This is longer than usual but very important.
I’m an elder and I’m a lawyer. I counsel churches about all sorts of things, in both capacities. And sexual sin by a leader — a minister or even an elder — happens all too often.
The following conversation never happened. It’s heavily fictionalized. But some elements are nearly word-for-word from actual conversations but not necessarily conversations I was a part of. This is what could easily happen when a minister is suspected of a sexual sin and an elder calls a lawyer. Pay attention.
The elder calls
“I’m sorry to bother you, but I heard from a friend that you’d be willing to help with the, you know, the situation we have.”
I’m so sorry. Yes, he told me about it and asked if I’d help. Of course, I’ll help. My heart goes out to you. Tell me what happened.
“Well, we really don’t know exactly. But an accusation has been made against our youth minister. And he’s a great guy. He does great work. He’s a deeply, deeply committed Christian. At least I thought he was. The churches kids love him. My kids love him.” (The elder chokes up for moment.)
Take your time.
(Takes a deep breath.) “He went to visit one of the kids at a local middle school, and they wouldn’t let him in the door. It seems that a kid who was visiting him reported to his teacher that the youth minister tried to touch him in, you know, in his privates during a sleepover at his house. The principal now won’t let him in the school door. Next week, his case will be discussed among all the principals in the school system. I think they’re going to ban him system wide!”
Wow. Do your church members know about this? Is it out among the kids at school?
“Not yet, but some of the kids know it. And the word is going to spread.”
Now, I need some more facts. Do you have a child abuse policy? Something formal, in writing?
“Yes, we do. And we have a policy that limits what our ministers can do so they don’t get falsely accused.”
Did he violate the policy?
“Yes, he did. And not for the first time. I wish I could say we enforced the policy more strictly, but ministers — especially youth ministers — just have trouble complying.”
How did he violate the policy?
“He had some kids over to his house for sleepover, but his wife wasn’t there. He was the only adult.”
What about their baby?
“The wife and baby were out of town, visiting her mother.”
Are they having marital problems? Any suspicion of this at all?
“Not that we know about.”
Well, you need to ask the other ministers and his friends. It’ll be important, because this looks really, really bad. In violation of church policy, he had kids over to his house, for a sleepover, the night his wife wasn’t there. Most ministers would insist their wives be there to help and to relate to the girls. Doing this while she’s away is very, very suspicious. He’s going to have a lot of trouble defending this one.
“Well, there weren’t any girls there. And that’s why we have the policy. So ministers don’t do stupid things like this. But I feel so bad that we didn’t enforce the policy more strictly …”
But he knew about the policy?
And the reason for it?
What was he told would be the consequence of violating the policy?
“That we’d discipline him, maybe even fire him.”
Good. If he’s not pedophile, he’s an idiot. And insubordinate. He violated policy, advised of the risks, in the worst possible circumstance — and jeopardized his family, his marriage, his job, his church, and his reputation. He’s really an idiot. He deserves to be fired just for that. I’m not saying you have to fire him — yet — but he’s made a colossal mess and I’m not sure you can do much to rescue him.
“I love him. I want to do anything I can for him.”
I understand, but the children he’s around and the church are more important. You can’t risk the survival of the church to protect an employee who’s foolishly made such a serious mistake. You can’t put other people’s children at risk. They come first. He’s the adult. The children can’t be put at risk at all.
(The elder says nothing, taken aback by the sad realization of the tough choices he and his fellow elders are going to have to make.)
Criminal and civil consequences
Has the school notified the district attorney?
“The DA! You’re kidding!! I hadn’t thought about that.”
The law requires that all cases of suspected child abuse be reported. If the school hasn’t reported it yet, they likely will. And you should hope they do.
Because if they don’t, you have to. In fact, now that I think about it, the only safe course is to make the report yourself. You can’t count on the schools to handle it for you.
“But we’ve not made any investigation. It would tear up the church! We just found out.”
You are aware of an allegation of sexual abuse by an employee taking place at a church event. Let me lay out the legal issues. You called a lawyer, and I have to talk some law.
