Survivor-Sensitive Approach to Handling Allegations

Pastors, priests, churches, congregants, leaders, volunteers, staff etc too often do not respond properly to allegations against church officials and others in the church. The recent example of Stewart Ruch (bishop at Wheaton’s Church of the Resurrection), which was a pastor-led, church-focused approach, pressed me into articulating a Survivor-Sensitive approach. You can read about the story @ladyjessicahaze. I apologize for the length of this newsletter today, but I think you will see why.

A Survivor-Sensitive approach needs to welcome trauma specialists to ensure the approach is trauma-sensitive. Because most church cases end up with a priest-centered, or pastor-centered, and church-centered approach to allegations, I am proposing a reformation by proposing some considerations for a Survivor-sensitive approach. (In language, I prefer “Survivor-sensitive” over “Victim-sensitive.”)

This is a proposal, a work in progress, a set of observations in need of public conversation.

So, I lay it before you for your feedback and comments.

The big thesis here is that churches have to learn to flip the script from a pastor-led approach to a Survivor-Sensitive approach.

The “First Thing” that happens

When a person makes an allegation against a pastor, priest or church, the first thing that happens is that the pastor-led response turns the situation into a legal challenge. By this I mean the church’s side becomes the Defendant and the accusing person becomes the Prosecution.

Turning the situation into a legal challenge ruins it and the church immediately begins to take a path of failing to be the church. Instead of seeing the Survivor, who has been a victim of sexual assault or harassment, as one deserving to be heard, as one in need of confession, apology, and repentance, as one in need of grace and public affirmation, the church sees the person as Accuser. Often enough the person is publicly maligned or gaslighted or silenced. The person is objectified as Accuser.

Because the church turned the situation into a legal challenge, sides are formed and the Survivor is shut out of all conversations, all plans, all discussions, and the person’s side is not heard. The priest-led church becomes Defendant v. Accuser, and a case for the Defendant is formed. Justice is not done and even more important the way of Jesus is not accomplished.

Because the church turned the situation into a legal challenge, the pastor, priest, and church determine process: it selects who will ask what, what questions will be asked of whom, and what will be done with the results. It chooses the investigation, too. Whoever chooses the investigation determines the result. When the pastor-led group chooses the investigation, the result is pre-determined in his/its favor and the Survivor remains Accuser rather than a person, a Christian, a parishioner, and a person worthy of pastoral care.

Everything, in other words, is turned into a legal challenge in which the pastor-led group’s first goal is defense of themselves and the church’s reputation. It becomes a closed system of self-investigation that becomes self-affirmation. The person in this case becomes a victim all over again and in the process becomes one to be defeated. This is why so many churches lawyer-up, ignore the person’s experience, and why the person’s voice is denied and silenced. This is also why so many Survivors choose silence, in which silence they suffer.

The “first thing” that should happen is for the pastor and his inner circle all to recuse themselves entirely from any investigation, and to turn the whole process over to an independent third party organization.

Power looms

No matter what a pastor or a priest or a bishop, or anyone else who makes decisions about allegations, the issue will be power. Who gets to make the decisions that determine how the church responds? Power looms over the entire process.

Pastors and priests with power are often unwilling to surrender to the Survivor to make decisions, or to a trauma therapist to make decisions, or to an outside organization like GRACE to make decisions.

A Christoform response to allegations is one in which the church surrenders for the good of the other (the Survivor). More often than not power is where it all breaks down: the priest-led church, or anyone making these decisions, doesn’t want to surrender power. It makes the powerful person vulnerable.

What then is a Survivor-Sensitive Approach?

The Survivor as whistleblower

I am not fond of the Survivor being called a “whistleblower” but that term is now used in many settings. I prefer Survivor. Here are my considerations for the Survivor who comes forward:

A Survivor-Sensitive Approach to allegations requires complete safety for the Survivor to tell one’s story.

It requires an absolute promise of no retaliation.

This means the Survivor determines to whom the person speaks, and how the person wants the story handled.

This means the Survivor’s person, or persons to whom the Survivor speaks is to be a strong advocate/advocates.

This requires the recusal of all who are complicit and all who could be complicit, including friends and family and any long term relations.

It requires that the person or persons to whom the Survivor speaks is independent. Again, no church person or family or friends are to be involved.

It also requires that the person or persons to whom the Survivor speaks has some measure of authority to speak into the church and its leaders.

