DEALING WITH ALLEGATIONS QF SEXUAL MISCONDUCT
Guidelines & Procedures
The General Synod of 1993 instructed the Office of Human Resources "to develop a set of written guidelines for dealing with pastoral and professional sexual misconduct" (MGS 1993, R22, p. 340). The General Synod of 1993 also instructed the Office of Human Resources "to provide procedures for c1asses to use in response to allegations of professional misconduct" (MGS 1993, R-23, p. 340).
In considering appropriate guidelines and procedures, it is important to emphasize that the provisions provided in Chapter 2 of the Book of Church Order should be followed very precisely. The Book of Church Order also states in Chapter 1, Part I, Article 1, Section 8:
Elders exercise an oversight over the conduct of one another, and of the deacons, and of the minister's. They make certain that what is preached and taught by the minister/s is in accord with the Holy Scripture.
Since teaching is done by example as well as through the spoken and written word, elders have a particular responsibility in instances of pastoral misconduct.
While the Book of Church Order in Chapter 2, Part I, Article 3, Section 3a, specifically notes that "ministers are under the care of the classis and are subject to its government and discipline," it follows that Section 3b states
The consistory has the right to close the pulpit to a minister who has been accused of any notorious or scandalous offense which would render appearance in the pulpit inappropriate. Proceedings of the consistory in such a case are at its peril, but are undertaken to prevent scandal. This action is not to be considered a trial. The consistory must report its action to the classis immediately.
It is one of the strengths of the Book of Church Order that a charge need not be proven before a defacto suspension of a minister from his or her usual duties can take place. It is also clear that when such an action has been taken by a consistory, it immediately becomes a matter for classis investigation and jurisdiction.
Reporting of Alleged Offenses
A report of alleged sexual misconduct can come to the attention of the elders and/or the classis in any number of ways. While hearsay evidence credible in and of itself, there is an unfortunate reality which is associated with rumors about sexual misconduct on the part of the minister. Members of congregations are reluctant to believe something of this nature about their pastor, and therefore when rumors become more or less public knowledge, in many instances they may be found to have substance. While this is not to suggest that the pastor be considered guilty until proven innocent, it does make it incumbent upon those who hear rumors to report them and provide a pastor the opportunity for clear refutation. Either way, an appropriate investigation is called for when rumors are reported.
A report of alleged sexual misconduct by a victim or a member of the victim’s family, a member of a congregation or other concerned person, another pastor, or a member of a church staff may be made to a member of the Board of Elders or of the classis. The classis stated clerk or a member of the pastoral relations committee should be notified when an allegation has been made or a rumor is circulating. In addition, the classis should identify two persons who may be contacted by anyone concerned concerning alleged sexual misconduct. It is important that one of these persons be female, and that the names of the classis contact persons and telephone numbers be published in a directory or other permanent communication vehicle in each congregation.
Upon receipt of an allegation of inappropriate sexual behavior committed by a pastor, the classis conducts a thorough investigation The investigation seeks information and documentation from the complainant, the victim, the accused, and other sources as appropriate, including any investigative reports which may be obtained from civil authorities. The stated clerk determines that the proper civil authorities have been notified when the alleged behavior requires such notice, as in the mandatory reporting concerning child abuse, a victim under age eighteen, or a vulnerable adult.
All communication in response to an alleged incident must be factually accurate. Distribution of written and verbal material must maintain a responsible balance between the need for people to be informed and the risk of defamation of character and the privacy of the victim. Legal advice is to be sought before any information about a sexual misconduct/abuse case is publicly released. Unless a victim chooses to identify her or himself, it is never appropriate to publicly identify alleged or confirmed victims.
Care of the Victim
When there is sufficient evidence that sexual misconduct has indeed taken place, classis assigns one of its members to relate to the victim or victims to determine on behalf of the classis that appropriate support, pastoral care, and therapeutic counseling is readily available. In almost every instance, professional counseling will be essential, if not immediately, at some point in the future. Victims should be assured of classis support for such counseling, including a willingness to share in the cost as necessary. Direct confrontation or efforts to achieve reconciliation with the offender are in appropriate and should not be encouraged.
Pastoral Care of the Offender and the Offender's Family
Classis also appoints one of its members to be responsible to ensure that pastoral care, necessary therapeutic intervention, and support is available and provided to the person charged with sexual misconduct and their immediate family. The loneliness and trauma of such an ordeal is significant and the classis representative should provide support without engaging in judgment. There are always more victims than those immediately recognized.
Care of the Congregation
Classis also appoints one of its most experienced and competent pastors to serve as its liaison with the consistory and congregation of a pastor who has been charged with an offense. Since it is likely and advisable for a pastor so charged to be placed on a paid leave of absence, whether or not the pulpit has been closed, during the period of investigation and any subsequent trial, pastoral support will need to be provided. In addition, grieving, denial, and anger is to be expected from members of the congregation. No matter how serious the pastor’s offense, there will be members who have deeply appreciated the leadership which has been given to the congregation in the past, others who feel hurt and betrayed, and still others who will turn their negative feelings on the victim. Much patient listening and processing will be important. It is also important that the congregation be informed as soon as possible of the nature of the allegations with enough clarity so that they understand the gravity of the charges which are being made, while avoiding further injury to the victim. The congregational listener or advocate should be prepared to work with the congregation throughout any trial period and as long as seems necessary thereafter. The congregation will at the very least need to know why their pastor is on a leave of absence, the charges which are being made, the process which will be used to investigate allegations, the plans for an interim period until the matter has been resolved, the results of the investigation, and the proposed treatment for both the victim(s) and the offender.