How to Respond to Reports of Child Abuse

Reasons why training and a legal and ministry-minded response plan are needed

Churches need to be aware of how children are being protected at church from sexual, mental, and physical abuse. To help in this effort, we’ve interviewed a group of leading experts on preventing sexual abuse at church. This is the first of two interviews. See our second interview with the experts on common blind spots for church leaders.

Interview participants: Brian McAuliffe, CFO at Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois; Boz Tchividjian, law professor at Liberty University and executive director of GRACE; Peter Persuitti, managing director of Religious & Nonprofit Practice at Arthur J. Gallagher; and Frank Sommerville, lawyer and a shareholder in the law firm of Weycer, Kaplan, Pulaski & Zuber, P.C. Freelance Editor Ashley Emmert conducted this interview, with assistance from Samuel Ogles.

Ashley: What are common mistakes churches make when abuse is reported to them? I know there are churches that try to keep it within the church and that that’s a huge mistake. But can you talk about those common mistakes in reporting abuse and the ramifications of those mistakes?

Brian: In our church, and in any church in Illinois, any person who does any kind of pastoral work is required, by law, to report known abuse. But training volunteers so that they feel a sense of empowerment to report—that’s the hard part.

We want to make sure volunteers are reporting anything they see. You don’t want to leave it just to clergy or other staff. You want to make sure that the entire team that’s involved in children’s ministry understands that there’s an inherent need for them to report anything they find that seems off—at least to staff members. The staff can then report it to the police and to the Department of Children and Family Services.

Ashley: What happens to a church if they don’t report correctly?

Boz: I’m more concerned with what happens to the victims. What happens is that you have victims who are most likely mistreated by the church, sometimes unintentionally. What’s communicated to a victim when a church tries to handle abuse internally is that the victim is not the most important person in the situation. (Leaders are) saying that there are other factors the church is weighing to make a determination to report. And that’s very damaging.

It’s amazing how many survivors I encounter who say, “You know the abuse was horrific, but what impacted my life even more was the failed response of the church.”

There are many legal liabilities as well. I think you have to create an environment where victims and advocates feel empowered to come forward—a place where they’re not discouraged from speaking up. I think that’s significant because there are many people who remain quiet because of fear, or because they have witnessed or observed how the church responded in another situation. They don’t dare say anything to anybody about what’s happened to them, whether they’re a child or an adult, because they’re afraid of the past repeating itself.

I also think that as the Church, our first priority in any abuse case is the victim. Our second priority is the other vulnerable people in our congregation. We have to protect them. The alleged perpetrator is a priority, too. And that’s what makes it so difficult in churches—it’s when the alleged perpetrator is a well-known person, a charismatic person, an influential person; that’s where I have found things fall apart.

You can have the best preventive policies in the world, but when somebody makes an allegation against somebody in the church that is well-known or well-liked, things begin to spiral out of control. And so I think the key is creating these environments, and part of that is policies that say, “We will respond to an abuse disclosure the same way in every case regardless of who is being accused.”

Finally, I would say that ultimately, if the church has to sacrifice, it must sacrifice to the one who’s claimed to be hurt. At times the church might realize they goofed, they didn’t catch the situation in time, they didn’t address it, they didn’t interview or screen well enough, and I think that’s where that church has to say, “We goofed here, and our primary priority is this victim.”

There are false allegations of victims, of disclosures of abuse. I hear that a lot, and I’ve dealt with some of the prosecutors. But study after study has shown that false allegations of child sexual abuse take place anywhere from one to about seven percent of the time, and so statistically there’s a very strong chance that what that person has disclosed is actually true, and you need to respond appropriately.

Frank: One of the things that the church needs to be mindful of is the personal relationships that come into play. This is going to impact the church. You have the legal issues. You’ve got the public relations issues. You’ve got the criminal aspect. And all of those things need to be managed.

We strongly suggest that you have a reporting mechanism that’s flexible, because you don’t want to have a situation where the only person that receives these reports is a senior pastor, and the senior pastor is the abuser. We’ve seen that happen. You want to have some flexible means for dealing with that.

Once you receive a report, the church needs to put together a committee—a task force, as I call it—to address these different facets. It needs to include some people from your governing board. It needs to include some people that are going to be dealing with the insurance. You’re going to have a lawyer. You’re going to have a PR person or spokesperson. The church is going to have to manage all of these different facets. It’s even more challenging if the church is smaller and doesn’t have all of those in-house resources to handle all of it.

One of the first things that I tell a church to do in an abuse case is to assign someone to minister to the victim and the victim’s family. That’s an incredibly important piece of abuse response.

You also have to deal with the employment law issues if the perpetrator is an employee. And you have to deal with the perpetrator and their family. Sometimes their family isn’t aware of the abuse allegations, so we typically ask to assign someone to minister to that perpetrator’s family.

In child abuse cases the attorney-client privilege frequently does not apply, and the clergy privilege doesn’t apply. And so you want to be smart about how you address all these different aspects of it, so that it’s a coordinated, cohesive response, and the people who need to know and should know have the correct information.

Ashley: How quickly should the police be notified? Because I know there was a church that tried to deal internally with a report for a period of time, and some staff members ended up with short jail sentences because of the delay.

Frank: That’s a state law issue. In Texas you have 48 hours to report it to either the child protective services or the police. Most states have some sort of time limit like that for mandatory reporters. Not all states have mandatory reporters, but more and more of them are getting there.

Also, and this is important to note, most states have an immunity for reporting abuse, as long as it’s done in good faith. So you’re not worried about a legal liability for reporting abuse.

Boz: I would just add that, ultimately, what should drive us to reporting isn’t the law but the protection of the child. If you learn an explicit disclosure, calling right away could make a difference in that child’s life. It actually could make a life and death difference. Bureaucracies can take a long time. That’s why [it’s important to have] a policy in place that creates a protocol so that when something happens you go to it right away and you’re not trying to guess, “Should we report or shouldn’t we?”

I think it’s helpful especially to the staff of the church. When folks call me, I say, “When in doubt, report.” Let’s say the situation ends up being nothing. It’s going to be inconvenient. Some people may be offended that a report was made. But at the end of the day it’s better to report than to not report and then find out, maybe years later, that that child was being victimized and nobody did anything or took too long to do something about it.

For training on preventing child abuse, see Reducing the Risk and to set policy and procedures, see the Church Board Guide to a Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Policy.

This content is designed to provide accurate and authoritative information in regard to the subject matter covered. It is sold with the understanding that the publisher is not engaged in rendering legal, accounting, or other professional service. If legal advice or other expert assistance is required, the services of a competent professional person should be sought. "From a Declaration of Principles jointly adopted by a Committee of the American Bar Association and a Committee of Publishers and Associations." Due to the nature of the U.S. legal system, laws and regulations constantly change. The editors encourage readers to carefully search the site for all content related to the topic of interest and consult qualified local counsel to verify the status of specific statutes, laws, regulations, and precedential court holdings.

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