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First of all, let me begin with some clarifying statements:
- I am not a lawyer so please do not take what I am about to write as legal counsel.
- Instead, I am a pastor who had to navigate a church through the storm of sexual allegations made against a minister who served under my leadership back in 2011.
- This post is not about any individuals, the accusers or the accused of the incident in 2011, so I will not provide names. Instead, what I am writing is simply about some of the insights I gained as a result of my experience. I believe that what I have to share might help those who need to report a sexual predator.
The Houston Chronicle ran an article a couple of days ago titled: “Abuse of Faith: 20 years, 700 victims: Southern Baptist sexual abuse spreads as leaders resist reforms.” In that article, a link is provided to a growing database of Southern Baptist church pastors, leaders, employees and volunteers who pleaded guilty or were convicted of sex crimes.
The list is massive and growing … but personal. I recognize a name on the list. I worked with him. He was accused of serious sexual offenses. I was the one who received the initial allegations and I’m the one who contacted the authorities.
Among many of the lessons that I learned during that time in my life was that our legal system is seriously flawed. Did the accuser lie and bring great harm upon an innocent minister and congregation, or was the accused really a sexual predator as alleged? We will probably never know this side of Heaven because of some events that undermined the process.
But, flawed as it was, I still learned some lessons as I worked behind the scenes and with law enforcement and legal personnel. I became familiar with a process that I hope I never have to navigate a church through again.
And with that knowledge, I want to share 5 steps that you should consider taking if you are a survivor of a sexual predator’s actions. If you know of a situation where someone is a survivor, these 5 steps should be considered as you move forward.
As you prepare to take action, you need to begin with prayer. It will be a necessary but very difficult journey that you are about to embark on.
People who were once your friends will turn on you. People who you thought would believe your story will publicly vilify you. Those who you thought would come to your aid will side with the sexual predator (they will clearly believe that he/she is not capable of doing such a thing).
The news stations may get wind of the allegations and want to get a statement from you … or video of you for a news story. Rogue bloggers will get wind of the story and write pseudo-stories about something they know nothing about. Cowards, hiding behind keyboards, will post crude, vicious comments at the end of the online news stories.
On and on I could go about how your world will literally turn upside down. In some ways, you must prepare to walk into a nightmare.
But, to stand up against injustice and to stop someone who has probably (or will probably) bring great harm to others is what courage is all about. We need people who are courageous enough to stand up and call sexual predators to account. They must be called out and stopped.
So begin with prayer. And continue in an attitude of prayer. You will need the Lord during every minute of what you are about to experience. Even though things will get incredibly tough, He will walk with you through the ordeal. Even in those times when you sense that He was nowhere to be found, you will look back one day and realize that He was with you all along.
I pray that you will come out of this ordeal better and not bitter. Maybe, as you rely on the Lord, your experience will enable you to eventually provide counsel and comfort to others who will desperately need you.
2. Gather evidence
Once you tell someone what a sexual predator has done to you (assuming the act was illegal – rape, sexual activity with a minor, etc.), that person is legally responsible to go immediately to the authorities. Events will begin to transpire at a whirlwind pace.
Therefore, might I suggest that before you tell anyone, gather proof. If there are e-mails, text messages, phone records, pictures, anything that validates your story, collect them. Gather the proof.
Then, you may want to write down a list of witnesses – people who will be able to verify what you are alleging. Maybe they are able to speak to a suspicious trend or behavior. Maybe they spoke to you previously about ‘red flags.’ Just gather a list of people who will testify to the fact that you are telling the truth.
Why do you need to gather proof? Because if you don’t have proof, there will be plenty of people who will say: “You’re lying. That man would never, ever do such a thing.”
Even though you know the truth, others won’t. They will only have your allegations – and their doubts about your allegations. If you know what happened but have no way to convince the authorities that your story is true, you will more than likely end up in a he-said-she-said ordeal where everyone gets hurt and no one wins.
So, you need to gather proof that what you are alleging actually happened.
3. Tell a trusted family member and/or friend (or friends)
As I mentioned above, when you go public with your allegations, you will enter a nightmare. You will have a target on your back and many people will feel compelled to take sides. I can only imagine how sickening it will make you feel to know the truth – and yet to see people who you thought were your allies take the side of the one who sexually abused you. This would be even more painful if the one who has abused you is a family member and your own family members ridicule you and call you a liar.
So, you will want to share what you are about to do with a trusted family member or friend (or friends). Talk to people who you know will be there for you. You will desperately need their support as you begin this journey.
