will respond to accusations of sexual assault.
- If the church has no policy on how sexual abuse allegations will be handled, put one in place.
- If the policy is incomplete or inadequate in any way, update it.
- Have an attorney review the policy to make sure it complies with legal standards (note that biblical/moral standards may exceed legal standards). Also let your insurance agent take a look at it to see that it corresponds with your church’s liability policy.
- Make sure that all pastors, staff, leaders, counselors, and volunteers are aware of and commit to following the policy.
- Periodically and routinely review the policy with pastors, staff, leaders, counselors, and volunteers.
- Audit every occasion where a sexual assault allegation is made to be sure the policy was followed.
- Review any known cases of sexual assault in the church in the past. Ask the following questions:
- Was the Church’s prior response adequate and proper?
- Did the prior response hide, minimize, or mislabel the assault in any way? Did the response seek to “balance” blame between the victim and the abuser?
- Did the prior response seek to silence the victim and/or cause the victim increased shame?
- Was the victim pressured or coerced to forgive and/or restore fellowship with the abuser?
- Was the abuser deemed to be repentant and/or restoration granted prematurely? Have we been naïve about the nature of sin and repentance and that sexual sins often have deep roots that must be dealt with over the long term and that repentance can only be evaluated over time?
- Was the abuser allowed to leave quietly and continue ministering in another setting without consequence?
- Were the proper civil authorities notified at the time and did they investigate?
- In the case of an existing staff member, given our assessment, should they remain in ministry now?
- Have appropriate amends been made?
- Is there ongoing evidence of deep, thorough repentance on the part of the perpetrator?
- If this incident were to become known widely, does the minister meet the qualification of being “above reproach?”
- Has there been and is there currently proper oversight and ongoing accountability of all ministers/leaders?
- Is there anything that was not known at the time that is now known but was not acted upon?
- Is there anything that should have been done differently?
- Determine if any further action needs to be taken.
If the responses to any of the questions above reveal that the prior response was improper or inadequate, determine what steps should be taken:
- Get outside, unbiased council if necessary – both spiritual and legal
- Determine to correct any errors of the past – make any necessary apology, amends, changes in structure, leadership, etc. In dealing with the past sin, be careful not to name the victim without their consent. Do not do anything that would re-victimize or further shame the victim.
- Update and make public the church’s procedure for handling accusations of sexual assault/abuse as well as the child safety policy.
- Make hard decisions about current leaders. If a leader is disqualified from ministry and/or is not “above reproach,” even if a prior decision was made to restore the leader, make the difficult decision of removing that person.
- Report any previously unreported crimes or abuse to the proper authorities.
- Publicly repent of any former improper action in the past and make appropriate changes.
- Do not compound the problem of a past mishandling by doing nothing now.
The responsibility of the church and guilty party is to do what is right, even years later, regardless of the consequence to the minister or the church or whether or not there is a present legal course of action. The church must do everything it can to deal thoroughly with sin and to minister faithfully and compassionately to those who have been hurt by it. Biblical justice and faithfulness require that past sins be dealt with, including the sinful neglect and mishandling of abuse in the church.
- The legal system’s statute of limitations should not set a time limit on a church addressing an issue.
- The notion that an event is long in the past does not remove the culpability of offending parties, the need for biblical repentance, or the responsibility of a church to make needed corrections.
- The notion that we should preserve the reputation of the church or the ministry of an individual rather than dealing seriously and thoroughly with sin, protecting and ministering to the vulnerable and abused, seeking justice, and bringing sin to light is far too common and is both unbiblical and ungodly.
- Even when a church finds it has handled itself in a completely forthright and biblical way, the church should still make it a priority to keep policies current, renew members and staff awareness of and accountability to follow such policies, and keep speaking biblically to the issue of sexual predation.
- Keep speaking in a biblical, gospel-centered way about sexual assault and advocating for survivors of abuse.
- Preach messages of hope and healing for the abused.
- Speak in a biblical, trauma-informed way about abuse
- Equip counselors who can competently minister to those who have been the victims of abuse. Make referrals whenever competent counselors are not available or when outside counsel would be beneficial to the victim.
- Communicate in word and especially in deed, that the church is a safe place for survivors of abuse to share their story and find true hope and healing in Jesus Christ.
Sexual assault and abuse should never occur in the church of Jesus Christ, but it does. And when it does, the church must deal thoroughly and adequately with sin. Sexual assault and abuse in a church is a horrible occurrence that greatly harms victims and is a severe blight on the church and the gospel of Christ. The time to correct past mistakes is now, not when the issue is forced upon the church when hidden sins are uncovered and brought to light by others. The time is now for the church to repent of its past failures in this area and make things right and not wait its own #metoo moment.
 See pg. 226 of Langberg (see note 2 below for full citation)
 A great resource for this is Diane Langberg, Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores, Greensboro, New Growth Press, 2015. Chapters 12 and 13 deal specifically with abuse in the church and Christian organizations.