My Interview with Boz Tchvidjian (Part 4)
ED: You said we need to have protocols for dealing with reporting abuse at the local church level. I think most people know what a "required reporter" is now—they have to report certain things. But it's more than that. Can you talk to us a little bit about that?
BOZ: I think the number one priority is to be familiar with the law in your particular jurisdiction regarding mandated reporting. Every jurisdiction is different. Every jurisdiction has a mandated reporting law. For example, I believe everyone in Rhode Island is a mandated reporter. So if anybody suspects child abuse and doesn't report it, they can be prosecuted. In other jurisdictions, only certain types of persons are mandated reporters.
The best advice I can give on this subject is when in doubt, report, regardless of whether or not you are a mandated reporter. Those reporting laws only identify individuals "mandated" to report. They certainly don't prevent non-mandated reporters from reporting suspected abuse. I believe anyone and everyone should report any suspected abuse of a child.
We need to let the God-created civil authorities who are experts in investigating these types of situations do their God-ordained work and investigate the situation and make a determination. Don't try to do it yourself. So when in doubt, report.
When abuse disclosures are made we need to understand that the Church is not a jury, nor is it a court of law. It is not the role of the Church determine the legal guilt or innocence of any person. That is within the sole jurisdiction of the civil authorities. I believe a primary responsibility of the Church is to love and serve the alleged victim and his/her family through this very difficult and painful journey. The Church also has a critical responsibility to protect the little ones in its midst and to shepherd the congregation as it attempts to process a very difficult and often confusing situation.
For example, there will always be survivors in the Church who will be gravely impacted when learning of abuse disclosures. We must be prepared and equipped to serve that population with excellence. I also believe the Church has a responsibility to make every effort at shepherding the alleged perpetrator and the perpetrator's family. Please understand that shepherding is very different than supporting and taking sides.
Also, it may be the responsibility of the church to initiate church disciplinary proceedings against the alleged perpetrator. However, we highly recommend that such proceedings be initiated after the matter has been addressed by the authorities.
Lastly, we should never forget that many outside the Church will be watching how we respond to these extremely difficult situations. Will our response draw the watching world to Jesus or propel them away? I have a case study that we often provide to churches in which a pastor is informed one night by a congregation member that his son has just disclosed being sexually abused by the interim youth volunteer, who happens to be a well-known, respected elder in the church. We ask the pastor: "What do you do?"
First—and I don't say this lightly—is pray. This has to be completely covered in prayer. We need the wisdom of One far greater than ourselves to deal with these gravely difficult situations.
Second, don't do this alone. Don't try to be super pastor and attempt to address this issue without the insight and assistance of others. Involving the church leadership is a must. As we talked about earlier, if your leadership has been trained and equipped on issues related to abuse, they will be a major source of assistance to you and others in addressing this critical matter. It is also extremely important for the leadership to be open to receiving assistance from outside experts.
For example, a qualified psychologist may be able to assist in assessing how best to serve the victim. A child protection professional can provide the leadership with critical insights into the common behavioral dynamics of offenders. We encourage the church leadership to to immediately assign either a deacon or an elder to be the liaison between the leadership and the alleged victim and their family, and a separate deacon or elder to be the liaison between the leadership and the alleged perpetrator and their family. It is really important that these liaisons have a substantive degree of knowledge and training regarding abuse issues.
These liaisons are not there to say, "We believe you and are supporting your version of events." Rather, they are there to say, "We are here to know that you and your family are going through a very dark and painfully difficult time of life and we as a church, are here to disciple and shepherd you through this because we are extremely concerned about you."
Offenders often target, groom, and abuse vulnerable children. When a vulnerable child reports abuse against a well-respected and influential member of the church, the common response from the congregation is to feel sorry for the accused and to rally to their side. This often comes at the expense of the victim and the victim's family. Victim's are too often ignored or even sometimes chastised to the point where they no longer feel welcomed in the church.
Understandably, many abuse survivors end up leaving the church and walking away from the faith. This is a great tragedy. I have talked to prosecutors around the country, and this was my own experience as well, that just about every time we saw a pastor come to court in a supportive role, he was there on behalf of the perpetrator.
A young victim once told a prosecutor friend of mine upon observing the pastor in the courtroom on behalf of the perpetrator, "Does this mean that God is against me too?" The Christian community has to do a better job in providing support to the abuse survivors in our midst, young and old.
A liaison that makes sure the victim and the victim's family know that they are loved and supported will help prevent this family from slipping through the cracks and being forgotten. This can be done by doing anything from making sure the other children of the family are being taken care of when the parents and victim have to go to court, to helping connect the family with a qualified trauma therapist. There are so many things, big and small, the church can do to make sure that the victim and family know that they are valued and loved.