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Church abuse: Blame optimistic ignorance?


Abuse is a perennial problem

Every week, we see headlines about a betrayal of trust by ministries – with children, employees, or members harmed. Abuse statistics are alarming. For example, one in seven children experiences abuse, and most of that abuse is in the hands of someone they know and trust. As many as one in 10 adult males may be a pedophile. The issue cuts across society, with secular and public institutions experiencing even higher rates of abuse — but people expect and deserve better from spiritual organizations.

Denominational lines are irrelevant, as the evil of abuse can invade every corner, and will if it isn’t prevented. From child abuse to financial misconduct, allegations are as varied as they are devastating. About one in six people experience sexual harassment in religious organizations. Nearly one-third of congregations have suffered from financial fraud.

The impact of abuse on victims is great, whether they are victims of child abuse, sexual harassment, spiritual abuse, or other forms. Beyond the immediate physical or psychological harm, a sense of profound spiritual betrayal can lead to a loss of faith, and mental health issues like depression, anxiety, PTSD, and even suicide. Abuse and a failure to respond to allegations create a cycle of harm that extends far beyond the individual – affecting families, communities, and the very fabric of our spiritual life.

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Creating a capable guardian

How could the environment within churches allow abuse? Optimistic ignorance is one reason. Religious leaders are often held in such high regard that their actions go unquestioned. Loyalties to individuals can create complicated responses when there are allegations. Sometimes, the hierarchical structure of an organization creates a shield of protection around perpetrators, making it difficult for allegations to be taken seriously. Some ministries will guard their reputation at all costs. All of these systemic factors can allow abuse to continue unchecked.

Put differently, for sexual or other abuse to happen, three factors must be present: a person vulnerable in some way, someone who wants to commit harm, and an environment that fails to be a capable guardian of the vulnerable. How can a ministry become that capable guardian?

First, leaders can commit to being true shepherds of the Church, protecting the young, the powerless, and the otherwise vulnerable.

Next, they can become educated about signs of abuse and the various forms it can take, from the more acknowledged physical and sexual abuses to the subtler, yet also damaging, emotional and spiritual abuses. Understanding that abuse can happen in many forms is important in a culture of awareness and prevention. Ministries can put in place safeguarding measures such as comprehensive screening and training for church staff and volunteers and clear policies on appropriate boundaries.

Being a capable guardian involves not only proper protocols but also teaching and speaking on an ethos of safeguarding.

Environment of response

A good complaint process is crucial. Ministries need to create an environment where complainants feel safe to come forward, knowing that their voices will be heard and acted upon. If the culture is not open, this hampers the prevention of abuse. Ministries must commit to complying with mandatory reporting laws as well as employment law standards. They must take allegations seriously, with a fair and thorough investigation process and a solid disciplinary response where abuse is substantiated.

How ministries respond to abuse allegations also reflects their calling from God. If the innocent and vulnerable are abused within a ministry, this sin must be dealt with before a holy God who cares about the weak. Jesus cares more about the purity of his Church than its public reputation, and the holiness of His shepherds than defending their worldly positions.


Leaders and advisors should advocate for justice, healing, and prevention. By doing so, leaders can transform ministries into the sanctuaries they are meant to be.

Theresa Lynn Sidebotham is the founder of Telios Law, PLLC. She assists organizations in the U.S. and internationally, with a special focus on employment law, religious and nonprofit law, and child safety. She also advises on and conducts numerous misconduct investigations.

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