We are living in an age where, due to the Internet, we have access to news that would otherwise be inaccessible. Every day several stories make their way through social media that outline the most recent case of horrific abuse; previously these would have been only local news. Sexual abuse, physical abuse, elder abuse, neglect, and other atrocities have become so common that they don’t always outrage us the way they used to. The church is not exempt from cases of physical and sexual abuse, and often these cases make their way to the biblical counselor’s office.
My counseling center has every counselee initial and sign a document titled “Duty to Warn.” This document informs them that if we receive information that they are suicidal, have harmed someone, or have been harmed by someone, we will inform the proper authorities. We prefer to assist the counselee in reporting abuse incurred or inflicted when possible. Sometimes all that is needed for them to go forward with the reporting is for us to hold their hand and be a steady, comforting presence.
There are other times I am contacted by individuals or biblical counselors in training who are unsure of what to do because they have received information that abuse has taken place. Sadly, it is often sexual abuse that has been confided to the counselor during a session. I am called because the counselor isn’t sure what to do with the information and wants to handle it properly. Unfortunately, the victim is often encouraged by the pastor or well-meaning church counselor to “put it in the past” or to “forgive and forget” it ever happened. There is little to no encouragement to follow through with the legal obligations of reporting the abuse. In fact, the victim is discouraged from reporting the abuse and naming the abuser.
This should not be!
Too often I am hearing of cases that have been swept under the church carpeting by leaders who are fearful of exposing a family to the authorities and possibly a scandal because of physical or sexual abuse. I have heard pastors and other church leaders discourage the victim from reporting by saying that we obey God’s law over man’s law, so if the perpetrator confesses wrongdoing to the victim and the victim grants forgiveness, that is all that is necessary in the eyes of the church. Victims have been told to forgive and forget about it. I have heard leaders talk about not wanting to ruin a family or someone’s life over something that happened months or years ago or “just once.” I have heard that it should be handled within the church walls because we don’t want the government in our business.
Every secular counselor is a mandated reporter of abuse, which means they must report it to the authorities. If this applies to secular counselors, how much more it applies to pastoral counselors! We, who not only have the secular law that requires us to render aid and assistance to a person in danger, but who also have the commands of Scripture that instruct us to submit ourselves to the governing authorities! Pastors and pastoral counselors must report physical and sexual abuse of man, woman, elder, or child.
We have a moral, legal, and biblical obligation to report all cases of physical and sexual abuse to the proper authorities regardless of our fears or our feelings about it. We cannot and must not set ourselves up as the arbiters of justice in these cases; that is not our job! As pastoral and biblical counselors, we are to walk alongside the victim and the family, and, when possible, the perpetrator to help them grapple with the consequences that come from such heinous sin.
As much as some would like to think that it is enough to simply make things right between the victim and the perpetrator, the law does not allow us to enable the perpetrator to escape justice. As pastoral counselors, we MUST take the law seriously when an accusation of abuse is made. It is not up to us to decide if an accusation is worthy of investigation or prosecution. Our responsibility is to report or assist the victim in reporting the abuse and then allow the appropriate agencies to investigate and determine if a crime was committed and if there will be punishment by law.
There are no acceptable reasons for a pastor or Christian counselor failing to report suspected or confirmed sexual or physical abuse. The kind of thinking described above is what gives the church and biblical counseling an enormous black eye in the eyes of the world and social service agencies. Romans 13 is crystal clear; we must obey the law.
Are we helping or hurting?
How are we truly helping anyone by failing to report? If the perpetrator escapes consequences, he remains undetected. There is no reason to think that person has ceased to abuse. If the perpetrator is not held accountable, there is no reason to think he “has learned his lesson” and won’t do it again. Abusers abuse, and they will keep on abusing until they are caught and unable to abuse due to incarceration or until they repent. Allowing someone to persist in his sin is not loving!
The pastoral counselor must make every effort to work with the perpetrator in conjunction with the church and the social systems in place to help such a sinner repent and change. The perpetrator must understand and see his sin as God and his victim see the sin and make every effort spiritually and humanly to change.
The pastoral counselor must work with the direct victim and the families of the perpetrator and the victim to help them to heal and forgive. It is important the victim get the clear message that forgiveness does not mean the perpetrator has access to the victim again, or that forgiveness equals trust. The victim may never have unsupervised contact or any involvement with the perpetrator again, but according to biblical principles forgiveness is required.
The pastoral counselor must, when necessary, work with the social service systems, establishing a relationship in which there is an understanding that we will not hide abuse and we will not protect abusers. We have to get over our fear of “the system” and do what is right for our counselees, their families, and even those who victimize others. The gospel demands no less.
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Copyright © 2016 Julie Ganschow.