Pastors and reporting

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:

  1. Was this abuse or an accident?
  2. Is there a pattern in this family or was this an isolated incident?
  3. Did the girl do something to push the mom to anger?
  4. Will the fix (calling in the authorities) be stronger than necessary?
  5. How will this hurt the family in their new relationship with the Lord?
  6. 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.

17 Comments

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17 responses to “Pastors and reporting

  1. This is an incredible post. Good tears. Thank you.
    Dave, more than you know, you make space for the Holy Spirit to work.
    Thank you.

  2. “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.”
    This is very clear and logical–thank you.
    What about abuse toward another adult? And what about abuse that is emotional rather than physical–do you handle these differently?

    • “What about abuse toward another adult? And what about abuse that is emotional rather than physical–do you handle these differently?”

      These are important questions. Yes, the situation with adults is different. Not only is there no mandated reporting, but there maybe should not be. Adults are not considered helpless. They have options children do not have. I know that situations sometimes feel like traps and some abusers are very good at creating almost impossible obstacles for escape, but almost all adults can leave. They will pay a price, but they can get out. Children are far more likely to become victims of other abusers if they simply leave.

      I have had adults change their stories to avoid the authorities. When an abused woman comes to her pastor and then lies so that her husband doesn’t get into trouble, the pastor can feel very impotent indeed. And when she does that, she chooses to remain in her situation, I guess. A child needs more protection.

      It seems to me that the law views the abuser and his/her adult victim as equals. Again, I know it might not seem that way at times. Yet, when the day comes that an abused wife, for example, decides she has had enough, she will find the strength and the way to leave. Our job may be to show her that she can do this and to support her as she does.

      And what about emotional abuse? So much harder because the same actions affect people differently. Many of us grew up under almost constant criticism and threats but found the strength to overcome the damage. The law must find measureable damage from observable causes. If you hit a child with a board, for example, you will do bodily injury. The law can handle that. If you yell at a child and say something mean, the law doesn’t know what to do about that.

      Emotional abuse is a place for pastoral intervention, I think. In those places where legal authorities would have nothing to grasp, perhaps we can come alongside a family or an individual. Maybe some intervention with regard to unkind words or criticism. Pastors do have a unique position. They are among the very few professionals who are able to initiate contact and insert themselves into families without compromising their positions.

      I am certainly not suggesting that pastors stop being involved in the lives and struggles of their people. Instead, just the opposite. Maybe pastors can confront the private struggles before they escalate into something the authorities need to handle. A man who battles lust, for example, may find help from his pastor before he touches anyone inappropriately. A person who struggles financially may be able to find counsel and help before he steals to meet his needs. There is great need for someone to come alongside people who suffer before they hurt others.

      This is a great comment and I have just barely answered, but there are certainly differences here that need to be noted.

  3. Penny

    Bravo, Dave–I so agree with PK. Bravo. I also can’t help but think that one day you may receive a call or a visit from that young girl, now grown. No matter what, she will always have the gift of knowing that someone cared enough to call. That someone believed her. That someone wanted to give her a voice, a voice that could be heard. That someone gave her a blessing rather than a curse. Thank you for telling these stories & modeling what needs to be done. Blessings on you~

    • Valerie

      I was thinking the EXACT same thing Penny! Yes, I believe one day- if not now- she will recognize God’s love by how you responded.

  4. Jennifer

    I wish my mother had called when I told her what happened to me at the hands of neighbours. But she didn’t, and I had to live across from that neighbour for 5 more years seeing his face almost every day knowing that my mother didn’t care enough to call. It wasn’t easy, and made me very, very uncomfortable.

    Good post, Dave.

  5. Anon

    My only concern is the times when it is a misunderstanding and not real abuse because the government can really ruin a family. Also, some children lie. In our church, the sweetest looking 16 year old accused her stepfather of sexual abuse. He lost his job, reputation, and marriage to her mother for a time. Turns out, the girl was lying. She was also propositioning other teen boys in the church in side rooms in the basement. When confronted with the truth, she laughed. She thought it was funny that she had the power to ruin a man’s life. She was obviously a narc/sociopath. Mind you, I am not trying to discredit the children who really are abused. I myself, was one. I am simply saying that I have seen both sides. I have dealt with DSS and was horrified at how incompetent most of them are…talk about blaming the victim! They often treat a woman who has been abused as if she is an idiot who must have liked the abuse. They look at you with many preconceived notions and twist your words to suit their agendas. There is no easy answer. Thank God I have never had to intervene but I think if I had to I would confront the family first?? Such a hard call! I don’t envy the role of a pastor.

    • I fully understand, but I wonder if either of us would have been able to discern whether she was lying. What if she was not? Would it be right to delay or to avoid the authorities until we were somehow sure that she was telling the truth? A 16 year old can inflict a great deal of harm, just as any adult can, by lying. But she may also finally be old enough to tell the real story. If an error is made, it has to be made on the side of protecting the child. We just had a 13 year old commit suicide in our community. What would the girl do if she thinks you don’t believe her? Too much risk for me. That’s why mandatory reporting is right.

      DSS, or whatever your area calls the child protective services, is just as fallible as any government agency. I have experienced some very competent social service people. Their understanding of the situation was amazing. But even then their decision was the opposite of what I would have done. They have guidelines and criteria I would not use, but they have a different position than I. The point is not that they are perfect or even good. The point is that they are the proper authorities. The pastor is not.

      As far as confronting the family first, again I understand. But what then? Will they admit abuse? Will a church leader admit sexually molesting his daughter? Probably not. Then what? Do you call anyway? I have been fooled by some pretty good lies over the years. People I trusted turned out to be false. Marriages I thought were good were broken in ways I hadn’t imagined. Lies in church are just part of the game. People who cover their actions with lies have no problem lying to the pastor to his face. Mandatory reporting takes the decision, and the struggle, away from the pastor.

