I am a pastor, not a licensed counselor. However, it does not take long in the context of pastoral ministry to see that clergy are often the first people approached when someone in the church family has an issue needing counsel and care.
As the spiritual shepherds of congregations, pastors are viewed as trustworthy authorities and granted the privilege of caregiving in various life situations. Yet many pastors are unprepared to properly counsel or care for people going through the most difficult of life circumstances.
What should a pastor do when a congregant confides that he or she has been or is being abused sexually?
What should a pastor do when someone in the congregation exposes instances of sexual abuse involving others?
When is it appropriate to break confidentiality?
Understandably, confidentiality is crucial to a trusting relationship between a pastor and parishioner. The church member’s confidence in the confidentiality of a pastoral counseling session significantly contributes to the environment of trust and the freedom to share. However, as pastors we must be clear about the limits of confidentiality when a situation might call for disclosure and the involvement of civil authorities.
This is why it is important to communicate the exceptions and limits of confidentiality even in the context of pastoral care. Pastors should seek to minister in adherence to proper legal and ethical requirements in these situations. When entering into such relationships we cannot assume that the ones seeking care understand these concepts and implications. Conversations occurring within the context of pastoral care are only confidential to the extent provided by the law.
“Confidentiality is the promise to hold information in trust and to share it with others only if this is in the best interest of the counselee or sometimes in the interest of society.” –Gary Collins, Christian Counseling
In most states it is required by law to report sexual abuse, both physical and psychological (Horrace Lukens, Christian Counseling Ethics, 45). In instances of sexual abuse, the breaking of confidentiality to government authorities falls in the best interest of the pastor, the one seeking care, and others who may be in harm’s way. It is our pastoral duty to protect others. Even the most trained professional counselor cannot make exact predictions as to future violations of an offender.
The better part of wisdom acknowledges the nature of sin and the probability that such instances can and most likely will occur again. The high recidivism rate among child molesters would strongly affirm this. It is important to protect the welfare of the abused and others by seeking civil justice in such situations.
While the laws that govern confidentiality and privilege vary from state to state, in cases of sexual abuse, it is wise to call the police. The civil authorities have a responsibility to investigate such claims. Pastors must acknowledge that two authorities need to be involved: The government authorities have a responsibility to deal with this at the civil level (Romans 13:1-7), and the local church has a responsibility to deal with this at the ecclesial level (Galatians 6:2).
As Boz Tchividjian recently said in an interview with Ed Stetzer, “We need to let the God-created civil authorities who are experts in investigating these types of situations do their God-ordained work and investigate the situation and make a determination.”
As pastors we need to minister to people who have been sexually abused. Part of that ministry involves seeking justice in the situation but also committing to caring for the abused over time. We need to allow victims of sexual abuse to share their stories, trusting that we will care for them patiently and lovingly as they process their emotions and responses to such wicked abuse. We are called to care for the hurting as tangible representatives of God’s love. We need to let those under our care know that while we are a broken human expression of that love, they have our “attention and care while we are together and prayers while we are apart” (Gerald May, Care of Mind, Care of the Spirit, 121).
All of us long for the day when wicked acts such as sexual abuse will be no more, and that day is coming, and with it the justice of God against all the sins of man. But until that day, let us point to Jesus who heals the deepest wounds of the soul.
As pastors, let us seek justice for and strive to provide compassionate and competent care for those who have experienced sexual abuse.
- A Church Addresses Sexual Abuse: Preparation, Brad Hambrick
- A Sexual Abuse Response Policy for Churches, Brad Hambrick
- On the Threshold of Hope, Diane Langberg
- Rid of My Disgrace, Justin Holcomb
- Shame Interrupted, Ed Welch
- On Guard, Deepak Reju
- Keeping Children Safe, IMB
- About the Limits of Confidentiality, UCLA