I often receive questions from readers and thought this would be a good one to share, as I am sure many pastors are wondering how to handle sexual assault, abuse and harassment within their communities.
As a pastor, I’m wondering if I am prepared to handle potential sexual assault allegations in our church. I pray this never happens, but it seems the odds are not in my favor.
My knee-jerk reaction would be to help the individual that has been victimized, assist them in contacting the police, and build a support system around them. Here is my question: we both know that people lie, and if I automatically side with the accuser/victim, then I could potentially unfairly accuse an innocent person. On the other hand, I would NEVER want a true victim to feel like I was writing them off. I feel as though I should never question someone in that situation, but a woman falsely accused my pastor when I was younger. It was found that he was innocent, and she admitting making it up, but his reputation was already tarnished by that point. So how do I proceed with caution, protecting the victim, but at the same time not jumping to the wrong conclusion? Thanks for your time.
Thank you for your humble engagement with this difficult topic. Your presence is desperately needed in this ongoing conversation. You are right, the odds are not in your favor, as 1 in 3 women will face some sexual or physical violence in their life. Pastors have historically remained ignorant of this because they see the world through the lens of their own experience as men, and have overlooked women’s experiences altogether. This has to change, and I am glad that you are humble enough to reach out and seek out a kinder, more responsible way of caring for your flock.
First, we must honor stories of victimization and take them all very seriously. I would rather take things too seriously than not seriously enough. Women do make false claims, but statistics show that only 2%-10% of alleged victims falsely accuse (The National Sexual Violence Resource Center) It is so very rare, but yes it does happen, but what happens more is men are perpetrators of women (99% of rapes happen by men) and forget it happens, or have blocked it out altogether. Far too often, we turn a blind eye to those who are suffering amongst us. There are too many stories of domestic violence, child abuse in the church, and sexual assault where those in power could have stopped it, but instead chose to keep their organization in good standing. Reporting assault is also a good step. It is not up to you to determine whether the allegations are true; let the law enforcement & courts handle that side of things. Your role is to listen and honor both persons, both accuser and accused are image bearers of God and deserved to be honored. There is a core problem with the violence of masculinity—sin–that must be addressed. We cannot have good men, especially pastors, being bystanders to sexism anymore. I think of the tragedy at Willow Creek recently, too many people stood by and protected Bill Hybels when there were clear violations against women that took place. This men’s club that is the evangelical church has to begin to change its ways or we will lose access a part of God’s image–femininity.
Thank you again for your question, my hope is to link arms with you against the evil that is sexual violence in this world.
-Andrew J. Bauman