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I recently wrote a blog post about the “5 Courageous Steps For Survivors of Sexual Predators.” In that post, I suggested 5 actions that someone who has been a victim (survivor) of a sexual predator should seriously consider as they seek justice.
In this post, I want to speak from a pastor’s perspective on what the journey is like “behind the curtain of ministry.” I also want to share some lessons that I learned along the way that I hope will be helpful to others in ministry. This certainly isn’t comprehensive but I believe that it hits some of the high points.
But first, some preliminary matters:
- I am not a lawyer so please do not misconstrue anything that I’m about to say. It’s not legal counsel.
- Instead, I am a pastor who had to navigate a church through a storm that was created by criminal sexual allegations against a minister who served under my leadership in 2011.
- The matter, as I understand it, was settled out of court between the accused and the state’s attorney and never went to trial. Therefore, evidence for and against the allegations was never presented to a jury. So, I cannot and will not write about the individuals in that case since the matter was never definitively resolved in court. Instead, I am writing about what it was like to lead through that storm as a pastor and the lessons I learned during those very dark days. I hope that what I am about to share will help those who are in church leadership should they ever find themselves in the unenviable position that I found myself in when I received the allegations made against a fellow minister.
1. Report, report, report!
I received the allegations and made the initial report at the local Police Department on March 29, 2011. I took my personal 12-page documentation of every single meeting, text, e-mail, phone call, and anything else of significance from the time I received the initial allegations until I arrived at the police station. (I also included some of my personal reflections in the document – more on that later.)
I had so much information because I received the allegations on Friday, March 25th, and reported it four days later under the direction of our insurance company’s legal team. The accuser claimed that she had absolutely no evidence whatsoever. So, with absolutely no frame of reference in how to handle these situations, I did what I thought was best and called the deacon chairman, called for meetings with the accuser and the accused (separately). Every meeting was documented as a third-party member of our church took notes. I met with parents. I called our insurance company to set up a claim. I called the Florida Baptist Convention to see what personnel and resources they had that could help me. On and on I could go about what filled those 12 pages.
But, as I read that 12-page document now, I shake my head and cringe. While the policeman taking my initial report 8 years ago acknowledged that the documentation demonstrated that I was taking the matter seriously and was not seeking to conceal it, I now realize two very important things:
- My intentions were pure. I wanted to get to the bottom of the allegations.
- Yet, I realize how unqualified I/we were at handling the situation. I was told after the fact that if a sexual predator is initially questioned by someone they know, the stress they feel is not nearly as massive as if the police are the first ones to ask them about the allegations. The police might even get a confession during the initial confrontation. Further, I was told that the matter would end up in the hands of the police anyway.
So, here is the BIG lesson I learned from that experience:
Pastor, if you are made aware of allegations that claim that something immoral and criminal has happened, DON’T, DON’T, DON’T waste your time recklessly carrying out an internal investigation. Your first action MUST be to notify law enforcement … and the sooner the better.
Further, I would suggest that you don’t tell the accused what has been alleged and that you have called law enforcement. Relationships will probably be damaged, especially if the person who is being accused is innocent. But the police will have to get involved at some point anyway. So, get the information to law enforcement quickly and let them handle it.
One final thought: After you become aware of allegations that someone has committed a sexual crime, you could potentially become liable if you wait to tell law enforcement. If the sexual predator claims another victim from the time you learn of the allegations until the time you go to the police, you could be held liable. So, don’t wait! Notify law enforcement as soon as you become aware of the allegations.
Pastor, you are headed into a tunnel darker than any you could imagine. I’m not using hyperbole. I’m not exaggerating for effect. When you hear the allegations and turn your information over to law enforcement, your world is going to turn upside down.
You will be attacked so many times from so many directions from so many different people … and there will be times when you feel like you just want to run away from it all … but you can’t. If you are a leader worth your salt, you won’t. If you truly love the people you are leading, you must lead them through the ordeal no matter the personal cost to you.
- You will deal with overwhelming sadness and anger. Your calling is to help people and love them for Jesus’ sake. But, when someone is accused of being a sexual predator in your midst and you believe the allegations are probably true, you will become heartbroken that someone under your leadership was harmed and will bear those scars for the rest of their life. You will also battle with intense, bitter anger that such a tragedy happened under your watch. Almost certainly, there will be lies in the mix – either the allegations are lies or the sexual predator will lie to protect himself – and you will become livid that the truth might not prevail and justice might not be carried out. You will find yourself waking up at all times of the night, overwhelmed with anxiety, wondering if you and your church will survive the massive storm.
