"We won't hide behind lawyers. … Jesus said the truth will set us free."

Church abuse cases and lawyers an uneasy mix

On March 23, a lawyer hired by the company, GuideOne Insurance, sent a warning to church officials:

“Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything that may be evidence of or interpreted as (a suggestion that) the actions of Vienna Presbyterian Church … caused or contributed to any damages arising from the intentional acts/abuse/misconduct” by the youth director.

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RPittman's picture

Quote:
"It's not unusual for (church officials) to think they did something wrong because they feel grief or guilt for what happened, when in truth they might not be legally responsible," Tuttle adds.
This is an astute point. Many times people run on emotions rather than good sense. Church officials need to be careful about what they say publicly. Confession, in the Biblical sense, is not necessarily just a public admission or expose of malfeasance. It has more to do with the attitude toward wrongdoing and agreeing with God. Too often, IMHO, the public confession is a catharsis for venting the emotional guilt felt by the individual. There is, of course, a time and place for oral and sometimes public profession of wrong. However, the ideal of transparency is something of a red herring. Those who most loudly proclaim transparency almost never practice it consistently.

RPittman's picture

Can you imagine the response of insurance companies if churches begin publicly acknowledging culpability during litigation? Can anyone provide theological grounds or arguments for so-called transparency?

DavidO's picture

23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

25Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

26Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

~Matthew 5

Mike Durning's picture

I found this article fascinating with reference to the recent discussions on abuse in IFB churches prompted by the 20/20 piece. In those discussions, many were encouraging churches to have established policies on how to deal with these matters.

Here is an aspect that our policy does not address. What if the church wants to admit responsibility, but the insurance company says "no"?

Back to the drawing board: talks with our insurance company, more work on refining our policy. Our current policy says only "the senior pastor shall be the spokesman" for the church in all such matters, unless he is the accused. It doesn't even mention what the spokesman will or won't say.

RPittman's picture

DavidO wrote:
23Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee;

24Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.

25Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison.

26Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.

~Matthew 5

Okay, so what's the application here?

RPittman's picture

Mike Durning wrote:
I found this article fascinating with reference to the recent discussions on abuse in IFB churches prompted by the 20/20 piece. In those discussions, many were encouraging churches to have established policies on how to deal with these matters.

Here is an aspect that our policy does not address. What if the church wants to admit responsibility, but the insurance company says "no"?

Back to the drawing board: talks with our insurance company, more work on refining our policy. Our current policy says only "the senior pastor shall be the spokesman" for the church in all such matters, unless he is the accused. It doesn't even mention what the spokesman will or won't say.

It is a good idea to have only one spokesman but it does not necessarily have to be the pastor. Oftentimes, another person would be better.

The important thing is to know your insurance policy. Policies vary. Insurance companies want out with the least possible expense and risk. Some companies will pressure clients to plead nolo contendere or offer a settlement in civil action. They figure that a small sure payout is better than the risk of a large settlement with attending legal fees. One needs to be sure that his policy has an obligation to contest clause. This insures that one's insurance company will pay for litigation in case of a false allegation.

Dan Burrell's picture

I'm looking for some sort of Biblical support for the idea that doing the right thing with honesty and openness is subject to a sign off by Church Mutual and the Christian Law Association. The instructions were given to the leadership of Trinity Baptist, Jacksonville to not disclose any information publicly and they followed them. No, to date, they have not had to write checks with many zeros for settlements. But how is their reputation doing around the community and country? Different story. Is the ministry stronger because they protected themselves legally and looked like something was being covered up? Were the injured individuals ministered to and was healing and reconciliation forthcoming? Was the credibility that was lost by the sin regained by open repentance and open discussion or exacerbated by perceived coverups and hiding behind legal counsel?

Selling out values to save a few bucks or gain a few points smacks of a kind of prostitution. Hush, hush, "protect the ministry", "we'll handle this internally" does not reflect Biblical values nor the way the real world operates these days. Thanks to the abuses of religious organizations in the past from Jim Bakker forward, our world has changed and expectations are different, yeah verily, demanded.

Dan Burrell Cornelius, NC Visit my Blog "Whirled Views" @ www.danburrell.com

RPittman's picture

Dan Burrell wrote:
I'm looking for some sort of Biblical support for the idea that doing the right thing with honesty and openness is subject to a sign off by Church Mutual and the Christian Law Association. The instructions were given to the leadership of Trinity Baptist, Jacksonville to not disclose any information publicly and they followed them. No, to date, they have not had to write checks with many zeros for settlements. But how is their reputation doing around the community and country? Different story. Is the ministry stronger because they protected themselves legally and looked like something was being covered up? Were the injured individuals ministered to and was healing and reconciliation forthcoming? Was the credibility that was lost by the sin regained by open repentance and open discussion or exacerbated by perceived coverups and hiding behind legal counsel?

