(Read Part 1)
Shepherding the Perpetrator
Pastoring is not for the faint-hearted. It is not for those who shrink back from conflict or those who find it hard to confront. Dealing with sexual predators is not easy. Sometimes you feel like you are staring into the eyes of pure evil. Whether the perpetrator is a member of his church or not, the way a pastor deals with him has the potential to alleviate or aggravate the agony of the victim, protect or expose the church to danger, and bring healing or a cover-up to the perpetrator himself.
First, once a pastor confirms a report of sexual abuse by a victim it is important that he act. Most states have laws that require the reporting of abuse by educators, clergy and others within 24 hours. As I said before, don’t expect miracles from the local authorities. Nevertheless, reporting is the first step. This will probably involve giving an official statement, filling out detailed forms and multiple phone calls with authorities.
Second, immediately do everything in your power to protect the victim from further abuse or retaliation. This means providing a sanctuary of some kind where the victim can be cared for and protected. At my church several members have second homes hours away that can be used as sanctuaries.
Third, confront the perpetrator as soon as possible, but with caution. Do not go alone, especially if the situation might be dangerous. If it is not dangerous, demand to meet with the perpetrator that day. Do not let the issue go unaddressed for more than 24 hours. If the perpetrator is a member or attender of your church, meet with your elders or deacons and inform them that an accusation of abuse has been leveled against him.
What should you do if the accused denies the abuse? I think that this will be the reaction more often than not—sometimes because the accused is, in fact, innocent, and sometimes because the accused is attempting to hide the abuse. In the event of a denial, a pastor must exercise great wisdom. He must employ an acute sense of perception to watch the reactions of the accused. As I said before, predators are extremely proficient in deception, and Proverbs 20:5 reveals that “the purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water” which “a man of understanding will draw…out.” By asking specific, pointed questions, the Spirit of God may reveal a man who is hiding something.
If the pastor is unable to determine the truth, he may need to suspend judgment until a police investigation and trial render judgment. In such a case, unfortunately, the agony of the abused is prolonged. If the pastor doubts the truth of the accusation, and the accused can account for his whereabouts and actions, he must still provide protection for the accused by maintaining confidentiality (after reporting to the authorities, of course) and seeking to prevent gossip.
A false accusation of such magnitude is devastating, and pastors and churches should not rush to judgment. For the sake of the church, an accused member may need to step down temporarily from certain leadership positions until guilt or innocence can be established. This is an unfortunate circumstance for the innocent, but allowing a member to continue in leadership will damage the credibility of church leaders if he is later determined to be guilty.
Fourth, when confronting a known abuser, follow the biblical principles of confrontation found in Matthew 18:15-20, Galatians 6:1, and 1 Corinthians 5. The confrontation should be conducted in a calm, controlled manner, yet firmly. The response of the abuser is important. The only acceptable response is a total, heartfelt repentance that fits the seven criteria of 2 Corinthians 7:10-11. Remorse is insufficient. Excuse-making is unacceptable. Dodging, concealing, minimizing, and other forms of evasion reveal a lack of genuine repentance.
Genuine repentance is a “godly sorrow” (2 Cor. 7:10, NASB) in contrast to remorse for getting caught or for “making a mistake.” According to verse 11, genuine repentance is characterized by “earnestness” or “zeal.” This seems to be the controlling idea of the next six characteristics. It speaks of thoroughness and initiative in setting right what one has done wrong. “Eagerness to clear” (2 Cor. 7:11, ESV) himself is willingness to follow whatever stipulations church leaders place upon the perpetrator, without resistance or resentment. This may include required counseling, a letter of apology, or whatever else is determined to be necessary. Restitution should be made willingly, whether it consists of paying medical or counseling bills, or any other kind of obligation that the abuse has incurred.
The “indignation” (2 Cor. 7:11) is anger at one’s own sin—not beating oneself up, but rather righteous anger that recognizes the extent of devastation brought upon the victim. The abuser should possess great “fear” (7:11) of chastisement and of ever committing such acts again. He should possess a lasting desire (“longing”) to make the situation as fully right as possible. He should burn with jealousy for the name of God that has been damaged through his sin. Finally, he should “punish” the sources of temptation in his life that led to this act.
Confession always accompanies repentance. To confess sin means to agree with God about the nature of it. This precludes any excuses or rationalization. A confession of sin that reflects genuine repentance will be complete and contrite, taking full responsibility for one’s actions, and recognizing the severity of the crime.
Paul’s final statement in verse 11 teaches us that any “apology” that falls short of this description is unacceptable. Forgiveness and a return to innocence can only come through this kind of repentance. Here’s where pastors often fail to properly shepherd sexual abusers. They fail to realize the complexity and depth of depravity, devious behavior and self-deception that led to the act in the first place. In an effort to avoid conflict or to show Christian love, they accept the first tearful or half-hearted apology. Now to be sure, some sexual abusers may be genuinely repentant when first confronted, but I believe these to be a small minority. A pastor needs to proceed very carefully before he begins offering clemency to abusers.
While God forgives immediately upon the occasion of genuine repentance, pastors do not see the true intent of the heart except through outward fruits of repentance (Matt. 3:8). This takes time. While God restores our relationship with Him immediately, the broken trust between a sexual abuser and other people is restored much more slowly. A pastor who accepts a hasty or half-hearted apology is robbing three people. First, he robs the victim by cheapening the high cost of forgiveness and minimizing the offense against the victim. Second, he robs the abuser of an opportunity (which he obviously needs) to learn genuine repentance. Last, he robs the church by allowing an unrepentant abuser back into fellowship. This is akin to opening the door of the henhouse to the fox.