- People will leave your church for a lot of different reasons. Some will leave because they think you threw the accused under the bus. Others will leave because they think you were too easy on the accused. Others will leave because they now believe your church to be unsafe. Others will leave because they don’t want to attend a place with so much stress and drama. Some of them will be people that you know well and love dearly. But, your relationship with them will never be the same. You may know things that you wish you could tell them to persuade them to trust you, to stay on-board with you … but you can’t talk about it or you will undermine the integrity of the judicial process.
- Some of the people that stay will use the opportunity to bring up previous personal grievances when you didn’t measure up their standard and they will slander you in the church parking lot and on the phone. It’s the domino affect on steroids.
- If you are sadistic enough to read the online news articles about the ordeal, I would advise you to not read the comments below the story. People you don’t even know will blast you. Hiding behind the privacy of their keyboards gives them courage to commit character assassination – and you’re the target. People, who have no access to the facts, will make up their own, type them in the comments section, and everyone else will treat those fallacious comments as truth. Your heart will stop when you see former, discontented members chiming in with their slanderous, cutting words.
- Rogue bloggers, desperately needing something to write about, will come across the story. They will write about you, having never met you and having no access to the persons or the information that make up the story … but they will write their opinions anyway, verbally slicing you into a thousand pieces … and anytime someone looks up your name on the internet, those blog posts will show up.
- It will make you physically sick as you see your church’s story make the evening news, knowing that you and your church did nothing to bring this upon yourself but it is giving you a black eye in the community that will take years to get over.
- Further, even though the church will probably need a fresh start after the ordeal is over, you might struggle to find a place to minister since you still have the stench of the battle and the stains of someone else’s behavior on you. Many Pastor Search Committees are looking for a strong, courageous pastoral candidate … but they will overlook you if you still have the smell of the battlefield on your garments, even if you were the hero who sacrificially, at a great personal cost, led your troops to safety.
- All of these things and more will cause you to struggle with inner anger. You will struggle with anxiety. Depression may even set in. You may even find yourself, as I did, longing for the Day of Judgment, praying that there are bleachers so that you can watch the Lord administer fierce justice on the guilty.
Pastor, the previous bullet points are only a fraction of what you will experience. So, you had better have a very good prayer-line up to Heaven because, if you’re like I was, you will need the Lord every step of the way.
Let me briefly tell you about something that I discovered to be a great source of spiritual strength. During those dark days, I would frequently walk to the sanctuary and pray out loud as I paced the sanctuary. The church I pastored at that time had a sanctuary that was a separate building from everything else so I could pray out loud and no one would hear me. Pastor, I know what it was like for Jacob to wrestle with the Lord (Genesis 32:22-32) because I wrestled with Him day after day during that dark time in my life.
3. Contact your insurance company – set up a claim
One of the very real possibilities during this whole mess is that your church may be sued. So, you need to bring your insurance company on-board as soon as possible. Your insurance company may look for ways to get out of their financial obligation so you need to keep them informed and follow their instructions. Give them no reason not to honor the coverage you have.
Within the long weekend in which I received the initial allegations, I contacted our church’s insurance company. We were assigned an adjuster and I had access to the insurance company’s legal counsel. Since we had to dot our “i’s” and cross our “t’s” perfectly in order for the insurance company to cover us in case we were sued, I needed them to provide counsel on what to do. Fortunately, we had a good, competent insurance company who did a great job working with us.
4. Prepare for incredible support
As I mentioned above in Point 2, you are going to get blasted from all directions.
But, you will also discover that there are courageous, noble men and women around you who will step up and walk alongside you.
I won’t mention names but I had some church staff and church members who made it clear that they were on the side of truth and they were going to stand with me, their pastor, as long as I was doing the right thing. I had an attorney with the Florida Baptist Convention who provided incredible counsel. I had a couple of pastors who stepped up, prayed with me, and encouraged me regularly. Our part-time music minister, who had recently retired as the spokesman for the local Sheriff’s Office, was a God-send during those dark days. There were so many people who were a blessing to me during that time.
