“It's Not Just a Sin. It's a Crime”

Categories: M. W. Bassford, Meditations

There are few evils that appall the soul more than the sexual abuse of children.  Most Christians find the thought so monstrous, so incredible, that they struggle to entertain the possibility that someone they know, someone they worship with, someone they think is a decent human being, might do such a thing.  Sadly, the problem is all too real.  As is true in any church, indeed in any organization that brings adults into contact with children, sexual predators have preyed on children in churches of Christ.

Sometimes, congregations have handled sexual abuse appropriately.  Too often, they have not.  Victims have not been believed because “Brother So-and-So would never do anything like that!”  Church leaders have tried to resolve the situation using the Matthew 18 process.  At its conclusion, they have required victims to continue worshiping with their abusers.  All of these errors have taken a toll of alienation, heartbreak, and too often continued predation.

Perhaps the root of the problem is that because we recognize sexual abuse as sexual sin, we presume that it ought to be treated only as sexual sin.  This is a mistake.  In every jurisdiction in the United States, sexual abuse is not only a sin.  It also is a crime. 

It makes for grim reading, but the penal code of the state of Tennessee clearly sets out every form of sexual abuse and exploitation of children as at least a Class C felony.  Thus, when confronted with an accusation of sexual abuse, we shouldn’t only be thinking Matthew 18.  We should be thinking Romans 13.

Romans 13 first applies to our duty to report.  I’ve been saying for years that preachers are mandated reporters, that we have a duty to report all credible accusations of child abuse to the proper authorities. 

In fact, that’s not true.  In Tennessee, everyone is a mandated reporter.  The Bible class teacher who hears a shocking story from one of her students, the church member who sees inappropriate contact, all must bring these things to the attention of the government.  God and Caesar have taken this decision out of our hands.

Indeed, even if the law did not require this of us, submitting evidence of sexual abuse to police investigation is the right thing to do.  This is true for two reasons.  First, although law enforcement is by no means perfect, they at least have been trained to conduct sexual-abuse investigations, which most of the rest of us have not.  They know what signs to look for and what questions to ask.

This expertise can protect the innocent as well as the guilty.  I’m aware of a case in which a well-meaning but clumsy and foolish ministry staff decided that they were going to go hunting for signs of sexual abuse among the children of their congregation.  In their ineptitude, they took a child’s innocent comment and transformed it into a claim of sexual abuse, putting a blameless family through months of suffering.

Can police investigations do the same thing?  Absolutely.  All human beings can fail in judgment and make mistakes.  The point of training, though, is to keep such mistakes to a minimum.

Second, having outsiders conduct the investigation limits the scope of the bias of the members.  When someone we know and love stands accused of despicable behavior, all of us will face a strong temptation to close our eyes to the evidence in front of us.  It is much easier to believe that a child is a liar than that a brother or sister in Christ is a monster.

In reality, only about 5 percent of accusations of sexual abuse are false.  Given the social cohesiveness of most churches of Christ and the crushing social penalties that would be meted out against those who have brought false accusations, I would imagine that the rate of such accusations in our brotherhood is even lower.  It is much more likely that even the preacher or the elder is a predator than it is that the child who has spoken up is lying.

After the investigation, after all the evidence has been brought to light, then it is appropriate to consider what spiritual steps ought to be taken against the accused.  Again, beware of bias!  We need to be honest enough to acknowledge that the Christian who has been convicted of sexual abuse almost certainly is a sexual abuser, even if we ourselves don’t see it.  I have shared some thoughts about the Matthew 18 process in such cases and its results here.

All of us would prefer to live in a world in which sexual abuse of children did not exist.  Tragically, that is not the world in which we do live, and the reach of the devil in this area extends even into the Lord’s church.  We cannot keep evil from happening, but we can keep it from flourishing.  Showing no tolerance for sexual exploitation and swiftly bringing it to the attention of the authorities is our best hope for protecting our children as much as possible.

NOTE:  This is an area in which all brethren of whatever doctrinal persuasion can and must agree.  If you would like to comment below on your own experience of sexual abuse, or to sit in mourning with those who have, that’s entirely appropriate.  If you would like to discuss the article or explore other ways to make our churches safe for our children, this is the place.  However, I will not allow the discussion to be derailed by ungodly or off-topic comments.