When Leaders Fail: The Process for Handling Sexual Abuse in the Church

Sam Rainer

February 16, 2019

The Houston Chronicle recently published a series of articles on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention. My church belongs to the convention. Robert Downen and the authors of this report deserve our thanks. They exposed our sin. Let me state the obvious, something I haven’t heard from our leadership. One of the reasons the SBC has not acted up to this point is because a few of the leaders—those in power—were the very ones guilty of the offenses or of covering them up.

The autonomy of our churches is a lame excuse for not acting on horrors of sexual abuse. Our resources are far greater than those of the Houston Chronicle. If a newspaper can create a database, then we could have done the same. The oft-repeated claim in the SBC is not lost on me: “We can do more together than alone.” Why would this principle not apply to reporting sexual abuse?! We should not support any leader who falls back on the excuse of autonomy. These leaders are part of the problem, not part of the solution.

Too many individual churches took the path of “we don’t want to hurt the entire congregation with this issue” and hid the abuse or dismissed accusations. Satan uses this line of thinking to continue the horrors. Jesus left the ninety-nine to go find the one. Protecting one is the same as protecting the entire church.

What can you do? What can your church do? You may not be part of the SBC, but you can be prepared to act.

Report the abuse immediately. There are no exceptions. Always report. Always, even if the victim asks you not to report it. Never put the responsibility back with victims and ask them to report. Abuse is not only a sin; it’s a crime. The nuance of who is a mandated reporter in certain communities is not relevant. Communicate regularly with your church that any member should report abuse. In light of the Chronicle’s report, I’ve seen some terrible advice out there about gathering witnesses and keeping the accusations within the church first. No filters through the church hierarchy are needed. If you know of abuse, report it immediately. Period.

Believe those who have been traumatized. The trauma of abuse is exacerbated when people question if the offenses really happened.

Cooperate with enforcement agencies. Hand over computers and personnel files if necessary. Seek advice from those in these agencies. Be proactive, not reactive.

Remove the offender from leadership. If you are unsure about the evidence, then the offender should at least be isolated. Do not allow a preacher back into the pulpit. Do not allow a student pastor to continue mentoring. Do not allow a worship pastor to lead the choir. In most cases, the offender will be permanently removed. My personal theology is pastors and ministers are permanently disqualified from church leadership when guilty of sexual abuse.

Seek outside counsel. Inform your insurance company about what is happening. Seek legal help. Do not attempt to do your own investigation first.

What about those who face false accusations? First, such cases are rare. The issue within the SBC is not a rampant problem of false accusations. These cases are real! Second, if you have accountability systems in place and follow through with enforcement agencies, then they will often clear the names of those who are wrongly accused.

We are in a dark season. The consequences of our sins will likely last much longer than we realize. The storm does not end with the Chronicle’s report.

18 comments on “When Leaders Fail: The Process for Handling Sexual Abuse in the Church”

  1. Wilson Hines says:

    1 Corinthians 5:1-3 is pretty explicit. I believe those practicing sexual immorality need to be booted. Repent somewhere else. I hope you repent, but get it done somewhere else.

    1. David says:

      I agree with Sam’s article, but you need to realize the flaw in your statement. The sex offender at Corinth was indeed removed but he was later restored at Corinth, not somewhere else (2 Cor. 2:7). Let’s stay Biblical.

      1. Holly T. Ashley says:

        Excellent! But two things – first, do an investigation or hire an organization (like ours 🙂 to do it for you – not all should be believed, people lie. We’ve been doing this for over 30 years. Due Diligence still applies. Second – Whether leadership or not – THE ABUSER MUST GO! He/She can find another church. Repentance is a must, but most won’t repent and that is why we “flee” from evil. An abuse is EVIL. Plus, the victim needs to remain with those who will love her and give her the help she needs: 1. a home if she doesn’t have one. 2. Child care when she needs to go to court, job interviews, or work. 3. money for the attorney she is going to need. 4. counseling, as is the job of THE CHURCH. In addition, “cooperating with authorities” is fantastic – but the church leadership needs to take the pro-active approach and advocate for the victim! You need to be there, you need to help her file the paperwork, you need to be with her in court, you also need to help her file for divorce – most abuse cases will escalate and we CANNOT hold the marriage above the image bearer of God – after all, she didn’t break the covenant, he did! For more information, contact us. http://www.Redemption3.com

  2. Ron says:

    Somehow,some way, there has to be a method of accountability that actually works. What that looks like, I’m afraid I do not know. Of course, when even the top leadership is guilty of these sins, it’s hard to talk about accountability isn’t it?
    It almost seems trite to suggest that “there is a day coming when these individuals will give an account”, as that does nothing to ease the pain and suffering of the abused.
    I will say this however: those who know of or even suspect such heinous deeds are taking place are just as guilty as the perpetrators if they remain silent and should be called to account.
    It is a dark day indeed that we live in today. To our disgrace the day is made even darker by the actions of those who are supposed to be shepherds over God’s flock.

