Whose responsibility is it to supervise the process of disciplining a clergy sexual predator?
In an independent congregational church, which is locally administered, a board of lay leaders must oversee discipline for clergy sexual abuse. Churches under denominational supervision have regional administrators who are responsible to deal with predators. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, local conference presidents are supposed to execute discipline upon the offending clergyman, and union presidents oversee the annulment of his ordination to prevent further abuse of parishioners.
This is not an enjoyable part of their job. It’s a lot more fun to ordain pastors than to disbar them. It’s a lot easier casting leadership vision than casting blame where it is due. To further complicate matters, often powerful or wealthy supporters of a predator pastor try to prevent the president from doing his job—or to do it so secretly that nobody knows what really happened.
Public disclosure is scary and admittedly risky. Beyond the danger of aggravating an already bad situation, there are legal perils as well if the process is not executed properly. But the reverse is also true. Keeping secrets may seem the safe thing to do, but it’s actually quite dangerous and damaging.
Catholic bishops discovered this when civil authorities put them on the witness stand, under oath. These church leaders had imagined they could keep the secrets of their pet predators in the collegial circle of religious boardrooms. Suddenly they found themselves in civil courtrooms, compelled to tell the truth—the whole truth. The church lost many millions of dollars in lawsuits, not only because of the predators’ misbehavior but because bishops and cardinals knew what was happening but reacted inadequately or perjured themselves in court by seeking to hide the truth.
So legal risk exists at either extreme of inappropriate disclosure or inappropriate silence. Everything must be done decently and in order when executing discipline and disclosure.
Church leaders today can learn lessons from the ancient leader Eli. When his sons committed clergy sexual abuse, he scolded them privately but refused to punish them publicly and remove them from pastoral service (see 1 Samuel 2:22-35). God condemned and replaced Eli the enabler. The same fate should befall leaders today who follow his example. In refusing to take decisive action against pastoral wolves in sheep’s clothing, these leaders are no longer shepherds but hirelings, unfit for holy office (see John 10:12-13). These cowardly administrators usually manage to keep their jobs through cronyism or other political expediencies, but ultimately they will have God to contend with.
So do all church members who enable clergy sexual abuse, either actively by openly defending the predator, or passively by simply keeping quiet when it is time to speak up. A principle of ancient Roman law is that “he who is silent is said to consent.” And in heaven’s eyes, neglecting to take action against a predator is a grave offense: “He who justifies the wicked, and he who condemns the just, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord” (Proverbs 17:15). Silence in the face of sin is not golden but cowardly complicity.
God’s curse is upon those who pamper the predator or maintain friendship with him as if nothing had happened. God actually considers these enablers to be partners of the apostate. The Bible is clear: “Do not receive him into your house or give him any greeting, for whoever greets him takes part in his wicked works” (2 John 1:10-11; see also 1 Timothy 5:22). This solemn command is almost universally ignored in mainline Christianity.
We had better stop and think about that amazing fact. God condemns church members who would never themselves commit sexual abuse as guilty of that very sin if they sustain a relationship with the predator.
Not that we should stop praying for the fallen pastor and if he repents, embrace him as a brother again. Nor does it mean putting a former prodigal back in the pulpit, where he would be tempted once again to abuse pastoral powers; there are other ways he can humbly learn to serve outside of leadership.
Severance from church fellowship is step 4 of Christ's Matthew 18 formula: "Let him be to you like a heathen” (verse 17). This is the only safeguard against perpetuating the abuse of a predator or sustaining his lies, which defame the victim and destroy the unity of the congregation.
It is also the only possible cure for enablers, who have made themselves clowns in the predator’s circus. They are partners in his perfidy by living his lie, thus becoming an abomination to the Lord.
Most enablers would never consider committing sexual abuse themselves. And once they can no longer deny what their pastor did, they usually disapprove of his behavior—but not enough to decisively deal with it. They may get sad, but they should be mad. Like the apostle Paul, who sided with vulnerable victims instead of their abusers: “Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to fall, and I am not indignant?” (2 Corinthians 11:29).
Enablers flatter themselves that they love God, the church, and the predator pastor. But failing to deal with sin is not love but a perversion of it: misplaced sympathy, dysfunctional loyalty or simply cowardice. Whatever the motivation, enablers choose to live the lie of the predator and thus will also share his punishment. Moral cowards will be lost souls outside the Holy City, partaking with the predator in the fate of the devil himself: “As for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death” (Revelation 21:8).
Sad words, but this is serious: If you participate in a predator’s lies you will also participate in his punishment.
How can you know whether you are enabling a predator? By Christ’s standard in Matthew 18. When an offender refuses private admonition (step 1) and small circle intervention (step 2), then it is time to take action: “Tell it to the church” (step 3), and if that does not deter him, cut off all connection with him (step 4).
Remember, Christ’s purpose in all this is to preserve the integrity of the church, its ministry to vulnerable members and its witness to the community. And ironically, such tough love is the only hope to reclaim the soul of the predator, although he should never again be trusted with pastoral ministry and the temptation of future victimization.
*Although the victim is typically a female, increasingly males are victims as well.