It also means an independent, third party organization that specializes in handling sexual abuse allegations can be hired to investigate. The Survivor must approve the investigation organization that the person and this group that has heard the story chooses. The investigation organization is to be paid by the church. The point person of communication with the organization must be approved by the Survivor.

Perhaps this could be a pre-formed “listening committee.” (I’m inclined to this idea but it’s got challenges.) Composed of diverse people, more women than men, a therapist or two, and the presence of survivors who have worked through their trauma. No member can be on staff or invested in the church. No member can dominate the discussions.

The Survivor must feel safe with any such listening committee.

How could such a committee be formed in a church?

Perhaps what is needed is simply reliable and discerning outside investigators, like GRACE.

Perhaps the one to whom the Survivor first goes is a trauma-informed therapist who can listen, discern, and then approach the church on behalf of the Survivor. This therapist then would be on a list, and the Survivor chooses.

With whom do you think the allegation begins?

Put more simply: each church needs to codify its approach to allegations. Put it in writing, make it official, make it clear, make sure some survivors are involved in the composition of the official program. Make sure the pastor does not choose who will investigate.

Begin now, before anything happens so the formation of the process isn’t tailored to a specific allegation about a specific person.

Five reminders

Remember this: the pastor-led response has a huge platform, and their platform becomes for the church the voice of God for the people of God.

Remember this: the pastor-led group will nearly always create a narrative that will be believed by the congregation. Such a narrative almost always empowers the pastor and church and disempowers the Survivor.

Remember this: Survivors are nearly always damaged by the decision to come forward and the church’s responsibility is to defeat the damage by working hard at pastoral care and public affirmations.

Remember this: about 95% of women accusers are telling the truth.

Remember this: if the pastor-led church does not do this right it will become public in social media or in other news media.

If a crime has been alleged to have been committed, it must be reported immediately to the police.

If a crime has been alleged to have been committed, the church must continue with a Survivor-sensitive approach that looks something like the following.

Ten discussion points for a Survivor-Sensitive approach

First, when the allegation is presented, in whatever form, someone safe and genuinely independent and an advocate for the Survivor is to make a quick assessment of what is to be done, and this person or persons or committee is to make recommendations: about who must be put on administration leave, who must recuse himself/herself, and who will be involved in the process. This decision entails removing everyone who could be complicit and could prejudice the case.

Second, form a place of complete safety for the Survivor to make the allegation. Then explain to the Survivor the process and what the person can expect and how the church will be communicating with the person. The Survivor should know too who will communicate to the accused, if at all, and what will be said and what will not be said. The Survivor should have a voice in what can and can’t be said.

Third, the Survivor must be provided any therapy needed and requested.

Fourth, the Survivor must be involved with the process at every stage: who investigates, how safety and silence over the investigation will be guaranteed, whom the investigation will query, how reports will be recorded, to whom and when the results will be reported, and whether or not the investigation will be made public, and when and how.

Fifth, the Survivor must be assured that the pastor/perpetrator will not be involved in any way in the investigation and will not be receiving updates and communications about the investigation. The ones who have listened to the Survivor must discipline themselves not to reveal investigation details to the pastor.

Sixth, the pastor and the family of the pastor need to be cared for, and they are to be assured that integrity and truthfulness are shaping the investigation. This is a difficult time for them and for the church.

Seventh, the investigation’s report must be read by the Survivor and any suggestions and redactions must be heard by safe counsel. A Survivor-sensitive approach does not permit the lead powers in a church to control the process or the public reporting of the results.

Eighth, a judgment is to be rendered by the investigation with clarity and recommendations, including decisions about the truthfulness of the accusations and behaviors, and then, if needed, about discipline of the pastor, about the affirmation of the Survivor, and about the path forward for the Survivor, the pastor, and the church.

Ninth, who gets to see the report is to be handled in a way that respects the wishes of the Survivor. What is publicly reported is to be done in a way that reflects the Way of Jesus.

Tenth, the independent investigation is to follow the proper administration of the decisions and intervene when necessary or to affirm publicly the church’s handling of the situation.

All of these cases are grievous to God: pastors and priests and churches are not to be agents of or complicit in violence against persons, but they are to be agents of grace, love, peace, and justice. We lament the rise of so many sexual abuse cases in the church, we repent from the hideousness of the violations and the insensitive processes that follow, and we call the church to a more Christoform Survivor-sensitive approach. The pastor- or priest- or bishop-led approach has proven itself too biased too often.