  3. Sean Nemecek says:

    Great thoughts Sam! Where does 1 Timothy 5:19 come into this discussion?
    Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
    1 Timothy 5:19 ESV
    In cases like this, there are rarely witnesses. Can we just disregard this instruction or is there another way?

    1. Sam Rainer says:

      Great question, Sean. Sexual abuse is both a crime and a sin. I believe we can biblically report sexual abuse with Romans 13:1-7, submitting to governing authorities.

      1. Sean Nemecek says:

        So, report it to the authorities. Remove the alleged abuser from leadership pending investigation. Tell the church. Let the legal process serve as a witness.

        Is that a good approach?

        1. Dean Clark says:


          Better question, what would you do if a parent comes to you as senior and says, “The youth pastor sexually abused my daughter/son. “

          How would you respond? Sam Rainer responded in a cogent manner with scripture. You responded with scripture.

          What’s your answer?

        2. Bill Pitcher says:

          As a pastor (now) who spent an entire career in law enforcemement, I believe that allowing the investigation to be the other witness is a good and Biblical approach.
          Safeguarding the congregation by removing the leader is a necessary part of the process.

  4. Joseph says:

    Believe those who have been traumatized. Wonderful words of advice from Potiphar.

  5. Donnie Edwin Chapman says:

    What makes these situations even worse is when you have people who stand up for the molester. I had a situation that I had to deal with 2 years ago in the church I pastor and I had people stand up for the molester and they shamed the victim. Most of those people left the church, but in the community I have been blackballed because we took a stand to stop a molester in our church. We had to do church discipline to remove the offender. When we contacted our insurance company to tell them about the issue and ask for additional advice, they acted upset that we removed the molester from the church. True story.

    1. Ron says:

      It pains me to say this Donnie,but with the current”lawsuit crazy” mentality in America, it’s probably best for churches to consult legal counsel before going down the path towards Biblical discipline.

      Many years ago I was forbidden to remove former members names from the books out of fear of being sued. Turns out that is exactly what happened to another pastor. After that the denominations legal team allowed removal of names only after a thorough review.

      The times,they are a changing…

      1. Holly T. Ashley says:

        That is serious and true. Changing the ByLaws will help to take care of this issue. That is, if we invoke church discipline.

    2. Les Ferguson says:

      It is helpful if there is a set policy for dealing with allegations of sexual or any other type of ministerial misconduct. Not that our denomination does it better than others but, short of a policy from the SBC or whatever denomination you are a member of, create a fair policy on Ecclesiastical discipline – the discipline of the Church. This is a long read but, for the most part, if actions are taken under the Title IV policy in the Episcopal Church they aren’t overturned. But the solution is fair and strives for reasoned action. https://www.episcopalchurch.org/files/candc_2009pp123-166.pdf

  6. Thomas S. Burris, says:

    An old adage: “Prevention is worth an ounce of cure” is relevant here as well. Leaders need to be up front about this issue. Some guidelines of accountability should include having one’s computer and phone available at any time for inspection (just like random drug tests in some organizations). A close accountability/mentoring for those who are on church staff or working with children. Having the insurer come to review church policies for such issues. And above all (as any insurer will demand) have criminal BG checks for anyone working with children and all prospective staff members.

  7. “If you keep doing what you have always done, you keep getting what you’ve always got.”

  8. The number one reason churches in America are taken to court is an allegation of sexual abuse. Most often churches lack established guidelines/policy for leadership to follow when interacting with those they serve. This coupled with incomplete vetting and a lack of comprehensive screening makes it easy for predators to operate. It’s difficult to perfectly protect everyone in your congregation but creating a proactive culture where communication and transparency are encouraged, and preventive planning is a priority you can certainly reduce the risk. Here’s a link for more information on Comprehensive Screening. http://bit.ly/2p8P7PV

  9. Jonathan says:

    No one wants to say this, and neither do I. Cause it sounds crude. But no, we cannot just start off believing the alleged victim. Yes, we start off listening to them. But just point blank believing is dangerous. 3 reasons:

    1) My own sister, whom I love, made false accusations against a church leader years ago. Eventually, she admitted to it being false, but that man never recovered. And the damage it caused that minister’s family is hard to type. Everyone started off believing, rather than listening and investigating.

    2) Years later, as a teacher, I informed a high school student that her grade was a 34% and that she would fail the class, as grades were being sent out the next day. Later that day, she went to the principal of the school and claimed I had sexually assaulted her. There was no proof, but I lost my job. And no, I did nothing of the sort.

    3) There is such a thing called “False Memories.” I work in rehabilitation homes for sex trafficking survivors. They battle false memories all the time. Part of the recovery process is that they learn to decipher between real and false. But it takes much professional help to do that. There are girls who had an incident when they were younger, maybe a touch, a peck, a flirtatious comment, and they tucked it away in the recess of their memory cause they didn’t know what to do with it. Well, that messes with a person, and no fault of the girl, years later when they bring it out, the story expands into something radical. I’ve seen this happen many times as well.

    I’m just saying, I’ve seen too many cases where just believing immediately is the worst thing that could be done.

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