Most people — including pastors and church leaders — have little experience conducting investigations into sexual harassment complaints or other allegations of misconduct. In my HR career, I have conducted or advised on many. One of the most egregious ways of mishandling an investigation is to fail to start one.
The Guidepost report brings to light many of these failures. One that every SBC church leader could learn from is the failure of the Counseling Pastor (CP) at FBC Woodstock to take appropriate action in 2010 when he first learned that Dr. Hunt had engaged in sexual misconduct. You can find the details on pages 149-161. The interview with CP is on pages 154-155.
Per the Counseling Pastor, around the end of July 2010, Dr. Hunt admitted to CP that he had kissed a woman and touched her breast over her clothes during his recent sabbatical in Florida. The woman was not Dr. Hunt’s wife.
Comment: At this point, CP should have realized 1) an investigation into Dr. Hunt’s behavior was necessary, and 2) he was not the person to lead it. Whenever someone admits to misconduct, we cannot simply accept their testimony as the truth. Further inquiry is necessary to establish the facts and determine all that occurred. Sometimes people admit to misconduct when they fear they are about to be exposed. At other times, they admit to a lesser offense to avoid greater scrutiny that might expose a more serious one.
The reason CP should not have been the investigator is because it’s essential that the investigation be free from any perception of undue influence or bias. Dr. Hunt was the Senior Pastor and almost certainly in a position of authority over CP. Even if the Counseling Pastor was outside the Senior Pastor’s authority, it’s unlikely CP would have held any direct authority over Dr. Hunt. An independent body in the church with authority over Dr. Hunt should have been informed so they could appoint someone competent and without any appearance of bias to investigate. This same body could also have relieved Dr. Hunt of all his pastoral duties pending the outcome of the investigation.
Dr. Hunt wanted the Counseling Pastor to meet with him, the woman, and her husband so he could apologize for his behavior. CP agreed to attend the meeting.
Comment: CP assumed he had the full story after hearing from one person — Dr. Hunt — and he thought he was helping by trying to help both parties reconcile. However, until an investigation has been completed and any follow-up action decided, any attempt at reconciliation or restoration is inappropriate and premature.
Had leadership been made aware, in addition to relieving Dr. Hunt of his pastoral duties, they could have instructed him to avoid all contact with the woman and to notify them and their appointed investigator if she attempted to contact him (however unlikely that may be). This additional step helps to avoid further allegations of misconduct while the investigation is ongoing.
The Counseling Pastor attended two meetings between Dr. Hunt, the woman, and her husband. Dr. Hunt’s wife attended the second of these. According to the report, “When asked if [the woman] gave an account of what happened, [CP] said she could have spoken up, but she stayed silent.”
Comment: CP took no personal responsibility for obtaining the woman’s testimony. It is not surprising the woman did not speak up in either of the meetings. She may have been intimidated or embarrassed by the presence of Dr. Hunt, his wife, or her husband (who had just heard Dr. Hunt’s description of what happened). Additionally, she may have had doubts about the neutrality of CP. Once a witness has been identified, it is the responsibility of the investigator to try to get their testimony. Sometimes that means making multiple attempts to secure their cooperation.
Witnesses of the same event often have differing accounts of what happened. Interviewing them separately makes it possible for the investigator to evaluate, corroborate, or refute an individual’s testimony. Interviewing people in a group can result in “memory contamination” where people unintentionally conform their testimony to what they hear from others.
The Counseling Pastor told investigators that he had wondered how the woman ended up in a condo next door to Dr. Hunt. The woman’s husband said Dr. Hunt had given him contact information for the rental, but Dr. Hunt denied having any role in it. “[CP] called it a ‘he said/she said’ situation, and he had no proof.”
Comment: “He said, she said” is usually an avoidance tactic. CP basically asserted that the truth was unknowable, so he had neither the ability nor the responsibility to act. An investigator doesn’t have that luxury. When there is insufficient evidence to decide what really happened, more investigation is required.
In the end, the investigator’s narrative will tell a story that is supported by the preponderance of the evidence — more likely true than not true. There may be lingering questions or inconsistencies in the accounts that cannot be resolved, but there is enough evidence to say “this is probably what happened” and then take appropriate action.
In sum, don’t try to handle an allegation or admission of sexual misconduct on your own. Get help and counsel from people with experience. And if it looks criminal, reach out to local law enforcement immediately.