Reporting Sexual Abuse

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“As a pastor, do I have to report sexual abuse?”

The question above was a search phrase that sent someone to my web site. I hope they found what they were looking for. Just in case I haven’t spelled it out clearly enough before (and because I think SBC Impact! has a different readership), I’m offering Impact! readers a re-posting of something I put up earlier this week on my site. hotline.jpg

Yes! At least in Oklahoma you do. The law (10-7103) is typical of most states and can be summed up this way:

State law requires every health care professional, teacher and every OTHER person who has reason to believe that a child under 18 is being abused or neglected or is in danger of being abused or neglected, to report the suspicion of abuse to the Department of Human Services (DHS).

Failure to report suspected abuse is a crime. No person, regardless of their relationship to the child or family, is exempt from reporting suspected abuse. A person reporting in good faith, however, is immune from both civil and criminal liability.

By law, reporting child abuse is an individual responsibility. As the individual who suspects abuse, you are legally responsible for making certain that the report is made to DHS. If you have obtained the information leading to your suspicions from a professional relationship, your legal responsibility is NOT satisfied by merely reporting your suspicions to a supervisor. If applicable, it is important to follow your agency’s or school’s procedures regarding informing a superior of your concerns, but permission to report is not necessary. You must not let organizational procedures or policy obstruct your duty to report to DHS.

A report is a request for an investigation to gather facts and protect the child. The individual making the request does not need proof of the abuse prior to reporting. Investigation and validation of child abuse reports are the responsibility of DHS or law enforcement officials. If you become aware of additional incidents after the initial report has been made, another report to DHS with the additional concerns and information should be made.

So here are the questions I wish the anonymous, web searching pastor had asked:

1. What is reportable? The answer is suspected child abuse. Another way to ask that is would a reasonable person suspect abuse has occurred? I don’t necessarily believe every thing reported to me is abuse. For example, a mother tells me her three-year-old was molested by an “older boy”. Closer questioning reveals the “older boy” is about 5 months older and the two were playing some form of “you show me yours and I’ll show you mine”. I suspect age appropriate curiosity, not sexual abuse. Or, a dramatic and resentful father in the middle of a high conflict divorce tells me he suspects his soon-to-be-ex’s new boyfriend of molesting their child but has only vague and unsubstantiated fears with no clear support to his contention of abuse. I’m more likely to see that as either histrionics or deviousness than actual child abuse. If all else fails, call the Child Welfare hotline and give them the scenario without revealing any names. At the end of the conversation ask, “Is this reportable”? I’ve had case workers tell me, no, this particular case is not reportable.

2. What does your church policy say about reporting abuse? Remember, the law holds the individual accountable for reporting suspected abuse (not the institution), but a good policy in place will guide you in determining whether or not a reasonable person would suspect abuse. It also affords some distance between you and the family (“My hands were tied; state law and church policy left me no options”).

3. Why wouldn’t you want to report suspected abuse? I’ve written before about some of my pet peeves surrounding this issue. The responses I usually hear fall into one of three categories:

First, there is the “I don’t know for sure abuse has occurred” category. Again, it’s not our job to investigate child abuse; it’s our job to report suspected abuse. The rule of thumb is what would a reasonable person think. I think of this as the Sunday school test: if I walked in to a typical Sunday school class and laid out a hypothetical case, would the majority of adults present suspect abuse? If the answer is “yes”, then reporting should occur.

Next, there is the “Let’s keep it in the (church) family and deal with it ourselves”. This idea is at best naive and at worst arrogant. A corollary to this line of thinking is “I don’t want anyone to go to jail”. Brother, if you truly believe that, you belong in jail right next to the abuser.

Finally, there is the category of “How can I minister to the family if I’m the bad guy who reported the situation”? This is the reason for hesitating to report that I have some sympathy with. I know several ministers who have referred the family to me for counseling knowing I’ll have to report the case and leaving them free to minister to the whole family without any stigma attached. It’s not exactly following the letter of the law, but it gets the job done. Just be sure and follow up: if they don’t reveal anything to the therapist then he or she has nothing to report and the pastor is still on the hook.

There is a reality pastors must face when reporting suspected child abuse: you will stir up a hornet’s nest, not just in the family, but possibly in your congregation as well. Let me speak bluntly, if you’re afraid of the conflict that is likely to occur, then you may need to re-examine your call to ministry. Real ministry is often messy and conflict-laden; if you try to spend your pastorate avoiding conflict you will end up making poor decisions. It’s tough to show people how to live when your head is buried in the sand.