First, if you don’t report the allegation to the proper authorities, the leadership will be guilty of a crime. The DA takes these things very seriously. He’s a good Christian, and he loves children. And if he thinks you aren’t taking this seriously, well, it won’t be pretty.
Second, if there’s even a perception of a cover up, you not only make criminal prosecution more likely, you make the risk of a lawsuit much more serious. Around here, most jurors go to church and won’t be too hard on a church — unless there’s a cover up. Then they’ll treat you like the juries treated the Catholic Church. You’d may as well sell your church properties and hand the money over now. A cover up guarantees a very public suit and severe damages. The jury will want you put permanently out of business.
And you cannot keep this a secret. The kid who thinks he’s been molested knows. He parents surely know. The school authorities know. I bet his friends know. It’s probably on Facebook! It’s going to get out and so there’s no use pretending otherwise.
Third, as an unpaid volunteer you have personal immunity so long as you act in good faith. But violating a criminal law written to protect children may well be deemed a lack of good faith. A cover up will likely remove any claim of good faith — which basically is a requirement to act honestly. In the eyes of the law — and the church — cover ups aren’t honest.
And so you can turn this from a mess to a colossal mess that destroys your church and gets you personally sued for millions by failing to report him to the authorities. It’s not a close call. You have to report him. It’s the law, and it doesn’t matter whether you think he’s innocent.
(Plainly taken aback) “You’re kidding? We can’t do damage control of any sort?”
Yes, you can and should do damage control. But the law tells us that the first step is to protect the children, and you first control damage to them by reporting him to the authorities.
And you have to suspend him from serving as a youth minister. He may not be guilty. This may all be a horrible, horrible misunderstanding, but your first duty is to the children, not your minister, and until there’s an investigation and he’s absolved, he can’t be around kids.
Remember: I’m not saying accuse him of anything. I’m just saying you have to act as though it might be true. You don’t punish him. And the DA might not take any action if you handle this well. But your goal is, first, to protect the children and, second, to investigate.
“Do we pay him or suspend him without pay? His family can’t afford to go even a month without a paycheck. You know how it is with a wife and baby!”
You can probably put him on “administrative leave” until you decide whether to fire him, but if his guilt is clear, you risk being seen as soft on child abuse if you pay him.
“I’m not going to let his family starve just because of an allegation! We can suspend him, but he’s on the payroll until the truth is known!”
I have to say, I agree. I’d handle it the same way personally. But your fellow elders need to know that a plaintiff’s lawyer may use that fact against you to make you look like you aren’t really as angry about his conduct as you should be.
“We’ll take that chance!”
Then you can see how important it is that we act very, very fast. Letting this linger only makes the case worse. This is now the only thing on the agenda for the elders. Don’t delay dealing with this to worry with curriculum and broken air conditioners. Delegate all that to someone else. This is first on every agenda until done. And some of you may need to cancel vacation — anyone needed to make a hard decision. This is about the survival of your church.
Okay, let’s talk about dealing with the congregation. Once the word gets out — which could be today — everyone will know. We live in the age of Facebook and mass text messaging. Word will spread in hours, not days.
You need to meet with the youth minister and put him on suspension. And then you need to meet with the teen parents and let them know. You can’t hide it, and so it’s best to get in front of the situation. Don’t let the media and the authorities push you. Get out in front!
“The media!” (The elder lets a curse word slip.) “Sorry about that. How does the media get involved?”
The DA will probably not involve the media until he’s done an investigation — which may never happen. The school probably won’t call the media, because it doesn’t look good for them that your youth minister was hanging around for months before all this. It hurts them and doesn’t help them to call.
But the boy’s parents might call — especially if they think you don’t care. They’ll raise whatever Cain is necessary to get your attention. They’ll be angry, and they may redirect that anger into a crusade against your youth minister and church — if you don’t get out in front of it. They might do nothing. But we should plan for the worst and pray for the best.
