I grew up in the church. My dad was a theologian and preacher. My husband was a pastor for almost a decade. I’ve seen the beauty of the church but also the dysfunction. Like any group of human people, church communities are unique and imperfect. It’s unfair to make broad strokes about all Christians based on the behavior of a few. But at the same time, when unhealthy patterns emerge, it’s important to talk about them so that these patterns don’t maintain damaging behaviors.
One pattern that has troubled me about some churches is the impulse to deal with child sexual abuse “in house.” I’ve seen many variations on this them but it usually involves a pastor or a group of elders who believe that they can “extend grace” and deal with the problem themselves. It often involves some disciplinary action and some kind of restoration process that is overseen by church leaders.

the duggars

There have been two instances brought to light this week that illustrate this pattern. First, a story broke that detailed the allegations of sexual abuse against Josh Duggar, the oldest brother of the Duggar family depicted in the reality show 19 Kids and Counting. Josh has since admitted to the sexual abuse. According to In Touch, both his father and his church failed to alert authorities in a timely manner. In fact, Josh’s dad told no one for a year following the first discovery, and there were repeated offenses in that year. Finally, things got bad enough that he went to the church:

Jim Bob then “met with the elders of his church and told them what was going on.” No one alerted the police or any other law enforcement agency. Instead they decided to send Josh to a program that consisted of hard physical work and counseling. James said that Josh was in the program from March 17, 2003 until July 17, 2003.

He said the program was a “Christian program.” Michelle Duggar later admitted to police that Josh did not receive counseling and instead had been sent during that time to a family friend who was in the home remodeling business.

There have also been some disturbing allegations this week in regards to the actions of elders and pastors at The Village Church in Dallas. Jordan Root, a leader in their church, admitted to repeatedly viewing child pornography. Church leadership placed his wife under church disciple for filing for an annulment upon learning about her husband’s pedophilia. An except from a letter the pastor sent to Joshua’s wife:

We have been perplexed by your decision to file for an annulment of your marriage without first abiding by your covenant obligations to submit to the care and direction of your elders. As I mentioned in my first letter, this decision violates your covenant with us – and places you under discipline.

While his wife is under discipline, Jordan is not.

While Jordan’s sin is egregious, he has begun to walk in repentance and willingly submitted to the direction of his pastors.This means Jordan is not in formal church discipline (Mt 18:15). Instead, moving forward, Jordan will remain in a season of intentional pastoral care, where his role will be to remain faithful to actions in keeping with repentence (Acts 26:20), pursuing holiness and purity, and continuing to flee from *sin.

While the Village Church took the necessary steps to report Jordan to authorities, their bizarre and controlling behavior towards the wife and their attempts to both control the narrative and act as counsel in regards to a marriage devastated by pedophilia again illustrates the dysfunction we sometimes see in how churches handle such issues.

Of course, there are many examples where churches have responded appropriately. One such example occurred at my own church several years ago. When Newport Beach police announced they had arrested a man on suspicion of sexually abusing two boys, Rock Harbor Church immediately went public with the fact that this man was a Sunday School teacher. While the initial allegations did not involve church members, the church contacted police, and also held a meeting for all congregants to alert church members to the potential risk and to encourage families to speak with their children. Licensed, professional therapists were on hand. Sadly, after speaking with their children, two families from the congregation added allegations against the man. However, because of the church’s transparency, these children were able to disclose the abuse to their parents and get help from qualified professionals, and the added allegations will provide more evidence for investigators in the case.
Obviously, churches are not the only place where the tragedy of child sexual exploitation occurs. Unfortunately, pedophiles prey where they can gain access to children, and that includes schools, day care facilities and sports programs. What seems to be uniquely dangerous within the church, however, is a tendency to attempt to deal with the problem internally instead of involving legal authorities. Some pastors may feel that they can exact accountability and punishment within the church community. Unfortunately this practice in harmful in many ways. It shields perpetrators from facing legal consequences, and it also puts other children at risk since the perpetrators have no criminal record of their actions. While churches are free to take disciplinary action or provide biblical counsel within the church body, this should always be second to notifying authorities.

While pastors are free to give whatever kind of biblical counsel they see fit, nearly every state has laws that mandate ministers or other clergy members to report sexual abuse. Therapists, school-teachers, and doctors are similarly required to break confidentiality in such cases, and pastors and church leaders are bound by the same rules. There is no client/counselor privilege when it comes to child abuse. It’s one of the few situations where breaking confidentiality is not only accepted but required.

When a church suspects that one of their members is a perpetrator of child sexual abuse, or in possession of child pornography, any restoration process should involve:

1. Immediately calling Child Protective Services to report suspected neglect or abuse of a child. Proof is not required – that is the job of the investigator.
2. Providing referrals to qualified, licensed professionals who can provide professional counseling for victims of sexual abuse. Pastors who do not have training in counseling victims of sexual abuse are not qualified for this role.
3. Removing the perpetrator from leadership and being transparent with church members about what has occurred to avoid risk to other children.

I know that writing this post will cause some people to scold me for airing dirty laundry or causing dissension in the church or bringing attention to horrible events. But I really feel like these situations need to be discussed. They need to be put under the spotlight so that we can do better, and avoid more victims of sexual abuse. We need to demand that our pastors and church leaders take abuse seriously. Forgiveness and legal accountability are not mutually exclusive, and should never be when it comes to sexual abuse.