One of the most damaging forces against the witness of the evangelical Church today is the legal (in certain states) but unbiblical application of priest-penitent privilege, or the right of a minister to refuse to divulge confidential information received from a member of his or her congregation, to cases of sexual abuse of children. Again and again, ministry leaders are choosing to not report cases of sexual abuse of children to the congregation, law enforcement, or other congregations. The Adversary is smiling amidst the devastation.
Twisting Scripture to support a devastating practice
As tempting as it may be to appeal to emotion, it is God’s Word as revealed in the Bible that is the highest authority for the Christian. The foundational argument against the unbiblical application of priest-penitent privilege to sexual abuse of children must come from the Bible. Two Scripture references frequently misused to support this practice are Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus said, “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” and 1 Corinthians 6:1-8, “Does any one of you, when he has a case against his neighbor, dare to go to law before the unrighteous and not before the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? If the world is judged by you, are you not competent to constitute the smallest law courts? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more matters of this life? So if you have law courts dealing with matters of this life, do you appoint them as judges who are of no account in the church? I say this to your shame. Is it so, that there is not among you one wise man who will be able to decide between his brethren, but brother goes to law with brother, and that before unbelievers? Actually, then, it is already a defeat for you, that you have lawsuits with one another. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded? On the contrary, you yourselves wrong and defraud. You do this even to your brethren.”
Both of these verses apply only when the offending party (in this case, the pedophile) is a believer. Of course, Jesus died as a substitutionary atonement for all human sin, including pedophilia. But the actions of many pedophiles, misleading parents and abusing child after child over the span of decades, skillfully navigating church practices, and refusing to repent, certainly call into question their actual spiritual state. While this is not an argument for or against the necessity of reporting child sex abusers, this is nonetheless a question that churches must grapple with.
The next question we must ask is whether these commandments and exhortations are addressed to children, including those who have been sexually abused. While the whole Bible is inspired and inerrant, not all of it is specifically addressed to the Church. For example, God commanded Noah to build an ark, Jonah to preach in Nineveh, and Ezekiel to make bread using specific ingredients, but this doesn’t mean the Church is commanded likewise. While these two New Testament verses are indeed applicable to believers in this dispensation, the question remains whether their application extends to children.
Both of these verses are action points given to believers who have been offended by fellow believers. It is absurd to even suggest that children are capable of these action points. Regarding Matthew 18, how can, say, a 5-year old child who has been molested “go and show [the molester] his [or her] fault in private”? Regarding 1 Corinthians 6, how can this child “have a case” and “go to the law” when she is learning basic arithmetic or getting training wheels removed for the first time? Can you imagine this child answering this verse in contempt, “Yes, I dare to go to the law before the unrighteous and not before the saints!”? Obviously, she has yet to develop to a life stage where she is capable of making such a decision. Furthermore, what about children who are too young to make a profession of faith?
In order to fit Matthew 18:15 around this inconvenience, what frequently takes place is that child victims are accompanied by adults in a private meeting with the pedophile. However, these “forgiveness sessions,” according to Matthew 18, are not to happen until the child victim first meets privately with the pedophile – an absurd proposition. Ministry leaders, when they command or strongly exhort such sessions for their child victims, are putting words into God’s mouth that He has never said.The plain, normal interpretation of these words of Jesus is that they aren’t addressed to children, who are incapable of obeying such a commandment. They were addressed to His disciples, and by extension to adults who have made a profession of faith and who are mature enough to have one-on-one interactions with adults.
A subtle but incredibly damaging message that these forgiveness sessions communicate to the children is that they do not matter, because the ministers (and sometimes the parents) act as if they are the offended party. They are taking the situation into their hands and are making decisions about whether to forgive the pedophile and let the pedophile remain in the congregation and have continued access to children. It almost seems as if the adults see themselves as the offended party!
1 Corinthians 6:1-8
Similarly, in order to fit 1 Corinthians 6:1-8 around this inconvenience (the inability of the child victim to “have a case” or “go to the law”), and to show that this restriction applies to children nonetheless, the first step certain ministry leaders have taken is they have extended this restriction to the parents. They say that the Bible exhorts parents, as God-appointed guardians of their children, to not take pedophiles to court on behalf of their children. But even the most vehement proponent of this cannot, in good conscience, dogmatically claim this is the only viable interpretation of these verses.
But more substantially, the language used here – lawsuits and courts – makes it plain that these verses are commandments related to civil disputes, not to the criminal justice system. The Corinthian court dealt with financial matters. The New Testament is very clear that God has placed the Church under the authority of human government, and Deuteronomy 16:18 contains God’s commandment to Israel to institute human authorities who execute righteous judgment over the people; it can be argued that this is a pattern after which human government ought to be is modeled after. One of the primary roles of human government – whether in the Apostle Paul’s day or today – is to restrain and punish evil. That is the role of law enforcement. What is challenged here is not the unwillingness of churches to sue pedophiles in civil court, but their unwillingness to report them to law enforcement so that they don’t sexually abuse more children. It should not matter that this priest-penitent privilege for child sex abuse is permitted by law in certain states: this is unbiblical. There is no state that forbids ministers from reporting child sex abuse, only certain states that grant them the freedom to not do so. This is a freedom that ministers cannot indulge in, for the sake of the Gospel.
Hypocrisy behind motivation to distort the truth
While this hypothesis cannot be proven, because only God can see the human heart, it certainly appears that church ministers who hide child sex abuse from law enforcement may be deliberately twisting the Bible in order to manipulate the victims. The standard minister preparation is a graduate-level divinity degree that includes Bible and theology. It defies reason to believe that these ministers truly believe that it is God’s will as revealed in Scripture that they cast aside the voice of the child. The obvious conclusion is that they are making a conscious choice to sacrifice the children in their congregation in order to protect their own reputation.
Regardless of the motive to not report sexual abuse of children, God will not honor any attempt to hide or distort the truth. The damage has already been done, and there is no going back. It is a far better witness to the world for the church to be forthright about the evil it had failed to restrain under its watch, and for the world to witness its mourning and repentance.
What’s more, hiding sin and evil from the world is unfeasible for the Church. Not only is there no shortage of appetite for enemies of the faith to uncover endless cases of church hypocrisy, but when sexually abused children grow up, they may have the courage to tell law enforcement or the media. By spreading the message that the church is an evil, deadly place for our children, and that the church’s response is to exempt itself from reporting these crimes to authorities – a minimal safeguard that applies to every human institution – unreported child sex abuse has provided enough ammunition for the Adversary to last until the end of this age.
A plea for real reform
So what are we to do as the Church? We must first avoid the temptation to solely seek reform from the outside – changing the law so that priest-penitent privilege for child sex abuse is illegal. While this would be a helpful contribution, reform must come from within. Churches must work to ensure that they are at the forefront of the battle against child sex abuse. We must make it a policy to report child sex abusers to law enforcement, as well as to each other. An interdenominational registry of known child sex abusers would cut down the number of instances where a congregation unwittingly brings in a minister with a history of child sex abuse. An automatic disqualification from ministry for all convicted child sex abusers would send a strong message to the world that there is no tolerance for such evil. Christian denominational leaders and high profile ministers can initiate much momentum in the right direction if they begin to speak out against this practice. Fellow brothers and sisters, let us work tirelessly to remove this cancer from the Body of Christ.