You need to decide who at church will handle calls from the media. And whoever it is needs to be prepared to express deep concern for the child and his family — right off the bat, first thing — and no self-pity. No “woe is me.” No persecution syndrome. The church should care first about the alleged victim.
Then you don’t defend the youth minister. You say you’re conducting an investigation and will report to the family and media only after the investigation is complete. That’s fair and reasonable. You need to appear to be fair (because you really are) and that the public and parents can rely on you to do whatever is necessary to protect the children. The last perception you want to create is that you’re more worried about the minister or the church than the victim. And you must make no implication at all that the victim might be lying. Your place, as a church especially, is to show compassion for all involved, and to fairly and quickly investigate.
You can, of course, express your concern for the minister and his family. Don’t treat them as criminals, but make it clear that his guilt or innocence is an open question in your minds. And really be fair and open-minded.
Some people in church — some of the elders even — may resent the child for making the accusation. The elders and staff have to keep their mouths shut. They may one day be called as witnesses, and sending a text, an email, or a Facebook post speaking ill of the victim could destroy the church. They need to say nothing at all other than to their spouses — who also need to be quiet.
You can’t control the whole church, but the ministers and other elders have to toe the line. They cannot campaign for the minister. They just need to participate fully and whole-heartedly in the investigation with open minds.
You should say that the youth minister has been put on leave and will not be around children while this is pending. But say that you’re still investigating and your primary concern is to discover the truth quickly.
You want the family and their friends and all who are watching to be convinced that their children can be safe at your church because you have a passion for children and their safety.
Don’t disclose any new facts just yet. Don’t speculate. Tell the reporter that you’ll let him or her know as soon as the investigation is finished. And do that. Cooperate with the media. If they smell cover up, they’ll do their own investigation.
They may try to interview the preacher and other elders. Tell them to say nothing and to refer all calls to the church spokesman. Tell the reporter that you’re going to do this so the staff will feel free to be involved with the investigation without worrying about press interviews.
You need to have an immediate “family meeting” with the congregation — at least the teen parents. Use your best judgment as to who else needs to be there. Frankly tell them what happened. Tell them the minister has been suspended pending the investigation to protect the children and to protect him from any accusation that he’s interfering with the investigation. Make sure they know he acted against policy — because you may wind up firing him for exactly that. That fact needs to be known to the church immediately.
Tell the parents not to let their children go to his house. It would not look good for him to be around the kids. Tell them to keep an open mind. Tell them to pray. Adults are welcome to visit and talk to him. But he can have no contact with minors at all. If he does, it’ll look bad for him. He’ll look insubordinate (because he will be) and like he’s trying to influence the investigation. It’ll be really hard for him to stay away from the children, but he has to.
This needs to happen before anything hits the media — even if you have to have the parents in on a weeknight. This is about survival.
Put your insurance carrier on notice. Immediately. I mean, within five minutes after we finish this call. They may choose to hire a lawyer for you, and if they do, take his advice. If you don’t cooperate with the carrier, you can void your coverage.
Appoint someone — maybe a very small committee — to impartially investigate. Some churches hire lawyers to do this, but you all are a big enough church that you can find some members of unimpeachable integrity and good sense to do this with some guidance. They should have no connection with the youth minister or the alleged victim. Some of the elders might participate if they can be truly objective and fair. But the elders might prefer not to — so they don’t have to take all the heat for an unpopular decision.
“Any decision we make will be unpopular!”
Exactly. There’s no safe course here. You just have to do the right thing.
Make sure the youth minister does not talk to any of the children. Meet with him and his wife. You see, his best hope is that some children from church will step up and say they saw the event and he did nothing wrong.
That’s why it’s so important that he not be in contact with the children. Seriously. If he talks to any of those kids, their testimony will be useless. Just the fact that he talks to them will look like he tried to prejudice their testimony. If that happens, he could go to jail.
And he needs to know that, because his instinct will be to try to salvage all this by getting the kids to speak on his behalf. He’d may as well hang a noose around his neck.
And that’s why you need to get this done very quickly — 72 hours if possible.
