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Common but Harmful Church Responses to Abuse Allegations

Many congregants love their church, love their church community, and love how the community loves their church. Members may be proud of their outreach programs, their community garden, increasing church numbers, or their amazing praise teams. Some may have been members of their church for decades, while others may have only recently joined a church where they finally feel they belong. Many know when a new member has been born into their church or when a member passes on to be with our Saviour, Jesus. Many congregants know exactly who walks through those doors on Sunday morning, and many notice when a new face enters for the first time. 

What many congregants don’t know is when there are allegations of abuse surrounding a well known and respected leader in their church. When many church members hear about an allegation of abuse by one of their trusted leaders of their church, they can’t believe it, or maybe refuse to believe it, or maybe want to pretend they never heard it. 

Before we judge church members or churches for poor responses to abuse allegations, I want to highlight that while there is an ideal response to abuse allegations, many churches don’t know how to respond well to abuse allegations, particularly when the allegations are against a trusted church leader. Let’s first take a look at some common harmful church responses and why churches may respond this way, adapted from the “‘Responding to Abuse’ Safe Church Video Training for Councils” developed by CRCNA Safe Church Coordinators. 

The M’s of Harmful Church Responses to Abuse Allegations 

Mistrusting or disbelieving the victim 

Maligning the victim 

Moving too quickly to forgiveness without acknowledging wrongdoing or seeking justice

Minimizing what happened 

Making the one harmed responsible for the accused’s emotional and sexual misconduct 

Why Churches Commonly Respond this Way 

Like most responses to something uncertain or scary, and where reputations are on the line, many people’s reactions involve fear. 

F = Fear of legal ramifications 

E = Ensure the protection of the church’s reputation

A = Assure the reputation of the accused ministry leader isn’t ruined 

R = Reduced time, energy, and knowledge of congregation to respond well 

Now that we’ve learned some harmful church responses to abuse allegations and why they commonly respond this way, let’s take a look at 5 ways your church can respond well to abuse allegations if and when they occur. This list is not exhaustive but is a foundation for better equipping churches on how to respond well with compassion and justice in mind. 

5 Ways to Equip your Church to Respond Well to Abuse Allegations 
  1. Develop a Safe Church Team in your church

  2. Safe Church Training

  3. Provide Abuse Awareness & Prevention Educational Opportunities 

    • Host workshops with local abuse prevention organizations

      • Elder Abuse Seminar with an Elderly Outreach Program

      • Domestic Abuse Seminar with a Local Women’s Shelter Educator

      • Human Trafficking with someone from an Anti-Human Trafficking Coalition

      • Sexual Abuse with a Sexual Survivor Centre Educator 

      • Abuse Prevention Workshop from a Thrive Safe Church Coordinator or Classis Safe Church Team at a Classis meeting 

  4. Utilize Investigative Processes (where and when appropriate) 

    • Advisory Panel Process

      • An ecclesiastical process used when a legal adult brings forward allegations against a church leader and the alleged abuse is physical, emotional, or sexual in nature. 

      • This process does not prevent the claimant from pursuing criminal or civil action if necessary.  

      • The panel would be composed of trained CRC members from churches unaffected by the abuse allegations. 

  5. Thrive Investigations 

    • A new Thrive Safer Church resource that is survivor-centered and trauma informed that helps churches where abuse has been alleged or experienced by bringing in trained individuals outside of the church community involved. 

    • The Thrive investigations team will 

      • Meet with the person bringing an allegation of abuse.

      • Meet with the accused.

      •  Meet with any other pertinent parties.

      • Will develop a report of recommendations for the church leadership regarding next steps in responding to the allegation of abuse.

    • As churches aren’t immune to abuse of power concerns and abuse allegations, this resource will be valuable when Safe Church Teams and Church Visitors need assistance or when outside help is warranted.

    • Dignity Team 

      • Last but not least, the Dignity Team, established in 2022, exists to help churches respond to situations where the abuse of power is less clearly defined or tangible and where the situation and response may fall outside of the scope of other CRCNA processes available. 

  6. Provide Opportunities to Process Allegations through Engagement and Support

    • Paid Counseling Services  

      • Counseling Assistive Programs

      • Classis Funded Counseling for Abuse Survivors 

    • Listening Circles 

    • Pastoral Care 

Regardless of how your church has responded to allegations in the past and regardless of how prepared your church currently is, it’s never too late to start increasing awareness of the abuse of power in churches and to work toward preventing abuse from occurring. We never want our churches to be in a situation where abuse has occurred by a trusted church leader, however, it is the reality of many CRC churches and I hope the above resources are helpful in equipping your church on how to respond well to abuses of power that may occur. 

Don’t hesitate to reach out to your local Safer Church Team, Classis Safe Church Coordinator or CRCNA Thrive Safer Churches Coordinator(s) if you have any questions or concerns related to abuse of power in your church. 

Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash


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