Some have expressed puzzlement and even a certain outrage about pastors who fail to report abuse, particularly of children. I may be able to give some insights into that hesitation. I have been a pastor for many years now and have had to handle a couple cases of child abuse in my congregations. I will try to be transparent about my own thinking during those times.
First, please understand that I am not writing about those pastors who simply must control everything that happens in the lives of their people. There are such pastors, men who believe they know better than the counselors or authorities. They have the answers all figured out and they don’t want input from outsiders. They are often quick to put obstacles between the victims and the people who can really help.
Nor am I talking about pastors who don’t care. There are some who don’t want to get involved. They think they can cover their ears and eyes and problems will go away. Some of them think that acknowledging a problem, even in a church family, will somehow reflect poorly on the church. They neglect to educate their people about ways to deal with these problems and try to ignore them when they come up.
I am writing about pastors who truly care. Good people who want to help and want to do the right thing.
Let me tell you about my first case. A girl of nine or ten came to our Vacation Bible School limping and crying. She was from a new family in the church. When asked why she was crying, she said that her mom had hit her on the foot with a board that morning. So, should I call the mom for an explanation? Should I examine the foot to see what the problem was? Well, the truth is that I was almost as incompetent to discern the facts about what happened as I was to determine whether anything was broken in her foot. I am a pastor, not a physician nor an abuse counselor.
So, I called the police. I knew they would intrude into the home and be very unwelcome. I knew I would be the bad guy for calling them. Everything I feared (as far as my connection with the case) happened. The girl was placed into foster care, the family went to court, and they never came to church again. Eventually, the girl returned home, but I had no further contact with the family.
Did I do the right thing? Yes. But it cost the family a great deal and it cost the church. I consider the church’s cost to be beside the point, even if sad. I hope that the family got the help they needed.
Here are some of the thoughts that went through my mind at the time:
- Was this abuse or an accident?
- Is there a pattern in this family or was this an isolated incident?
- Did the girl do something to push the mom to anger?
- Will the fix (calling in the authorities) be stronger than necessary?
- How will this hurt the family in their new relationship with the Lord?
- What additional trauma will the girl and the family experience?
Now, before you jump into angry accusations of my thinking, let me share the answer to all of these questions. NOT MY CALL! It was not my place to determine the extent or frequency or cause of the abuse. The small amount of counseling training I received did not cover abuse situations, and even if it had I would still not have the objectivity or the hardness to make the decision.
I was genuinely concerned for the family and believed that I was placed in a position to help, not hurt. But I had to see that the help I could give did not include shielding them from the authorities. No matter what I feared for the family and their relationship with the church and the Lord, I feared more for the girl who received such treatment from an angry mom. I hated making that call, but I did it and I was right.
There’s a reason civil authorities come in with a set of rules and what seem like hard hearts. They have a tough job to do. They cannot be swayed by explanations or lies or tears or even threats. We need them to remain absolutely objective in these cases. I have heard the things that come out of people’s mouths when they are accused. Even the most respected Christians can lie and twist their stories. Someone needs to be able to look past church membership and family unity and potential pain to do what is right.
So this is why I believe mandatory reporting is the right thing. It takes the choice away from the pastor. By law, in most states, the pastor or counselor must report suspected abuse. He or she does not have the responsibility or the right to seek the truth or determine cause or extent. He must turn the situation over to the authorities, which we believe God has put in place, to do their job. It is very difficult to turn someone you care about over to authorities for examination and discipline. Too many pastors hesitate—because they care—and the abuser is allowed to continue.
For years I have told people that government has one tool, a hammer, and when they come into your home they use their hammer. It is not a gentle tool. It breaks things. But sometimes a hammer is just what is needed. Abusers get by with their sin because they are able to avoid consequences. When the authorities come, it is hard to avoid the hammer. It doesn’t always work, of course, but that doesn’t mean it is wrong to try. When the pastor calls the authorities, he is not bringing down the hammer on the family. He is getting out of the way so God can lead the authorities to use whatever means are necessary.
Abuse cannot be tolerated or excused in the church. Pastors must work on the front lines to stop the suffering they see. If it takes mandatory reporting to make that happen, then it is the right thing.
But there are things pastors can do to help mitigate the damage of the government’s hammer. When I was faced with another case, which involved sibling sexual assault, I handled it differently. I knew and cared about the family and I knew the disruption of the authorities would be very hard for them. So I told the father that I would be calling the police in one hour. I encouraged him to call them first. The father was not the cause of the assault and I believed it would be very helpful if he showed his willingness to cooperate from the beginning. When I called the police, just one hour later, the father had already called in and the police were already involved. Then I could stand alongside the family to encourage them as they experienced the hammer (which, of course, they did—and rightly so).
In our day, when suicide destroys the lives of so many young people and dangerous drugs are so available to deaden the pain, we must take abuse seriously. Few pastors I know would hesitate to call authorities if they suspected a counselee had committed murder. Many would call if they had evidence of financial fraud. It is time for pastors to make the call when they hear about abuse. Even if they find it hard to trust the authorities, they can trust the One who is over those authorities.
Pastors must do what is right. And, if they won’t do what is right, we need laws to motivate them.