Talk to the victim and his family. Compassionately. Take notes. Express genuine concern. Pray for them. Get the whole story down. If they have a lawyer, he’ll be there. If he refuses to let them talk, he’ll hurt his case, and so they’ll talk.
You may even want to record the meeting. If you do, let them know.
“The law doesn’t require that, does it? I mean, you don’t have to tell people you’re recording them …”
Right, but we’re doing this the right way at every step. No deception. Nothing hidden.
If the family asks questions about the church’s intentions, tell them the truth. You’re investigating and seeking the truth. You’ll do whatever is necessary to protect children.
Then interview the youth minister — alone. Not with his wife. If he has a lawyer, fine, and if he refuses to be interviewed or appears to be less than completely open, fire him on the spot. Cooperating may not save his job, but if he doesn’t love the church enough to cooperate fully, you have no business keeping him on staff.
Keeping silent may be his best choice — because he may be prosecuted for a serious crime. But you should fire him if he doesn’t cooperate, because every member of the church and every member of the public will consider his refusal to cooperate as a sign of guilt — and you can’t defend him against that. The government can’t use his refusal to testify against him, but you can. If he hires a lawyer and refuses to talk, the church will assume he’s guilty, and then they’ll refuse to let him minister to their kids. They’ll leave.
Then interview the staff members, the wife, and any kids who might have been witnesses. Take good notes.
Then make a quick and fair decision that you can defend to your church and to the public.
“I feel like I’m in hell. I mean, this is horrible. I see no good outcome at all!”
You’re only going through hell because your youth minister did an incredibly stupid, self-destructive thing — even if he didn’t molest that child. This is not an unfortunate accident. Trust me. I’ve been through some horrible natural disasters. They aren’t nearly this bad, not in terms of how they injure a church.
Put the blame where it belongs. The youth minister has created this mess by putting himself in a position where he can’t defend himself.
(The elder is overcome with emotion and can’t talk for a moment.) “I can’t thank you enough for your advice. We’re going to do it. And I’m going to hate every second of it. The way I see it, we’re almost certainly going to have to fire this young man, and we’ll never, ever know 100% whether he’s really guilty. He may lose his wife and baby over this. And the members will take a long time to forgive us. God help us all!”
NOTICE: I’m not your lawyer. You’re not my client. This is not legal advice on which you can rely. The advice a lawyer gives will depend heavily on the state (laws vary a lot) and the facts.
This is just an example to make a point: Ministers who violate sexual abuse policies are idiots and self-important jerks. They guaranty hell for their families and elders, and they risk destruction of their families and careers.
This is the sort of stupidity that can lead to a divorce and to loss of rights to visit your own children except with supervision. Imagine having to suffer that!
Imagine being put on a sex offender list. There are towns you couldn’t even live in because many states ban convicted offenders from living within so many feet of a school, and in some towns, the houses are all too close to the schools.
Most employers will do background checks. Most states have public databases where someone can type in a zip code and discover the registered offenders in that area — by name and address.
And you might be completely innocent — just really, really stupid. Don’t spend the night with a child not your own — in the same room — under any circumstance at all. Don’t spend the night with children, even in separate rooms, without another adult present. Don’t share beds.
You’re the adult. Children have sleepovers, not adults. Ever. You are there to supervise and provide a mature influence. Not to sleep with children. Ever. Not for any reason.
Your innocence is almost irrelevant, because there will be no witnesses to testify to your innocence. But your stupidity will be plain to all. In a close case, you lose. So does your church.
You could destroy a church. You could go to jail.
Read and honor the policies. Make no exceptions. Don’t put your elders through this.
Remember Joe Paterno. He’ll live the rest of his life in shame even though he broke no law. He just didn’t care enough about the victims to do things right. He tried to hide the truth, and the result is at least 40 victims and a ruined life and reputation.
Don’t become the next Michael Jackson or Jerry Sandusky. Do not ever put yourself in the position where the only witness to your good behavior is an 12-year old child.