What are our responsibilities towards someone who has been accused of abuse or bullying within the church? It is important to remember at this stage that being accused and being found guilty are not the same things. So, our first responsibility both to the accused and the accuser is to seek truth and justice. Secondly, we retain pastoral responsibilities towards them and thirdly that means that our central responsibility in this is that we continue to keep bringing them back to the Gospel.
Once again, it is important to distinguish between cases that remain in house responsibilities and those where external authorities such as the police are involved. This means that often our responsibility in terms of the investigation ends once we pass on the initial report from the accuser. We also need to be careful not to get in the way of the investigation. This is for the sake of both parties.
Now, there is a safe-guarding issue here. There is somebody who is potentially a risk to others. At the same time, we have not confirmed that. We don’t want them to be subject of gossip. How then do we manage things? Here are a couple of thoughts
- First I think it is right that the person does not engage as a church member at that time. So they need to step back from ministry and participation in membership decision making matters.
- They cannot really attend worship at the same service as their accuser. Indeed, not only is this going to be difficult for a victim but will also be hard for the accused if it turns out that they were the subject of a false accusation.
- So, for a period of time I think that the wise thing might be to plan if possible with another church for the person to be able to attend there, subject to agreement with that church and appropriate bodies that this is safe and that the person will be chaperoned at all times. If this is not possible then the person will have to go through a period when they cannot attend anywhere. I also recognise that some may conclude that we simply shouldn’t encourage the person to attend a church at all for this time. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this point as it is perhaps the trickiest.
- It is important that the point of contact with the accused does not pass on information that they have not been authorised to do so such as the names of other witnesses.
Whilst we don’t want to rush to a situation where the accusations come out into the public domain before the right and proper time, we need to be clear with the accused that we cannot guarantee this. Furthermore, it is only fair that should they breach agreements and start to engage with others where not appropriate or to act and speak as though a functioning church member then we will be under obligation to share further with people about the nature of the issue. Once again, our commitment is to a level of confidentiality, not to secrecy. Thirdly, as an investigation develops and time progresses, it will be necessary for details to be shared as part of evidence gathering which will naturally lead to their name and the nature of the accusation coming into the open.
We will want to offer pastoral support to the person concerned throughout the process. This means that we will encourage them to find their hope in Christ alone. If they are falsely accused we need to encourage them to bear the accusation with dignity as Christ did. If they are in fact guilty then we need to encourage them to accept the consequences. What I would encourage would be truthfulness, humility and gentleness.
We need to be honest. They are a suspect, that means that they have not been found guilty but they are a suspect and whilst certain aspects of that status are uncomfortable, they are however necessary. We also need to be realistic. Even if they are insistent that they are innocent, this does not guarantee that they will be found notguilty.
I do think that how people respond to the situation and what is expected of them can be telling. It does not mean that they wont struggle and that there wont be anger, tears, frustration but I think we can distinguish the frustrated person who is still seeking to be Christlike in the face of accusation from the person who is defiant.
Our aim remains to see the truth emerge, justice to be done and where possible, repentance, forgiveness and true restoration in faith and fellowship.