Police Tape – photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

Police Tape – photo courtesy of Ian Britton via Flickr

I recently came across a legal alert from a Christian organization that directs pastors who learn of suspected child abuse to first conduct their own internal investigation “to decide whether the situation requires reporting to the authorities.”  Yikes!

As I work with churches and other Christian institutions, I often encounter professing Christians who struggle with whether they should first report suspected child abuse to the civil authorities.   As above, they are often directed to report abuse suspicions to leadership who then decide whether or not to involve the authorities. Double yikes!!

A church elder once told me that if he received a disclosure of child sexual abuse, his first response would be to interview the alleged victim. His rationale was that he wanted to “be sure that the allegations are legitimate before reporting to the police and ruining the man’s reputation”.  When asked what training he had to conduct a child forensic interview, the man was silent.  When asked whether he wanted the responsibility to determine the validity of a very serious felony, he started to shrink back in his chair.  I then asked whether he was prepared to violate mandated reporting laws.  Fortunately, the elder got my point, changed his opinion, and acknowledged his need to learn more about child sexual abuse.  An issue often at the heart of this critical struggle is whether the Church is obligated to subject itself to the laws of man when it believes that it is capable to address the sin “in-house”.

Let’s make sure we all understand one important truth, child sexual abuse is both a sin AND a serious crime.  In order to effectively carry out its responsibility of protecting children and punishing perpetrators, all 50 states have laws that mandate certain citizens to report suspected neglect or abuse of children. Violation of mandated reporting laws not only fails to protect children, but also enables the perpetrator to avoid criminal prosecution.  Scripture says, For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good (Romans 13:4).  This clearly indicates that a central purpose of civil government is to do good. If that is the case, can there be any greater good carried out by civil government than to punish citizens who violate laws designed to protect society’s most vulnerable members?  In order to carry out this good, the authorities must be notified of the alleged offense.   Governments are incapable of protecting little ones and punishing offenders if its citizens remain silent in the face of such evil. 

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Boz Tchividjian

Boz Tchividjian

“Boz” Tchividjian is a former child abuse chief prosecutor and is the founder and executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). Boz is also an Associate Professor of Law at Liberty University School of Law, and is a published author who speaks and writes extensively on issues related to abuse within the faith community. He is the 3rd-eldest grandchild of the Rev. Billy Graham.

2 Comments

  1. Double-Yikes it is, Boz!
    Thanks for emphasizing this issue on Spokane FAVS.

    Mandatory reporting statutes are never perfect, but they are very important at many levels. Properly written and applied, they not only help to protect the victim and any possible future victims, but also do much to protect the professionals who work with victims, their families, and with the abusers.

    In my own professional work I have been assured by concerned clergy that “we can do a more careful, compassionate job of investigating such things.” Like you, I mostly have been met with silence when I ask follow-up questions about the training and skills of such in-house investigators, and about the conflict-of-interest problems inherent in such self-investigation.

    Other clergy and church leaders have told me “We need to be careful to keep such ‘allegations’ quiet, to prevent the public from thinking bad things about our church.” A falsely-damaged reputation can be repaired, given time and a body-of-work history. Physical or sexual abuse of a child or adult is a much more painful occurrence; repairing the damage suffered by the abused person is a far more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive task. When P.R. concerns trumps protection from abuse, and obstructs the healthy recovery of the abused, how far off-task has a “church” gone?

  2. As a former Deputy Prosecutor who handled the child abuse cases in our office and a current pastor, I want to adamantly affirm this article and Bob’s comment. There are two critical points that cannot be over-emphasized.
    1. people in ministry are Mandatory reporters – it’s a crime if you don’t!
    2. Do NOT interview the child. Not only can you do serious damage to the child, you will very likely destroy the possibility of a conviction of a guilty molester. Improperly asked questions by untrained people can irrevocably taint the child’s testimony, SO DON’T DO IT!

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