Sexual abuse of a minor is the #1 reason churches end up in court. The sexual abuse of children in religious institutions is an affront to the Gospel, and even allegations of such activity have the potential to destroy a thriving ministry. For these reasons, child sexual abuse is one of the greatest legal issues facing churches as they seek to share the Gospel in an increasingly sexualized and litigious culture.
No matter the size of your church, no matter its geographical location and no matter how hard you try to prevent it, chances are that your church will face a situation involving an allegation of child sexual abuse. For the sake of the Gospel, churches must demonstrate excellence in responding to reports of abuse.
Each state has a statute requiring or permitting ministry staff or volunteers to make a report to the police or a state agency (these agencies go by different names, but are dedicated to child protection) if that worker or volunteer suspects or has knowledge of child abuse. Failure to make such a report may result in civil or criminal penalties. Pastors often ask about the clergy-penitent privilege, which protects pastors from being forced to testify about confessions made to them in their ministry role. This privilege is limited or at least narrowly interpreted in most states if the confession involves child abuse.
Here are five tips for responding to allegations of child abuse.
#1 Gather the Facts
Most states require that suspicion or knowledge of child abuse be reported immediately to the child protection agency or the police. The child protection agency or the police (and not the ministry leaders) are tasked with figuring out what is true and what is not. That said, ministry leaders should be diligent in obtaining as much information as possible and making certain that the facts are clear on the precise nature of the accusation.
#2 Decide Whether or Not to Report
Ministry leaders should review their state statute’s definition of “child abuse” because the definition normally includes more than sexual abuse. For example, the definition of abuse normally includes physical abuse, emotional abuse, neglect, etc. Many allegations are clearly abuse (such as sexual abuse), but some are not as apparent (for example, a worker touching a child’s back in a strange but not obviously sensual way). A good rule of thumb is this: if in doubt, report. If the professionals who screen these reports believe that the allegations do not rise to the level of abuse, they will screen it out and take no further action. Further, most states provide legal protection to individuals that make a report in good faith.
#3 Prepare to Work with Those Outside the Church
Allegations of child abuse in a religious institution is big news, and you should prepare for a media and social media firestorm. Your church should fully cooperate with local authorities and should, at all times, reflect a sincere dedication to the protection of children.
#4 Move Forward in Ministry
Sometimes, child abuse in a ministry indicates a failure by leadership to have proper policies and procedures in place. If this is the case, correct these issues immediately. However, sometimes, child abuse is the unforeseen, sinful act of a person or staff member that is beyond the control of the ministry leader. In both cases, the ministry should properly learn any apparent lessons and then move forward in ministry. This includes ministering to the family of the victims as well as to the perpetrator and his or her family. Practically speaking, these families may not stay in the ministry, but church leaders should reach out to them and attempt to offer them spiritual support.
#5 Obtain Legal Counsel
If handled improperly, an allegation of child abuse has the potential to destroy your ministry or at least the momentum of your ministry. These are complicated and delicate matters, and some law firms have developed entire litigation groups to sue religious institutions for failure to prevent or report child abuse. For these reasons, we strongly encourage church leaders to immediately seek legal counsel if an allegation of child abuse comes to their attention.
For a set of evaluation questions concerning this topic, download The Bold Church ebook on the Bold Church home page.
 Hammar, Richard. (July 2015) “The Top 5 Reasons Religious Organizations Went to Court in 2015:
Has Your Church Addressed These Common Legal Liabilities and Risk Management Concerns?” 7 July 2016. Church Law and Tax. Web. Accessed March 20, 2017.
 Here is one example: Schmidt and Clark, LLP “Nationwide Christian Church Sexual Abuse Lawyer & Lawsuit: Representing Victims of Sexual Abuse in Religious Organizations.” February 2017. Schmidt and Clark, LLP. Accessed March 20, 2017.