Five Mistakes Churches Make When Handling Sexual Assault

Over the past five years, I have heard more stories of sexual assaults in churches than I ever care to count. Sickening accounts of pastors and leadership taking advantage of girls, women, boys, children, men in their care. What’s even more disturbing is the course of action so many churches seem to take all in the name of grace.

The most recent chapter involved Andy Savage and an account in which he sexually assaulted a girl in his youth group. In case you’ve missed the Twitter buzz, a young woman came forward and shared her story about being whisked away (essentially abducted) by her youth pastor where he presented his genitals and asked her to have oral sex with him.

Read: I Thought He Was Taking Me for Ice Cream: One Woman’s #MeToo Story of Molestation By Her Former Youth Pastor, Andy Savage

For the record: this is not ok- not morally, not ethically, and perhaps not even legally. I worked in a pregnancy center long enough to know that the legal rules can get a little fuzzy.

What disturbs me in this whole thing isn’t just what happened to this woman at the hands of Andy Savage, but what happened to her at the hands of the church.

Churches, it seems, are constantly finding ignorant or intentional ways of punishing, shaming, and injuring victims.

There are patterns of belief that destroy not only the lives of victims but also the integrity of the church.  Here are five I’ve noticed:

Mistake 1: We Need to Get to the Bottom of This

No, what you actually need to do is report a possible crime to the appropriate authorities and let them do their job. Reporting it is not synonymous with belief.

I serve on the nursery team at my church and we are trained to recognize signs of abuse. It’s not our job to ask the kids where they got bruises from. It’s our job to report it- to the police, and we are explicitly instructed to do just that.

Is the truth important? Yes. Should we try to know what happened before we execute judgement? Yes. Should you take on the role of private investigator and hold a case before a jury of public church opinion? Absolutely not.

Dear pastoral leadership teams, you are not criminal investigators. It is not your job to investigate before reporting. It is not your job to interview victims, suspects, potential witnesses before reporting a crime. You are not a human polygraph.

Yes, you want the truth but dragging a victim before a panel of elders in order to validate whether or not he/she is a real victim is a perfect example of how the church re-victimizes the victim.

Read: Stop Handling Sexual Assault in House

Mistake 2: We Trust the Perpetrator – No Questions Asked

We have this idea of what sexual predators look like, and it’s the shifty-eyed loner in the back shadows of the church. If recent news is any indication, that stereotype is all kinds of wrong.

There is often a power dynamic in sexual assault. A person in power takes advantage of someone else. That’s how this works. Teachers assault students. Pastors assault parishoners. Employers assault employees.

No, it isn’t pleasant. A couple years ago I wrote about a man in the anti-pornography industry. A pastor, actually. A man I had worked with for a couple years. It came to light that he had been having sexual relations with underage girls in his care.

My heart was torn, because I always believe the victims. I believe they are brave, wounded, and need support, so I stand with them. But when the alleged perpetrator turns out to be someone you trust, standing beside a victim can be hard. The allegations turned out to be true. The man confessed and went to jail.

We want to believe the best about the people we trust. When confronted with allegations of abuse, we have to be willing to take those blinders off and realize there are wolves in sheep’s clothing.

Here’s the deal, one thing that predators rely on is the fear that no one is going to believe the victim. They do things in unprobable places, in unprobable circumstances because it lends credence to their whispered threats that “no one will believe” the victim if he or she talks. One of the first steps of the grooming process is to win over the so-called “Gatekeepers.” That means, in many cases, a perpetrator of sexual assault is going to be someone you already trust. They are counting on that. They use your trust as a weapon.

Read: A Voice for Victims

Mistake 3: We Don’t Need to Do Anything Because it Only Happened Once

Let’s say the allegations are true. The pastor, leader, teacher, whoever, admits to that one time they drove a student to the woods and forced her to have oral sex with them. It was a one time thing.


Question: How many times does it have to happen before it’s considered a problem?

