The Sword and the Shepherd’s Staff: Reporting Sexual Abuse to the Authorities
Let’s get the easy part out of the way up front: In almost every American state, you do not have a choice whether to report information about abuse or neglect of a child; you must report. To take the Texas formulation (I happen to be licensed to practice law there), if you have “cause to believe” that “a child’s physical or mental health or welfare has been adversely affected by abuse or neglect,” you must immediately make a report. And this is true for every “person,” from friends to childcare workers to pastors.
What is a “cause to believe”? What does “adversely affected” mean? Why are both “health” and “welfare” mentioned?
The Texas law doesn’t provide these answers. Why? The short answer is to encourage reporting with broad statutory language. When in doubt, report. Reporting requirements vary somewhat from state to state, but this general rule mostly holds true across the United States. Indeed, many states, including Texas, have even higher reporting requirements for professionals working with children. If nothing else, you should consult with a local lawyer or government official to determine what your reporting requirements are in your jurisdiction.
But reporting may ruin a family’s reputation within the community if Child Protective Services pays a visit to the home. Reporting may cause a fragile family situation to come crumbling down. Reporting will ruin the life of a repentant person who made a “very minor” mistake “just once.” Or reporting seems like an extreme response if you aren’t sure how credible the information you possess is.
These are important considerations, to be sure, but in answering them, pastors need to understand where their role begins and ends. In situations of abuse of children, there are two issues at play: pastoral care and justice. Pastors must be able to separate the two and let the church carry out its function while stepping aside to let the state to carry out its own role.
THE SWORD OF THE STATE AND THE STAFF OF THE SHEPHERD
God’s purpose in establishing government over us is to rule and govern societies and nations—and, in a fallen sense, at least on this side of the eschaton, reward good behavior and punish bad.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. (Romans 13:1–5 ESV)
Notice that Paul describes the government as an “avenger who carries out God’s wrath.” When the government prosecutes criminal behavior, this is part of God’s design in setting forth punishments for wrong.
When a child is abused, ultimate trust is broken; power is abused for evil ends. There is forgiveness for this sin, just as there is forgiveness for all sin by the blood of Jesus Christ.
But justice is still demanded on behalf of the victim. God himself demands this justice, and he has given the power to administer this justice to the state, not to the church. The role of the church is to shepherd the flock through the trauma; the role of the state is to bring justice.
When reporting sexual abuse, pastors must, as a function of their role in shepherding the flock, consider the impact of the report on their congregation as a whole. But it is not the pastor’s role to adjudicate the dispute; the pastor’s function is to walk with his people through the implications created by the state’s justice system.
And so part of what we need to recognize in this is that if the church decides to treat abuse as an internal matter and not report the abuse to the authorities, the church has effectively picked up the sword given to the state. They have hidden the wrong and delayed justice. Determining guilt and innocence before the law is not a matter God has entrusted to the church.
One quick caveat: There will be times when the state interferes with the parent-child relationship, or even the pastor-member relationship with the sword in a way that is unjust or contrary to Scripture. Certain northern European states seem to have an agenda aimed at preventing parents from raising godly children. Of course, in those cases, there is a place for civil disobedience, as we must obey God, not man. Whether we have arrived at such a situation is not a decision a pastor should make alone, but rather very carefully and with the wisdom of many counselors. These issues are well beyond the scope of this article, and especially to the extent this article is focused on sexual and physical abuse, a situation where civil disobedience would be warranted is difficult to imagine.
WIELDING THE STAFF AS THE STATE WIELDS THE SWORD
Reporting abuse always creates complex pastoral situations that require careful, wise care by church leaders and elders. Actually reporting information of abuse and neglect is only the beginning of a long and messy process. But in reporting sexual abuse, pastors should recognize which tool they possess, the shepherd’s staff.
First, remember the pastor’s role is not to adjudicate right and wrong but simply to report what he knows. This may mean phrasing things as “he said that such-and-such happened” rather than “such-and-such happened.” This may seem a minor distinction, but this careful phrasing may help you remember that you are not deciding guilt or innocence but simply reporting what you know.
Second, let the individuals involved know that you are obligated to report and advise them to the best of your ability of the implications of the report. Your report may set off a chain of events over which you will have little control. If you’re not concerned the abuser will flee, this notice may give the abuser the opportunity to turn him- or herself in to the authorities. Your communication to them may be a means of grace, allowing the abuser to come to terms with the consequences of his or her actions.
WIELDING THE STAFF FAITHFULLY
Above all, the call to the pastor is to be faithful. Sexual abuse creates among the deepest kinds of brokenness. The situation you’re presented with may not turn out the way it should. But yet again, it is not your responsibility to adjudicate guilt or innocence; that responsibility belongs to the state. It’s also not your responsibility to redeem the broken situation; that’s the work of God. The call on your life is simply to faithfully care for the families entrusted to you.
Sexual abuse cases, particularly when both the abuser and the victim are from the same church, have a way of dividing the flock against each other. When the abuser is repentant, when should grace be extended? What does grace even look like? What does supporting the family of the victim look like? How should grace and forgiveness be extended?
It’s possible the way you handle the situation leaves few in your flock fully satisfied. But remember the outcome is the purview of the Lord; your call is to be faithful.
As pastors, we don’t have the authority to determine guilt or innocence or prison sentences. But the role of the pastor is in many ways much more difficult, much more dependent on the facts, and will require a greater measure of wisdom and grace. Dedicate yourself to these issues faithfully, and allow the state to serve its God-given role.