By Joy Allmond
What should church leaders do if a member tells them they have been sexually abused?
That was the discussion on a recent episode of the Rainer on Leadership podcast hosted by Thom S. Rainer, LifeWay Christian Resources president and CEO, and Jonathan Howe, LifeWay’s director of strategic initiatives. They spent two episodes talking about the impact of the #MeToo movement on local church life.
Josh Bryant, managing attorney at Church General Counsel joined Rainer and Howe for a follow-up podcast, during which he discussed what churches should do upon learning of sexual abuse within their church.
As a litigator—and a former church staff member—Bryant uses lessons he learned from past situations to help churches navigate abuse issues. He also provides consultation on plans churches should have in place should they encounter a #MeToo moment of their own.
“I look back, and I see time after time, case after case, where I was telling them, ‘I wish you had done just this,’ or, ‘I wish you had captured this piece of evidence,’” said Bryant.
Here are four things Bryant said churches and leaders should do in response to sexual abuse allegations.
1. Write it down.
“Churches need to write down what they believe their theology is regarding sexual harassment, sexual assault, and abuse,” said Bryant.
“Most articles of faith already have some sort of statement about what biblical sexuality is. Churches should update those regarding proper contact.”
2. Speak Into It.
“Pastors can’t necessarily change behavior. … But the Word of God is powerful,” said Bryant.
He also suggested churches discuss the topic and church policies in membership classes. And all church staff should have sexual harassment training.
3. Plan for it.
Bryant said church leaders should wrestle with the question: What should our policies be?
“You can’t stick your head in the sand,” said Bryant.
He said churches should have a plan for three scenarios:
- When a staff member or volunteer is accused.
- If the actual event happens on church proper or at a church event.
- If the victim or accused is a member of the church.
Bryant also offers a broad general set of advice if someone tells a church leader they’ve been sexually abused.
“They need to be told, ‘You’ve got to call the police,’” he said. “In fact, you’re probably (as a church leader) in a position where if abuse is going on, you are a mandatory reporter.”
Also, with counseling practices, Bryant says some should be referred outside the church since some pastors are not licensed to counsel in their respective state.
“If you don’t have that certification, the church can run into some liabilities,” he said. “And the pastor, personally, could run into some liabilities if they aren’t licensed to counsel in their state.”
4. Respond to it.
“The plan you make has to have a zero-tolerance policy,” said Bryant. “Especially in the employment context, but also in terms of your church members.”
It is crucial, he said, for a third-party investigation to take place.
“Pastors are not qualified to be investigators,” he explained. “There are definitely benefits of having an attorney come in and do an investigation. Anything said to the attorney in the course of that investigation—especially by a church employee—is subject to attorney-client privilege and confidentiality. That allows the church to respond, investigate, and take action, while keeping a cap on the publicity of what’s going on.”
Bryant also said, for example, when a sexual harassment complaint is issued, the church must separate the harasser from the harassee. And if the harasser is on staff, he recommends putting the accused on paid administrative leave during any investigation.
“This protects everyone,” he said. “The (alleged) victim and the church.”
- What the Church Should Do in the Aftermath of Domestic Abuse
- 7 Ways to Protect Your Child From Sexual Abuse
- Sex Abuse in the Church: Is It Ever Too Late to Call the Police?
- Healthy Ways to Help Sexual Abuse Survivors in Your Church
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.