But there’s one more who is robbed. The pastor himself is robbed of credibility, because he failed to protect the flock. If I were a member of a church where an unrepentant sexual predator was allowed to freely move within the community, I would feel betrayed by my pastor. His integrity would be severely damaged and his leadership in my life would be nullified by his negligence. He would be complicit in any future abuse by the perpetrator. Pastors have an obligation to protect the flock, whether the threat is from without or within.
If a sexual abuser is genuinely repentant, then he, too, will need pastoral care. He will need to be counseled, held accountable, and encouraged (because he will be broken-hearted and may despair). His wife and children will need encouragement. He will need someone to accompany him to court. He will need his pastor to instruct and encourage the congregation to welcome him back into fellowship (2 Cor. 2:6-8). In short, he will need ongoing care and accountability for years.
Shepherding the Church through Sexual Abuse
The perpetrator and victim of sexual abuse need pastoral care, but the church as a whole also needs careful, biblical leadership from the pastor in the wake of this sin. Pastors must regularly teach and preach the biblical truths of repentance, forgiveness, sexual purity, biblical confrontation, and church discipline. If a pastor is faithfully doing this, the church will be better equipped to deal with cases of sexual sin.
In addition, churches must develop written discipline and sexual abuse policies and must make these available to the congregation. The procedures must be followed carefully if the church hopes to retain credibility and protect itself from legal action.
According to Matthew 18, public church discipline is reserved for unrepentant members involved in serious sin after due process has been followed. This has several implications. First, victims of sexual abuse should absolutely never be put in front of the church to apologize for being abused, even if (or especially if) that abuse resulted in pregnancy. Such action is a complete failure of leadership as well as a failure to understand abuse and offense. In Matthew 18:5-6, Jesus is abundantly clear that the worst fate awaits those who offend (sin against in a significant way) children. Forcing a teenager to confess wrong for getting pregnant from abuse adds insult to injury and turns religious authority into abuse as well.
Second, a sexual abuser who does not satisfy the criterion of biblical repentance or the requirements of restoration needs to be publicly named and his sin condemned, all the while protecting the victim’s identity and dignity as much as possible. Again, a pastor who does not warn the flock of the presence of a sexual predator in their midst has failed in the most egregious manner.
Third, even if a sexual abuser clearly demonstrates fruits of repentance, and thereby avoids public naming and expulsion, he must be permanently restricted from certain activities in the church. He ought never to be involved in ministry with children and teens again. He ought to be banned from any leadership position since these inherently require influence and trust. He ought to maintain the accountability assigned by church leaders. Monitoring these matters must become a top priority for leaders for the church’s sake.
Some may wonder why this particular sin should bring such restrictions, when we might not argue for the same with other past sins such as drunkenness, assault, etc. I believe that Paul sets sexual sin in a distinct category in 1 Corinthians 6:18 when he says, “Flee from sexual immorality. Every other sin a person commits is outside the body, but the sexually immoral person sins against his own body.” There is something unique about the violation of the body in sexual sin that makes it particularly offensive and devastating. A detailed discussion of this is outside the cope of this article, but I believe Paul’s theology of the body warrants this interpretation.
If these measures seem too severe, the horrific nature of abuse is still not understood. An abuser who fully understands the nature of his sin will not object to such restrictions. This is not a matter of forgiveness; it is a matter of broken trust. Paul reminded the Corinthians of their past sins, which included sexual abuse (1 Cor. 6:9-11). Now in Christ they were washed, sanctified and justified. Abusers can be truly forgiven, washed and free. Being forgiven, however, does not easily restore broken trust, especially given the magnitude of sexual abuse. A forgiven abuser ought to be able to minister in other areas, and find full fellowship in the body.
With sexual abuse as widespread as it is in our world today, pastors cannot afford to fail in their care and shepherding. The very lives of people, the credibility of the church, and the name of Christ are at stake. Every young man studying for the ministry should possess clarity on this issue. He must ensure that he obtains adequate biblical training in counseling cases of abuse and in pastoral leadership. He should conduct research and ask questions so that when he is confronted with sexual abuse in ministry, he will be able to handle it with confidence, competence, and courage.
Much more can be said on this critical issue, and perhaps some of my advice is debatable, but I hope that this essay will help provide a foundation for Christian thinking regarding sexual abuse. I also hope that it will start an ongoing conversation that will help bring victims of sexual abuse out of the darkness of pain and shame, and into the glorious light of God’s healing power.
Mark Farnham is Assistant Professor of Theology and New Testament at Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary (Lansdale, PA). He and his wife, Adrienne, grew up in Connecticut and were married after graduating from Maranatha Baptist Bible College (Watertown, WI). They have two daughters and a son, all teenagers. Mark served as director of youth ministries at Positive Action for Christ (Rocky Mount, NC) after seminary and pastored for seven years in New London, Connecticut. He holds an MDiv from Calvary and a ThM in New Testament from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). He has also studied ancient manuscripts at Harvard Divinity School and philosophy at Villanova University. He is presently a doctoral student at Westminster Theological Seminary (Glenside, PA) in the field of Apologetics. These views do not necessarily reflect those of Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary or its faculty and administration.