It is perhaps helpful when thinking about how we would handle a complaint from an adult about abuse within the church to remember that we have some starting points. Much of what we should do is covered in the policies we tend to have for safeguarding children and vulnerable adults.
I think the key things are this. First of all, in terms of the potential victim, when they bring a complaint, the person who first hears the complaint should explain to the person that they respect confidentiality. That is not the same as secrecy. Confidentiality is about respecting confidence and not communicating beyond where it needs to be heard. There may be a need to report information on, particularly where there is criminality and risk to others.
It is important then to take careful notes. Remember, it is not your job at this stage to investigate, simply because the person has reported something to you. You need to pass this on to whoever is responsible for such matters. It is my view that the safeguarding team in church should be responsible for the wider safety and well-being of members and attendees, not just for children.
We sometimes talk about the importance of believing the complainant. However, this raises questions. First of all, we do get instances of false accusation, secondly it may be that their complaint whilst genuinely made arose from a misunderstanding, thirdly, there are al sorts of reasons why we cannot guarantee that they will get the justice they are seeking through the criminal justice system and it is important that we don’t unhelpful raise expectations. I think that the important thing here therefore is that we make it clear that we trust them, that we will listen to them, treat their evidence as credible and take them seriously.
We do need to be open with them that the allegation will need to be carefully investigated. Furthermore, where the complainant alleges criminal activity, it is important that we don’t attempt to do the investigation in house. I have seen reports of churches around the world where complainants have been told not to go to the authorities but to trust the church to deal with the matter. I believe this arises from a twisting of 1 Corinth9ans 6 where believers are told not to take lawsuits against each other. There is a huge difference between taking lawsuits to gain advantage over a brother and placing a matter into the hands of the civil authorities where and when they have God given authority and responsibility for it.
In the incident that prompted this serious of reflections, the allegation that a Conservative MP committed rape, I understand that Jacob Rees-Mogg advised that the alleged victim should report the matter to the police. If true, then whilst this was better than nothing, it falls far short of what is needed in such a situation. It is important at this stage that we don’t simply say “you must go to the police” but that we offer to go with them. They need to know that they will be fully supported in the matter.
It is also important that we continue to actively support the possible victim throughout the process. That means simply being there alongside them, available to provide a listening ear when they are at a low point and also helping them to prepare for what is to come. This is likely to include helping them to access specialised counselling and support. It will also include helping them prepare for what is to come in terms of any inquiry or trial. We also want to be clear again that we cannot guarantee desired outcomes in this life. Our specific responsibility in church is to provide spiritual support and to help them find comfort and hope in Christ. This support cannot stop as soon as any trial is over, whatever the outcome.
We need to be alert to any possible gossiping and rumours that may risk identifying the victim or damaging their emotional well-being.
The important thing is that victims feel safe, supported and loved within the family of God’s people.