It’s been an agonizing couple of weeks for survivor Jules Woodsen. Woodsen was sexually assaulted by megachurch pastor Andy Savage in 1998, while he was serving as her youth pastor. On March 20, 2018, Savage released a statement admitting he had abused his power over Woodsen, and announcing that he would step down from his pastoral position at Highpoint Church. A few short days after Savage resigned, yet another prominent megachurch pastor was in the news. Bill Hybels, pastor of Willow Creek Community Church, has been accused of sexual harassment. That story is still unfolding.
It’s worth noting that both pastors received standing ovations from their congregations when they made a statement in response to the abuse allegations. Both churches claimed they took proper steps to address abuse disclosure. And both churches have been criticized for their lack of transparency and inadequate response to/investigation into the abuse allegations.
Other writers are doing an excellent job breaking down the failures and disappointing responses of these pastors and churches. So instead, I’d like to present five steps for proper response to abuse disclosure in churches. I deeply hope that churches facing similar situations in the future will have the tools and knowledge to do better.
1. Involve the Police
If a crime has been committed or if you are unsure if a crime has been committed, it is important to quickly involve the police. When abuse is disclosed to your church staff, this is the first vital step. In some states, pastors are mandatory reporters. But even in the states where they are not mandatory reporters, pastors have a moral mandate to report abuse.
I have often heard from pastors that churches are to be above reproach, a light on a hillside and held to a higher level of accountability than secular society. Public schools and secular organizations are expected to report abuse to the police. For the church to be above reproach, it should be going above and beyond to do the right thing by reporting abuse quickly and accurately.
2. Submit to A Truly Independent Investigation
In cases where the police are no longer able to investigate or bring charges, an independent investigation is important. In an excellent article on what makes for a truly independent investigation, Boz Tchividjian explains: “Because the motivation for this process can be based upon institutional self-preservation, many investigations labeled as ‘independent’ are nothing more than ‘internal’ investigations in disguise. An internal investigation allows the institution being investigated to stay in the driver’s seat, while an independent investigation requires that they get into the backseat with everyone else.”
An unbiased, truly independent investigator is far more likely than an internal person or team to discover the truth about an abuse disclosure and give others the chance to come forward with more details. A church cannot properly investigate itself; there will always be intended or unintended protectionist bias. Churches must reach out to reputable outside sources and disclose their findings to the public.
3. Remove the Accused
When a survivor discloses abuse by a church leader or congregant, the accused needs to be immediately removed from leadership service, staff or volunteer activities, and congregational attendance while the claim is properly investigated. It’s a liability to allow a leader or congregant accused of abuse to influence, counsel, or access victims, church members, or vulnerable staff. And, allowing the accused person to continue in their leadership role is failing to provide appropriate care to survivors and other victims you may not yet know about.
By removing the accused during the investigation process, the church ensures that the congregation is protected from manipulation and potential harm by the accused. If the abuse claim is found to be false (though sexual abuse claims are rarely deemed untrue), then a temporary inconvenience is still a small price to pay for the safety of those in the church’s care.
4. Recommend Licensed Therapists
While I encourage pastors and churches to pray for survivors and offer biblical words of comfort (if the survivor would like to hear them), only licensed therapists should step into a counseling role. Many victims of abuse suffer from mental health concerns due to the abuse, and mental health treatment requires a licensed, trauma-trained expert.
It would be unthinkable to rely on a pastor without a medical degree to perform surgery on a congregant. In the same way, it is dangerous for a pastor without a state board issued license or a pastor who merely holds a “certificate” to counsel—to treat the complexities of mental health and trauma— either a survivor or an abuser.
Church leaders should instead recommend that the survivor sees a licensed therapist. If a church leader or representative committed the abuse, the church should pay for a licensed therapist of the survivor’s choice. And, if a church leader or representative is suspected of even inappropriate behavior, that pastor should not be allowed to counsel either their victim or anyone else.
5. Compassionate Care for Victims
When a victim discloses abuse, it is important to respond with compassion and to never make excuses for the abuse or the abuser. Thank the victim for telling you, assure them they were right to speak up, and let them know the action (steps 1-4 mentioned above) that you will be taking. Keep them up to date on the process. Recommend they see a therapist and a trained victim advocate. Ask them to speak to the police with you.
Assure the victim that the abuse was not their fault and that God did not want this abuse for them. Let them know their safety and the safety of others is important, and back this up by following the steps above. If the victim lives with the abuser, assist them in finding provisions and a safe place to stay. Compassionately support them as they seek safety and justice over the next weeks, months, or years.
Finally, when a person in power is accused of criminal misbehavior, abuse, harassment, or even inappropriate comments, don’t give standing ovations for that individual—even if you believe he or she may be innocent. A conversation on sexual misconduct or abuse is simply not a time where celebration is appropriate.
At the cross, Jesus was an abuse victim too. He was abused by the religious leaders of the day. Jesus knows what it feels like to be abused by those claiming to be spiritual. Remember this when abuse is disclosed to you. What you do for the hurting and vulnerable, you do for Jesus.