Ministers and other church leaders can learn that a minor is being abused in a number of ways, including a confession by the perpetrator or a disclosure by a friend or relative of the victim or perpetrator.
Dennis Watkins, the Legal Counsel for the Church of God denomination based in Cleveland, Tennessee, gets about three calls per month regarding just such an occurrence. Pastors, youth pastors, and children's ministry directors describe how they became aware of an abuse and ask for help on what to do next. In all but one instance over the years, his recommendation has been the same: report it to the state.
That's because every state has a child abuse reporting law, and often, ministers and other church leaders are legally considered "mandatory reporters" by their state. Failing to report can trigger serious consequences.
"It's just such a precarious environment anymore to decide not to report that I've taken the position we need to find a way to report [all suspected abuse]," said Watkins, whose denomination consists of 6,000 churches and 1 million congregational members in the United States and Canada.
Often, church leaders desire to resolve such matters internally through counseling with the victim or the alleged offender—without contacting civil authorities. And often it's because the parties involved all may be a part of the same congregation. "Pastors can find themselves in highly pressurized situations," Watkins said.