Ask Dr. Land: Sexual abuse in the Church — part 1 (the children)
Question: There have been disturbing reports about child sex abuse in churches, sometimes even the father being the perpetrator, and pastors and counselors saying that the perpetrator has repented and pushing reconciliation and forgiveness even though the victim believes the perpetrator is faking it and feels unsafe. Church leaders have even pushed for children to forgive and live with the father who sexually abused them and some have resulted in continual abuse. How do you balance repentance, forgiveness, born-again theology, and protecting the victim and preventing further abuse – both in a counseling setting and in a church setting? How do you deal with a convicted child sex abuser joining the church and setting up proper protection while also needing to recognize someone beyond their past sins?
We have all been scandalized by the voluminous reports of sex abuse within our churches and Christian communities. Our hearts break when we discover sexual predators in our midst who have violated a sacred trust by perpetrating sexual violence within the fellowship of believers.
Of course, we must do everything we can as churches to prevent sexual violence and sexual exploitation within our churches and Christian communities. It is our Christian duty to do background checks and put in place guidelines, procedures, and safeguards both to help prevent such behavior and to encourage it being reported and dealt with immediately when it does occur. All reports and allegations must be taken seriously and reported to the proper authorities.
Our grief is particularly acute when the victims are innocent children. What do you do when someone has confessed their crime of molesting children, has served their sentence, and has asked for reinstatement as a church member on the basis of being a redeemed and forgiven sinner?
While serving as interim pastor of a Baptist church several years ago, I was presented with just such a situation. A young man in his mid-twenties had been convicted in his late teens of sexual molestation of a child. He had served his sentence and purportedly been rehabilitated in prison. He had then been released and returned home to live with his parents. His father (a church deacon) and mother wanted to start bringing him back to church, which he also strongly desired to do. The deacon leadership asked me, “What do we do? The boy has expressed remorse and asked for forgiveness. Should we deny him the right to worship in the Lord’s house?”
After long and spirited discussions, the deacons approved the following policy that I recommended:
1. This young man must be met by a church deacon at an appointed time as he arrived on church property.
2. The young man must be accompanied by the assigned deacon at all times he was on church property — yes, even when he went to the bathroom. Why? Because parents are more likely to relax their guard while on church property and thus allow their children to go to the bathroom by themselves than they would at a shopping mall. We as a church had a sacred responsibility not to violate that trust.
Some in the church said, “How can you do this? Don’t we have a responsibility to forgive and restore a repentant Christian brother?” I responded, “Forgive yes, fully restore, no.” Why? As mental health experts have often observed, “Sadly, the best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.” While we must forgive, we must also always remember that our first obligation, our first duty, and our first priority must always be protecting the children. Jesus warned his disciples, “Whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a mill stone were hanged about his neck and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6).
Sexual abuse is always a heinous crime, but it is especially devastating when innocent children are the victims. Some child health care experts have aptly labeled it “soul murder.”
We must always give priority to protecting the most innocent ones — the children. If that means past perpetrators, even repentant and remorseful Christians, forfeit some of their rights and privileges in our churches, so be it. The children must come first.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (magna cum laude), Princeton; D.Phil. Oxford; and Th.M., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, was president of the Southern Baptists’ Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) and has served since 2013 as president of Southern Evangelical Seminary in Charlotte, NC. Dr. Land has been teaching, writing, and speaking on moral and ethical issues for the last half century in addition to pastoring several churches.