Perhaps, when compared to a track record of ministerial success, one instance of sexual assault seems like just a speck of dirt on the lens, but that speck of dirt is a boulder in the life of the victim. Once is enough to wreak havoc on a victim’s life. Once is enough to go to jail. Once is enough to be removed from a position of authority. There is no magic number. Once is enough.

Mistake 4: It was all just a misunderstanding/no big deal

The tendency of churches is to call this “a mistake,” join hands, sing Kumbaya and move on like nothing ever happened. He wasn’t sure of the consent or she wasn’t dressed appropriately, or the assault wasn’t actually an assault it was more of a misunderstanding.

One of my readers once shared with me a story of a pastor assaulting her. When she reported him to another pastor, a meeting was called with her, the assaulting pastor, and two other pastors so they could get to the bottom of it (see Mistake #1) and come up with a resolution.

It’s not “a mistake.” A mistake is leaving my curling iron plugged in when I leave for work. A wrong choice is eating that piece of chocolate cake instead of going to the gym.

Assault is not simply a mistake or a wrong choice, it is a violation of another person’s rights. In many cases, it is a crime. It’s not “no big deal.”

Mistake 5: Let’s Just Forgive and Forget, because that’s what Jesus Would Do.

I find it interesting that when the perpetrator is a church leader, we suddenly become experts in grace. If it’s a woman confessing a sexual sin, by all means, take her out and stone her, but if our pastor commits a crime, is caught and repents, we restore him in a heartbeat. This is called a double standard.

Here’s something really important to remember about grace and forgiveness:

Our actions have consequences, and when our actions involve hurting other people, their pain becomes part of those consequences.

Forgiveness doesn’t erase consequences. 

Forgiveness doesn’t keep a victim from having nightmares or needing counseling.

Forgiveness doesn’t keep a teacher from losing their job.

Forgiveness doesn’t keep a child pornographer from going to jail and being labeled a pedophile for life.

Forgiveness does not mean you get to move on with your life pretending you didn’t hurt people.

Forgiveness does not prevent consequences.

There’s a Biblical model for this in the story of David and Bathsheba. David, a man after God’s own heart, committed adultery with a married woman and had her husband killed. Needless to say, God wasn’t thrilled, so He spoke a word of condemnation against the house of David. There were consequences for David’s actions. David acknowledges his sin. Nathan, the prophet, tells him the Lord has put away his sin (forgiven it), but still the child from that union is going to die. And the child does.

Even after receiving forgiveness from God, David still experienced the consequences of his actions.  That’s the key that’s missing in how we handle sexual assault in churches. The victims bear the consequences, while the predators roam free.

In fact, we sometimes protect the predators and ostracize the victims in the name of grace and forgiveness.

Recently, I spoke at a college chapel. Their human sexuality symposium happened right as #metoo took center stage in culture. My message was on shame and intimacy, but before I started, I had a message for the victims in the room.

Many of them would never tell their stories. No one would ever know, and their perpetrators would never see justice. That’s the sad reality around sexual assault. This life-altering event just lays open, bleeding, affecting victims for the rest of their lives while the one who caused it walks along unscathed.

“There are hundreds of you in this room. Statistically-speaking there are hundreds of you who have been victims of sexual assault. You will never tell anyone, because no one will believe you. I’m sorry. I’m sorry that has happened to you. I get it. I want you to know you are able to find healing even if you never find justice.”

And until the church changes their approach, that’s really the only answer we have. Until we’re willing to stand up for victims, to fight for victims, and to have a zero tolerance policy for any kind of criminal sexual actions, the only message we have is “Sorry.”  The bad thing is, we move on like “sorry” is sufficient. Like “sorry” fixes everything. Like it’s the “undo” button and we can just go back to how things were.

That’s not the message of Jesus- the defender of the oppressed and the father to the fatherless.  That’s the message of a church needing a wake up call and a spine.