Selling out values to save a few bucks or gain a few points smacks of a kind of prostitution. Hush, hush, "protect the ministry", "we'll handle this internally" does not reflect Biblical values nor the way the real world operates these days. Thanks to the abuses of religious organizations in the past from Jim Bakker forward, our world has changed and expectations are different, yeah verily, demanded.


Dan, I think that we are assuming that public disclosure is synonymous with confession and repentance. Let's go back and lay the foundation before we begin building the house. What do the Scriptures require of us? How much of the present mindset is founded upon feelings, emotions, and the current popular mindset rather than sound Scriptural teachings? From some of the comments, I think we may be over-steering and heading for the ditch on the other side of the road. This can be as bad as the mindset of keeping it closed and hidden. We need balance.

There were times passed when sinners were taken publicly before the whole congregation and made to confess their sin in detail but times changed and this fell out of vogue. Now, we're doing this as corporate entities. My question is simple. What is the Scriptural basis? Spell it out. So far, we're running on vague generalized feelings about confession, reconciliation, and repentance, yet we are sounding off about sound Biblical teachings in other threads. Great! Let's practice it here. What do you think?

RPittman's picture

Pastor Peter James wrote:
In a sermon the following Sunday, March 27, Pastor Peter James went further: "We won't hide behind lawyers. … Jesus said the truth will set us free."
This is apparently in reference to John 8:31-32: "Then said Jesus to those Jews which believed on him, If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free." Now, my question is this: Did Jesus really intend to teach here that we need to make public the malfeasance of His professed followers?" If not, we do violence to Scripture and Jesus' words by making them mean what He didn't say or intend. I think this passage is being used primarily for effect by the superficial connection of the words. Do we not have more respect for Scripture? What truth was Jesus talking about? What does the truth free us from?

Dan Burrell's picture

Roland....I don't think I'm trying to equate public disclosure with repentance and restoration. I am not sure I believe that institutions can or should repent as seems to be the pattern in some circles. Can an "institution/church/ministry/business" sin? Or is accountable parties and individuals that should repent and confess and seek restoration.

What I am trying to say is that it seems backwards to me spiritually, to make any decisions on doing the right thing with an eye toward a lawsuit. BTW, to be honest, I've been sued so many times over the years I've lost count and I have played the "the lawyers won't let me talk" card though not in order to hide some sort of scandal, but over more minor issues like employee litigation that involved privacy laws and lawsuits born of personal injury claims. It is OK sometimes and not others? Is it always OK or never OK? When we are dealing with a person in authority committing criminal behavior in which another person is grievously sinned against and it calls into question the judgement of the rest of the leadership and the actions of the leadership and there is an admission by the offender that they did wrong, why is it better to hide behind a lawyer than deal with the crime/sin?

It is morally right for someone who claims to be a believer and who has committed a heinous crime to look for loopholes to avoid accountability -- "not guilty by reason of temporary insanity" as an example -- when he is truly and obviously guilty? He can hide behind the pleats in the law's skirts or he can step out of the shadows and accept responsibility and consequences.

Should a church be different? Can a church that is trying to avoid a legal settlement or to insure it's future coverage permit a lawyer to exploit the law in order to avoid responsibility and accountability and consequences Biblically? Is that a potential for allowing our "good to be evil spoken of"? Is it a rationalization? Does it violate "For Him that knoweth to do good and doeth it not, to him it is sin"?

Dan Burrell Cornelius, NC Visit my Blog "Whirled Views" @ www.danburrell.com

dan's picture

RPittman wrote:
Did Jesus really intend to teach here that we need to make public the malfeasance of His professed followers?

I don't think John 8:31-32 directly relates to the issue, but Eph 5:11 and 1 Tim 5:20 might. 1 Tim 5:20 probably refers specifically to rebuking in front of the church, but the basic principle of publicly exposing sin is still present.

Concealing sin or outright criminal behavior by church leaders in order to protect its financial assets tells the world that the church is just another business, amassing wealth and doing whatever it can to hold onto it.

"Despair does not lie in being weary of suffering, but in being weary of joy."
G.K. Chesterton

Mike Durning's picture

Given the current environment, I don't think anything discredits a church like the perception that the leaders are "playing politics".

By playing politics, I mean calculating effect, determining course of action based on likely optimum results, etc.

We need to be careful. All natural leaders instinctively make such calculations. And many pastors are natural leaders.
Sometimes the most helpful thing is to supress that natural instinct, and determine the right course of action first.
Then, calculate the effect, so you can count the cost of your committment to do the right thing.

That is exactly what the church in this USA Today story tried to do, and they are to be praised for it. They chose the course they believed to be right, and then counted the cost, walking into it with eyes wide open. Was it THE right thing? Well, it was A right thing. I don't know that is was the only right course of action. But it was the right process.

Too many of the churches and organizations embroiled in these scandals have reversed this process. Calculating the effect first puts us in danger of a serious ethical failure: putting the organizational church ahead of a person. The REAL church is a bunch of persons.