Clergy sexual abuse: how should it be disclosed to the church?

This may be a matter that is of narrow concern, but I would like to seek the wisdom of our readers on this nonetheless. I’ve had professional reasons in recent years to make a bit of informal study of how various churches, dioceses and parishes have handled the difficult task of informing members about instances of clerical sexual abuse. There don’t seem to be any agreed upon best practices, and it seems that there should be.

I am aware of instances in which church leaders have made a full disclosure of the nature and scope of the abuse (withholding certain details so as not to become too clinical, but conveying just how serious was the nature of the abuse), apologized to the community for this breech of trust, asked other victims to come forward, and promised to keep the community apprised of future developments.

I am also aware of church leaders who have not informed their church communities of the abuse and simply let them learn about it through the mainstream media.

And, finally, I am aware of church leaders who do their damnedest to suppress as much information as possible.

Assuming that a parish, a diocese, or the folks at church center are in possession of corroborated reports of sexual abuse by a member of the clergy or a bishop, how fully and through what channels should they release this information?

I would especially like to hear from members of Episcopal Communicators on this issue, and we can be more liberal than we usually are in granting our commentors' anonymity if that makes it easier for them to tell their stories.

Comments (4)

Lately I have been struggling with some of these questions, but from another angle. A close friend from seminary days (RC) faced accusations and was immediately hung out to dry with little or no due process, compassion, or mercy and this was overseen by someone who's past is less than spotless. What I see is an institution so busy covering it's butt once again that it's all about appearances and appeasing angry mobs and very little about healing for all the victims or for justice. Accurate disclosure cannot be done if fear is the only motive.

The sooner things are disclosed the better - not breaching confidentiality but showing that there is a serious investigation taking place. In this day and age with communications as they are -- all need to be forthcoming lest they look like they condone abuse. Bp Rowe comes to mind as an example of the right procedures. I know he took some amount of abuse from other bishops over his disclosures - but it was the right thing to do.

As the communications person in a diocese that faced this problem, I was blessed to be under the leadership of a bishop who knew that the revelation of the misconduct should be "early, complete, with unambiguous apology even if it means exposing the church to legal liability." For us that meant the news was given to our clergy and congregations first, then was sent to the press, with the goal of reaching out to other possible victims to help bring healing and closure. We were deliberately open with both our church family and with our wider community, knowing there would be victims in both, whether victims of actual abuse or our own members struggling to come to terms with a betrayal from a bishop they had trusted.
Exact details of a communications strategy can differ, but I believe that the motivation and focus need to be the same. Our diocese was blessed with wonderful communications consultants who understood what it means to be both communicators and Christians, for in our business you cannot separate the two. Our mission is different from communicators in the secular world. It is not enough to report the news, but we must use that news to transform lives. Our job as Christian communicators is to spread the good news of the Gospel and to reveal how God is working in the lives of our members and communities. Sometimes that job means being willing to expose the darkness in our midst, not out of fear or judgment, but in order to bring light - to bring the hope, healing, and love of Christ to those affected, both directly and indirectly.

In general, the rule of "tell it fully; tell it factually; tell it first" applies. That said, Peter raises the important point that we must deal with confirmed abuse differently than allegations of abuse.

In cases where the facts are confirmed - for example, if the cleric has admitted the abuse - the steps are fairly clear:

1. Inform the (rest of the) parish leadership and then the parish.
2. Inform the relevant diocesan leadership. (In a small diocese like mine, the likely means the chancellor and the active clergy.)
3. Ideally, ensure that these things happen vefore the matter becomes public through the media.
4. Coordinate with the police or the justice system on further public release.

If, however, there is not yet anything more than an unproven allegation, there is more room for discretion.

Certainly the cleric needs to be removed from ministry with vulnerable persons (although that is separate from the communications issue).

Depending on the primae facie strength of the allegation, it may not be appropriate to make any public announcement at all, or at least not any public announcement identifying the cleric. However, if there is a strong likelihood of the cleric being publicly identified in any event, it may be better to have the dioceas authorities do it since they can emphasize that the matter is still an allegation under investigation.

Of course, in those cases where the accused cleric is innocent (which are usually the exception but do still exist), the allegation may yet make their current ministry untenable and may minimize future possibilities. There is an unfortunate (though understandable and occasionally justified) "no smoke without fire" attitude.

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