      Thanks for the comment. Believe me, I understand the struggle.

      • Kathy

        It is truly a difficult situation. I would hope that whomever the child complains to is someone who has some level of discernment.
        Sometimes a child isn’t lying, but doesn’t use English the way an adult would. Just a little levity here:
        When my daughter was 2 she told the childcare workers that “everyday my mommy beats me.” The workers had some discernment, knew me and what kind of mother I am, and knew my own mother. They understood the child was trying to tell them SOMETHING, but not sure what.
        They called me into a room privately with my daughter and told me “H says you beat her every day.”
        I was completely shocked. I was horrified and humiliated! It was untrue!!
        But I turned to her and said ‘When do I beat you?”
        Completely innocent she said “Every day we play Duck, Duck, Goose, and every day you beat me.”

        What’s worse — I would let her win every day!! I’m the mom who even stacked the cards in Candyland to make sure she got the Sugar Fairy!! (or whatever her name is!!!))

        Thank God the head of the childcare facility treated this kindly and gently. But I do get your point, Dave. 🙂

    • dalystennis

      It is not our place to judge where or not someone is lying in cases of suspected abuse most children do not lie about these things. I was the wife of a SDA pastor and also a nurse. I found my pastor husband sexually abusing our then 2 month old son. I stopped him he went around telling others how crazy I was so of course the church officials did not believe me and the abuse continued. I started feeling crazy as he said I decided I needed a break and told him I was going home to my Family. He told me if I left him he wasn’t coming to find me. I took the chance anyway and left with our son thinking that he would get himself together to save his ministry. When I got to my family I found the my pastor husband sent me court papers in the mail he placed a restraining order on me so that I couldn’t come back to our home. He also requested from the courts give him physical custody of our then 6 month old son. These men really thought that the courts was going to stand on their stand because they where pastors. Anyway visitation where given to him. In spite of the fact that it was very difficult on me to do monthly visitation since I was now in Florida and I had to take our son via plane monthly for visitations to California I did it of course the child came back from visits now talking about what his Father & paternal grand mother were doing to him sexually his father’s senior pastor even told me what he told him yet he never reported it to the police but blamed me for telling my child to say this. I reported it, eventually my now ex-husband stopped visitations yet the damage was already done to this child emotionally and spiritually. I wondered what would have been the outcome if when I reported my ex-husbands abuse to us to the Seventh Day Adventist officials and they would have called in the police how different our lives would have been. Again I say it is not our place to determine let the police do their job.

  6. newlyanonymous

    Very well explained, and I thank you for educating the flock on what it is to be a pastor in these situations. I confess, as the wife of a narcissist now entering the realm of secret-keeping with our child (his doing so, not mine), and my having told our pastor, the police, the medical professional, and a victims services hotline – and nothing happening – well, I appreciate the clarity given in this post. In our case, there is part of me that wish mandatory reporting from one of these groups would occur, however I also rest in knowing that God has spared our daughter the hammer at present (which probably would include probing questions like “has daddy ever stuck his finger up your ….?”; This was told to me by a female church member and day care owner in whom I confided who said, “Those things once in her head will never go away.”) So for now, I rest in God’s shutting some doors while opening others, and I trust in His leading and timing for her and my protection and, I hope, eventual deliverance, no matter how that comes.

  7. Forrest

    Absolutely the right thing to do, Dave. It is the authorities job to identify if there is a case to answer and, if so, then deal with it. There may be charges brought against an alleged perpetrator and interim measures put in place for the protection of the child. Keeping the child safe is the primary consideration.

  8. As a victim whose abuse was handled terribly by the church THANK YOU!!!! I appreciate your heart! I pray that more pastors will use you as an example of what to do!

  9. Kathy

    Tina, I am so very sorry. A church should be a refuge. I was not a child, but an adult, with an abusive husband, and the church did nothing — well, they encouraged me to return to him. I gave the pastor a list of 10 women in the church that I KNEW were in abusive marriages AND their husbands also were members. NOTHING was done except I was made to feel very unwelcome.
    I am so sorry. ((hugs))

    • newlyanonymous

      Kathy,
      You may “enjoy” reading a fictional novel by a man who writes about how the church sometimes (often?) doesn’t handle these situations well. I discovered Randall Arthur reading his first (and stellar) novel “Wisdom Hunter,” about a pastor who, after hitting a major life crisis, leaves the pastorate to seek after God in a direct and personal way. It’s a great novel, but the one I wanted to recommend to you was Arthur’s second novel about how the church treats a wife whose husband was an adulterer. It’s titled Brotherhood of Betrayal. If you read just the descriptions on amazon it will give you an idea. Arthur doesn’t beat up the church so much as he points out what can happen – and does happen, and it’s kind of refreshing for a Christian novel to explore this territory so often hidden under the rug. Having grown up in a household where both parents were “Christian,” but there was no real marriage and my mom eventually left taking us kids – shipwrecking everyone’s faith (except my dad’s), these novels hit home in a big way for me. Maybe you too. (His other books weren’t as good in my opinion, but these two are stellar.)

  10. Jo

    Outstanding comments! More than you know!!! I’ll spare you the horror story that would take a very long time, about a large church that did NOT do mandatory reporting, and there were even law enforcement officials in the church! But one disagreement–#e where you said that perhaps the child in your story may have done something to push the mother to anger. She was 9 years old. So maybe she was sassy. Whatever. But don’t blame her. she was the victim. That’s like the Christian counselor who told me that we’d have to find out what I was doing to drive my husband to another woman–thus he became the victim. I was also told I had to get rid of my ‘anger’. You betcha I was angry!

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