Reporting abuse is the best response
There is perhaps no more important issue for a church or school to wrestle with than this matter of reporting child abuse to law enforcement. We understand that many believe strongly that the church must be free to deal with issues of sin within the church rather than engaging law enforcement or at least addressing it internally before law enforcement is contacted. Yet each day there are news reports of churches, pastors, church staff and private schools being criminally charged for not reporting abuse. Because of the history of cover-up in the Catholic Church and the cover-up at Penn State, many states have changed their laws to mandate that organizations report abuse. One of the rationales behind the passage of such laws is that without a legal mandate to report, institutions will continue to handle child abuse cases internally.
Experience tells us that when an institution handles child sexual abuse or such allegations internally or privately, its actions are too often seen as covering up a crime. Handling child sexual abuse privately inevitably leads to placing the reputation of the institution above the needs of the victim, which always leads to providing more protection for the abuser than healing for the victim. This, in our minds, is not consistent with the biblical mandate to “hinder not” a child from coming to Christ.
The reality is that your church is either mandated to report or it is not, depending on the laws of your state. If your state mandates that pastors, church staff and volunteers report, you have no choice but to report or be in violation of the law. But even in cases where the state mandates churches to report, there are churches that still refuse to comply. Refusing to report, when required by law to report, is in most states a misdemeanor offense, punishable by prison and/or fines. In other states, it is a felony offense.
If you live in a state where the church is not mandated to report, you still need to have this discussion and determine whether or not you will voluntarily report the crime of child abuse to law enforcement. Churches who are not mandated to report should determine what course of action is the best and most consistent with Scripture. It is our opinion that reporting abuse is the right decision and the only decision that allows the church to provide healing for the victim, provides a means of determining if there are any more victims, and sends a clear message to child molesters that child abuse will not be tolerated in the church.
Holocaust survivor and author Elie Weisel once said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim . . . silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” We make no apologizes for the conviction that the church of our Lord must respond with outrage and courage in confronting the evils of sexual abuse, especially abuse in the church. There are too many adult survivors whose voices have been silenced by the self-protective course many churches have taken.
When discussing the issue of reporting,
two of the most common concerns are
“What about false accusations?” and
“Can I be sued for making a report?”
As it relates to false accusations, the statistics indicate that this does not happen as often as some suspect. What does happen is that when it is proven that someone was falsely accused, the reaction is wide-spread and in some cases over-reported by the media. This leads some to conclude that it happens more often than it actually does. In reality, children rarely make false accusations. Children don’t create traumatic experiences in their minds. It is our job as adults to protect them from traumatic experiences. It is not logical to conclude that a child who has never experienced a childhood trauma could make up a story of trauma. And why would a protected child make up a false story?
Yes, there are times when a child might mis-identify an abuser out of fear or coaching by the abuser. And there are times when an older youth might make a false story because they know the damage that can be done. Again, statistics indicate that this is rare. Also keep in mind that making a report is not always equal to making an accusation. Your report is a way to ask for professionals to determine if abuse has occurred.
Policy consultants will tell you that you cannot build a good policy off of the rare exceptions. The possibility of an extremely rare event should not be the primary basis for what your policy states. Because children rarely make false reports, you need to determine what you will do when a disclosure, discovery or suspicion arises.
As it relates to a person’s liability for making what turns out to be a false report, all states have the same standard. You cannot be held liable for making a good-faith report. It is only when you intentionally make a report you know is not true, that you can be held liable.
Volunteers in your organization should be informed if they are mandated reporters. There is a moral and ethical responsibility to let all volunteers know if they are mandated to report and then to train them in how to report. Every volunteer needs to know that they take on a legal liability when they serve in the church or school.
SPECIAL NOTE TO PASTORS:
You need to understand the law in your state as it relates to “pastor-penitent privilege.” How you learn of an accusation or incident may determine if your legal obligation is to report or not to report. If you are in a state that requires clergy to report abuse, you need to decide if you need to preface any confidential conversations with a penitent that if they confess any illegal activity, that their comments will not remain confidential. This matters requires a thorough discussion with your legal advisor and leadership team.