I would add that there will be some people who would gladly help you … but they will need to be asked. They won’t step in unless you invite them in. There was a pastor in central Florida that had gone through something similar to what I was experiencing 4 years earlier. I gave him a call, we met for a very long lunch meeting, and then communicated back and forth for two years after that. He will never know how much he meant to me at that time in my life. (Here’s a relevant article he wrote for The Christian Post last week: “Preying in church: Confronting sexual offenders who come to church.”)
So, as you prepare to walk into the storm, realize that you will have guys and gals come alongside you to be your Aaron and Hur (Exodus 17:12-14). They will hold your hands up when you are too exhausted to do it yourself. Thank the Lord for sending them your way.
5. Let a few, select church leaders know what is going on
While there are men and women who will rise up to support you, you will need to bring a few people in really close. They are the ones that you will speak openly with about what is going on in the legal proceedings, in the church, and in your heart. This is the group that will probably get to know all that you know.
I’m talking about the Deacons, an Associate Pastor, a close Pastor/friend, and/or other people like this. The group of people who are in the know needs to be incredibly small but you need a group who know what’s going on.
This can benefit you in at least a couple of ways:
- The counsel that they can provide you can be specific since they know more than anyone else. Further, they can correct you if they see you not handling the situation well or making a bad decision.
- They can also “throw water” on potential fires that may spring up in the congregation. Nature abhors a vacuum and when people don’t know what’s going on, they will make up their own version of the story. Gossip will get started and most of what is said will not be true. So, your small team of confidants can keep their ears to the ground and assure the naysayers that things are being handled in an appropriate manner.
6. Keep your congregation reasonably informed
You will not be able to tell your congregation much. If you talk too much, you may undermine the legal process. Further, you set yourself up for a lawsuit.
But, as I mentioned above, nature abhors a vacuum. You cannot simply tell people that they need to trust you. You can’t expect that the Deacons and Associate Pastor(s)’s affirmation of your leadership will satisfy the curiosity of your church family. The congregation will need information.
I learned through my experience that a little bit of information goes a long way. I initially got up after our youth minister was arrested and told the congregation that allegations were made and we were fully cooperating with law enforcement. I said very little but I said enough. Then, I called them to prayer.
Later, I felt the need to stand before them and clarify a misunderstanding. A few people were alleging that I was giving interviews to the press. A local newspaper reporter had gained access to the 12-page document that I had turned over to the police during my initial report. That document not only had the facts but I had also included some of my personal reflections. (It was ultimately for my personal use. If I had known that my personal reflections would become public record when I turned it over to the police, I would have edited those comments out and then taken the redacted document to the police station later that day.) The newspaper reporter quoted my personal reflections in that document and made it appear that I had given him a personal interview. So, I had to stand before the church and assure them that I had not and would not give any interviews while the legal process played out. I remained true to my word and never gave a single interview.
So, you may need to stand before your congregation every 2-4 weeks to give an update. Just make it brief. The goal is to give them enough information to keep their curiosity satisfied but not enough that you jeopardize the integrity of the legal process and don’t set yourself up for a lawsuit. (I would suggest seeking legal counsel before giving statements, though.)
7. Keep Quiet
I can’t possibly overstate this enough. If you blab your mouth about all that you know, you will undermine the legal process. Further, you open yourself up to allegations of slander and libel. You had better have a deep pocketbook because you will get sued.
So, keep your mouth shut. There will be times when you want to jump on the tallest rooftop and yell at the top of your lungs about what you are thinking and feeling and what you know (or think you know). But, you can’t.
I remember when I arrived at the church office one day and was told by our part-time music minister that a reporter from Tampa Bay’s BayNews9 had shown up and wanted a statement. Fortunately, our part-time music minister (recently retired spokesman for the Sheriff’s Office) gave a brief statement that satisfied the reporter.
I also remember entering the sanctuary one Sunday morning and seeing a church member sitting on the front pew with a newspaper opened wide in front of him. He was reading the latest article on what was taking place in the legal process. It was a tactless gesture. I wanted to tell him to put the newspaper away. I also wanted to tell him of all of the factual errors in the article. But, I couldn’t. I kept quiet.
Once again, regarding the press, if you ever think it would be appropriate to give them a statement, I would advise you to run it by your lawyer first (I did not lead my church to ‘lawyer up’ – I saw no need to do so) or your insurance company’s legal team before doing so.
