Friday, July 05, 2013

Reporting child sexual abuse

In my online reading I've run across several discussions about the duty of pastors and church officials to report child sexual abuse.* Whether named or not, the context or background for much of this was the allegations that C.J. Mahaney and Sovereign Grace Ministries concealed sexual abuse of children, that church leaders did not report accusations, and that the churches or ministry handled the situations "in-house" rather than the allowing the law to take its course (among other things).

The ground that child sexual abuse is sinful, unlawful and should be reported was well-covered in the posts and comments. But there was one nagging issue that bothered me -- those who argued that this should be reported because the law requires it. What's wrong with that? Why would that bother me? Two reasons, mainly. But first let me give a four sample comments.

"Call the cops immediately. If we don’t, then we will be in trouble with the law."
"The law requires reporting of even suspicions of abuse. If you’re preaching obedience to the law, to a congregation of a class, then you’d best be calling immediately."
"Whether we think it’s the right thing to do or not, that’s the law so we do it."
"The law of our state says they demand to be involved in the process in order to determine if anything has occurred. And the state will fine you, if they discover that you knew of an alleged case and did not report it."

Briefly notice some elements within these comments. Report it because you'll get in trouble if you don't. Report it to be consistent with teaching obedience to the law. Report it because it's the law, whether it is the "right thing" to do or not.**

There are two reasons that we need to carefully examine regarding the idea of reporting child sexual abuse because the law requires. Stay with me through the post. I am not concluding that we should not report child sexual abuse. I am arguing for a biblical understanding of why a church should report child sexual abuse to law enforcement rather than attempting to handle it "in-house." I hope that we come out understanding why it should be done for biblical reasons rather than just because it is the law. I will digress a bit again before coming directly to the issue.

Child sexual abuse is sin. I'm not going to spend much time making this point, though we can go further if need be. But for the moment I will assume that most Christians will, and certainly ought to, agree with this. All sex outside of marriage is sin, and child sexual abuse is sex outside of marriage. It is fornication, which is a lust of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-21) and an evil thing that comes out of man's heart (Mark 7:21-23). It is assault and it is abuse. Additionally Jesus had much to say about children and the correct treatment of them. Any offense to them is serious and engenders judgment: "But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea (Matthew 18:10)." Pedophilia is one of several sexual characteristics classified as being "without natural affection." Cf. Romans 1:31 and 2 Timothy 3:2.

Reporting is the law. It is governed by state law and will vary by state. I think all states require reporting. According to the website of the Attorney General of the State of Texas, "Anyone having cause to believe that a child's physical or mental health or welfare has been or may be adversely affected by abuse or neglect MUST report the case immediately to a state or local law enforcement agency or the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services." Interestingly, "privileged communication" does not apply to the subject of child abuse in the state of Texas: "The requirement to report under this section applies without exception to an individual whose personal communications may otherwise be privileged, including an attorney, a member of the clergy, a medical practitioner..."

Because we ought to have God's law written in our inward parts
I asked earlier, "What's wrong with reporting child abuse 'because it's the law'?" Why would that bother me? It does not bother me to report it because it is the law. It bothers me that so many quickly default to this being the reason they would report it. Can anyone see a distinction here? Were I to come upon a car wreck with a serious injury, would I think of reporting it because "it's the law" or would I probably just call 911 because it's "the right thing to do?" If a shooting occurred at my church house, would my reporting of it be only because it is the law, or would it be an almost ingrained response to call law enforcement? If we are reporting child sexual abuse because it is the law it raises the questions "Would we do it if it was not the law" and "Why do we not have the same kind of 'untrained' response to the crime of child sexual abuse as we have toward a rape or a shooting?"

Because the Bible is our sole rule of faith and practice
The Christian's ultimate responsibility is to the Divine lawgiver. The Bible is our sole rule of faith and practice. We ought to obey God rather than men (if the two are contradictory) and we ought not get in the habit of looking to human law as our supreme guide. The beginning point is that the Christian’s life/calling has an overriding factor of obedience to God over man. If we train ourselves to do something because it is the law rather than because it is the biblical thing to do, we are setting ourselves up for future failure.

What about churches/ministers in countries where it is not the law? Should they report child sexual abuse? What about Christians who reported Jews to the German authorities because it was the law? Were they right? What we will do when we have trained ourselves to act only because it is the law, and a law calls on us to disobey God? We will acquiesce because "it is the law"? Or will we say with Peter, "Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye."

Just because something is legal does not make it biblically sanctioned (abortion & same-sex marriage, for examples). We should report child sexual abuse because it is the right thing*** to do. We would not keep a murder private. Both murder and child sexual abuse are criminal activities, a criminal matter! Churches don’t investigate or punish criminal behavior from a legal standpoint, so we turn it over to those who do. God has "ministers" who are ordained to these matters -- rulers, authority, government. Romans 13:4 For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

We can arrive at reporting illegal activity, such as child sexual abuse, regardless of what the law says because: 1.) We are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. 2.) One of the things that God has made Caesar’s is the punishment of evildoers. That is the government’s job and not the church’s. If a man in our church murdered someone, we would exclude him, but we would not hang him between the pulpit and the altar. So with child sexual abuse. Government and church can and should both engage this sinful and illegal activity from the spheres of service which God has given them.

Reporting child sexual abuse is the law. So is abortion in all 50 states and so is prostitution in at least 8 counties in the state of Nevada. Should U.S. Christians therefore support abortion, or Nevadan Christians support prostitution? God forbid! Christians don't say, "The courts have declared abortion is a right. That settles it!" The main point I am hoping to get across is to train ourselves in our thinking to do something because it is right (required by God), not just because it is what the law requires. It is the law. Report it! Yes, but not simply because it is the law -- but because as Christians we are rightfully bound to do so by our faith and practice, the word of God.

* SBC Voices and SBC Tomorrow, for examples
** These are blog comments probably written on the fly. Given the opportunity to nuance their comments, the authors might not say they mean to report it only because it is the law, just that we should obey this law.
*** When I say the “right thing”, I mean the “biblical thing”

After determining to write this post it came to my attention in a recent blog comment that at least some people are urging Matthew 18 as the proper way for a church to handle reported child abuse. Trying to be or sound biblical, one blogger advised regarding the arrest of a youth minister who had ongoing sexual relations with a teenage girl in his church, "If he does not respond accordingly [repentance], he needs to be dealt with according to Matthew 18:15-17. But if he repents, we need to forgive. That is how we deal with these things."

Matthew 18:15-17 is about a personal offense between brethren. It is a serious misapplication, with serious consequences, to follow such a formula in criminal offenses. I Corinthians 5, dealing with a sexual offense, is much more applicable as to how the church should deal with the matter internally. I believe that there is a deficient understanding of the whole scope of biblical teaching of church discipline. I hope to address that further tomorrow.


Bart Barber said...

I just threw this up on my Twitter. I hope that a lot of people will read this.

R. L. Vaughn said...

Thanks, Brother Bart. I hope it will be helpful to someone.