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Ethics and Religion Talk: What to Do if There is an Allegation of Abuse in the Congregation?

RL asks, “How should leaders respond to allegations of abuse in the church?”

What is Ethics and Religion Talk?

“Ethics and Religion Talk,” answers questions of ethics or religion from a multi-faith perspective. Each post contains three or four responses to a reader question from a panel of nine diverse clergy from different religious perspectives, all based in the Grand Rapids area. It is the only column of its kind. No other news site, religious or otherwise, publishes a similar column.

The first five years of columns, published in the Grand Rapids Press and MLive, are archived at http://topics.mlive.com/tag/ethics-and-religion-talk/. More recent columns can be found on TheRapidian.org by searching for the tag “ethics and religion talk.”

We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up on the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

/The Rapidian

Rev. Ray Lanning, a retired minister of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, responds:

“For Presbyterian and Reformed Christians, the first resource to consult is the written Word of God.  There are ‘general rules of the Word which are always to be observed’ (Westminster Confession, Ch. I, Sec. VI), such as ‘Let all things be done decently and in order’ (I Corinthians 14:40). In addition there are many specific provisions regarding jurisdiction, charges, evidence, witnesses, etc. Church leaders should take time to read Scripture with an eye for such provisions. They embody divine wisdom and justice. Failure to comply will result in injustice, strife, and disorder in the church.

“Presbyterian denominations have a valuable resource among their constitutional documents known as the ‘Book of Discipline.’ Ministers and elders seldom take the time to consult such a document until a crisis looms in the church under their care. To be unprepared for a crisis all but insures that initial responses will be unwise and do harm. So get into the Book of Discipline now and discover what your duties are, and how you ought to proceed, should action be required.

“In addition there are obligations imposed by the laws of the state. Everyone in leadership should know what the law requires. Concern for the honor of God and the good name of His church should move us to comply with the law, and not conceal crimes committed by church members. It is far better to take steps to insure that your church is a true sanctuary or haven of safety for the weak and the vulnerable.  In this regard the ancient maxim applies:  ‘Be what you would seem.’ ”

Fred Stella, the Pracharak (Outreach Minister) for the West Michigan Hindu Temple, responds:

“It seems that religious institutions of all stripes have been paying for the karma of poor leadership in this area. The long history of patriarchal dominance, dismissive concern for victims and protecting the perp is now finally being unraveled. This is not going to happen without a great deal of pain and frustration.

“Current research shows that there is a somewhat hostile relationship between law enforcement and congregations. Often, clergy would rather the case just ‘disappear’ rather than see it through to a just conclusion. But if the goal of everyone involved is dharmic (godly), then all should aspire to investigation, confidentiality until evidence is procured, a fair hearing by all parties concerned, conviction (when evidence is clear), punishment, rehabilitation and restoration.

“Much has been discussed about the need for greater transparency. While this is true, some recommend keeping any investigation private in its initial stages to make sure that any charges are credible.”

The Reverend Colleen Squires, minister at All Souls Community Church of West Michigan, a Unitarian Universalist Congregation, responds:

“I believe the best and most compassionate way to respond is for leaders to put the victim first and foremost. Leaders would need to respectfully hear those who have been harmed and to acknowledge their pain. At times a leader needs to take responsibility for the failings of their institution even if they did not personally cause the harm. And finally a leader would need to articulate a promise to correct and ensure the abuse will not happen again and deliver on that promise. When leaders put the protection of the institution’s reputation above and before people everyone will ultimately suffer.”

Chris Curia, the Director of Youth Ministries at Fairway Christian Reformed Church, responds:

“Leaders have to respond by believing victims of abuse and taking the necessary action to ensure the safety of the victim and their family. Furthermore, they must gracefully seek the truth of the situation and accept the consequences of their actions. Finally, leaders should cast a vision for amending or creating policies to insure that further abuses never occur. If they are the alleged abusers, they should resign or take an extended leave from their work to assess their psychological fitness for the position.”

 

My response:

Begin by taking every report seriously. Less serious complaints, such as harassment, should be investigated and if found to be true, the harasser should be given a warning, outlining possible consequences for further violations of behavioral standards. Another violation should result in consequences, such as being banned from communal worship.

More serious complains, such as physical abuse should not be handled internally. If reports of possible child abuse or neglect come to the clergy, remember that in the state of Michigan, clergy are mandated reporters. This means that we don’t have the option of deciding who to believe - if we hear about a possible crime involving a child, we are legally obligated to report it.

The law is less clear with respect to adults. Clergy are not explicitly included in the list of mandatory reporters for suspicion of elder abuse or neglect, although I would argue there clergy are implied in the social welfare provider category. If the leader or clergy of a congregation becomes aware of criminal acts, they should take appropriate action to protect the victim.

 

This column answers questions of Ethics and Religion by submitting them to a multi-faith panel of spiritual leaders in the Grand Rapids area. We’d love to hear about the ordinary ethical questions that come up in the course of your day as well as any questions of religion that you’ve wondered about. Tell us how you resolved an ethical dilemma and see how members of the Ethics and Religion Talk panel would have handled the same situation. Please send your questions to [email protected].

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