If you feel like you absolutely need to talk, then tell it to the Lord in prayer, or write it down in your journal, or have an individual or two that you talk to who are sworn to secrecy. You may find that you feel like a crock pot that will bust if you don’t let off some steam, so find a safe way to do so.
8. Find constructive ways to get rid of the stress
Spiritually, I discovered that I could alleviate much of the stress by spending a lot of time in vocal, animated, private prayer.
Emotionally, I found that my ‘release valve’ was able to release some steam when I spoke, confidentially, to a very small, select group.
However, we aren’t simply spiritual and emotional beings. We are also physical beings. So, I needed some way to get rid of the stress that was building up in my body.
I had started a running habit the previous year and I discovered that running, as it released those wonderful endorphins into my brain, was a great way to get rid of the stress that was building up in my body. I also enjoyed going on 30-60 mile bike rides on the Withlacoochie State Trail. I ended the ride exhausted … but so relieved.
If you are in a high stress situation, and responsible for leading others through it, get involved in some activity that elevates your heart rate for at least 30 minutes at a time (of course, get your doctor’s approval first). Doing so will go a long way to get rid of the junk that stress and cortisol does to your body.
9. Prepare for and participate in the deposition
I will have to say that awaiting the deposition was terrifying. But, in retrospect, I realize that it was terrifying because I had no clue what to expect. As I left my first (and only) deposition, I was actually invigorated. It was much different than what I was expecting.
Since it’s possible that you have never been deposed, let me briefly share my experience:
When a matter is preparing to go to court, the lawyers representing both sides want to gather facts. So, they call for a deposition to gather those facts.
As I walked into the room, I saw the attorney for the one alleged to have committed the sexual crimes. His secretary was sitting beside him at the table. On the other side of the table sat the state’s attorney. I took my seat beside him. A court stenographer was at the end of the table. She would record the meeting with a digital device and with a stenograph machine in front of her.
The meeting began with my acknowledgement that I was being recorded. I also swore to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth … something I was more than willing to do. Everyone in the room knew I was a pastor and I wasn’t about to lose my integrity in a room with some lawyers and a digital recorder.
After that, the lawyers simply went back and forth asking me questions. There was no spotlight. No instruments of torture. They knew that the best way to get information out of people is to smile, be kind, and appear to be understanding. So, they asked me questions about everything. We just had a conversation where they asked questions and I answered their questions. As the meeting progressed, I loosened up and actually enjoyed the experience. (I wanted to see justice done!)
As the deposition came to an end, we rose to our feet, smiled, shook hands, I think a joke or two was given by one of the lawyers, and I exited the room.
The one word of counsel that I would give is this: when you are being deposed, don’t give your opinions and don’t give information that they don’t ask for. They are supposed to be highly trained attorneys. Let them do their job. Both sides simply want to know what you know. So, answer the specific questions they ask and then wait for the next question.
10. Realize that justice is not always achieved in this life
I wasn’t excited about the thought of taking the stand when the trial began. I can only imagine how the news would have portrayed a pastor taking the stand and the defense attorney trying his best to discredit me. I didn’t want my church or myself to have to go through that.
But, on the other hand, I wanted to take the stand to participate in a process that I hoped would uncover the truth. I wanted the innocent party (whoever it was) to be vindicated and the guilty party (whoever it was) to be put in prison.
That never happened. The initial allegations were made in March 2011 and the legal battle went on for about a year. Finally, I heard that it was settled out of court a few days before the trial was to begin.
When that happened, the accuser moved off to another state and the accused avoided prison but was registered as a sex offender. I have no clue what facts allowed the two sides to come to that conclusion … but I couldn’t help but feel that justice had not been achieved. We never found out in a court of law who was lying and whether or not the allegations were true.
I found myself looking forward to the Day of Judgment. I found comfort in knowing that every single person was going to stand before the Lord one day and be judged by the Judge who knows every single thing that we’ve done.
Pastor, if you receive allegations of criminal, sexual behavior and you begin the legal process by making the authorities aware, you may not have the satisfaction of knowing that justice was achieved. But take comfort in the fact that the Judge of all the Earth will do what is right. If justice isn’t rendered here, He will make it right one day when we all stand before Him.
Pastor, I hope this has been helpful. I hope you never, ever have to go through what I’ve been through.
But if you do, I hope that what I’ve said might help you to walk your church through the ordeal competently and in a way that upholds the integrity of your church and the glory of God.