But realize that when you tell someone about what has happened (or is happening) to you, they are now responsible to go to the authorities. If they don’t go to the authorities and the sexual predator brings harm to someone else, they will be held legally responsible. So, you will want to tell them shortly before you plan to go to the authorities.
You may want to tell the pastor or someone else in spiritual leadership if you trust that person to walk you through the ordeal. It could be a wonderful blessing to have a beloved pastor or minister help you through this.
However, as the news stories are conveying, some pastors are ill-equipped in knowing how to handle situations like this (I certainly was but I’m much wiser now). And it sickens me that there are others in spiritual leadership who will want to push the allegations under the rug and not get the authorities involved.
So while you may want to tell a minister, you are certainly not obligated to do so.
For 24/7 immediate help, you can also talk to trained professionals:
- The National Hotline for Domestic Violence, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
- The National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-422-4453.
- The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
4. Tell the authorities
As a pastor who has walked this road, I can tell you that you need to consider who you will tell because you might have some options. On March 29, 2011 at around 4:15 PM, I simply called 9-11 which directed my call to the local police department. I was told shortly afterward by a well-intentioned church member that I should have called the Sheriff’s Office, instead, because they would have handled the investigation much better. If you have a choice in the matter regarding which authorities to call, choose wisely.
When you tell the authorities, you will immediately be called in to give a report. (For instance, I placed the initial call at around 4:15 PM and was at the Police Station giving my initial report 35 minutes later.) They will want to know your story and will try to gather as many facts as possible to see if your story is believable enough to proceed. This is where you will bring in the proof you gathered in Step 2.
One mistake that I hope you will not make is in determining what you will give to the authorities. While I choose to believe that those who are in law enforcement are generally worthy of our trust, you need to know that whatever you give them will probably become public record. I made the mistake of turning in a 12-page-document that included many of the facts – but it also included my personal reflections on those facts. One of the local newspapers was able to gain access to that information (my reflections), write up a newspaper story, and make it appear as if they had interviewed me – when they had never talked with me. It was shoddy reporting but the public saw the newspaper story and thought I was (recklessly) giving interviews with the media.
A simple rule that I came away with was: give the authorities the facts, not your opinions or reflections.
There may be a time when other information comes out but let the lawyers determine that. You always want to cooperate fully with law enforcement but only give them what they need, the facts, so that they can determine “probable cause” (very simply stated, they determine if there is enough initial evidence that causes them to think that the alleged is probably guilty and needs to be arrested so the court system can determine innocence or guilt).
Please don’t hold me to this but I believe that if you are (or were) a minor when the sexual predator took advantage of you, then the States Attorney’s office will step in. Back in 2011, the alleged had to secure his own attorney but it seemed as if the States Attorney’s office was representing the alleged victims. I’m not sure about this but take it for what it’s worth.
5. Get help
As I mentioned before, this is going to be a very long, difficult journey for you. So get help.
I’m talking about possibly securing the services of a Christian counselor.
As the pastor who was navigating my previous church through the mess back in 2011-2012, I got some of the church leadership to free up some funds so that we could offer free counseling to the alleged victims at a third-party counselor of their choice. Because of the client/counselor privilege, and because we had no intention of compromising the investigation or the mental health of the alleged victims, we simply provided the funds for counseling with no strings attached. We stayed completely out of it.
If what has happened to you took place at a church, like we are hearing so much about, then it is reasonable to have someone talk to the church leadership about providing funds for counseling if you desire. I should hope that they would provide it without having to be asked. But, I would certainly understand how you might want nothing to do with a place were you were hurt so badly. But, should you want to speak with a counselor, realize that there are some complicating factors you need to be aware of.)
It’s all about being able to navigate a nightmare while maintaining your mental, spiritual, and emotional health. If you have been abused by a sexual predator, and you do the courageous thing by going to the authorities with a desire to call for justice upon someone who has engaged in criminal activity, then it is my hope and prayer that you will come out of the ordeal more strong, more wise, and more capable of helping other hurting people. But, that won’t just happen. You will need to surround yourself with people who can help you. So, seriously consider Step 5 – consider speaking with a counselor.
I hope this has helped.
Again, I am not a lawyer and this is not legal counsel. I’m not telling you what to do, only what you should probably consider. I’m simply sharing some of the things that I’ve learned because of what I have been through.
I certainly hope that those who have been harmed by sexual predators will continue to come forward. Even though it will be a very difficult road, it is necessary to get sexual predators the justice they deserve and away from those they can hurt.