How should churches handle abuse? “This is not a secondary issue,” says the lawyer

February 4—LYNCHBURG, Va.—For years, Pete Singer has worked with churches and other religious communities to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct.

Survivors often complain, “The abuse was terrible. The way the church responded was worse,” said Singer, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.

The Virginia-based nonprofit conducts independent investigations and trains religious leaders on how to prevent and respond to abuse within the church.

When religious leaders contact GRACE, Singer reminds them that false reports of sexual assault are incredibly rare — estimated at 2% to 10% of all reports made — while one in six women and one in 30 men have been sexually assaulted in their lives. Those survivors are watching how the church responds, she said.

“We need to recognize that how leadership responds to these allegations is not a minor thing, it’s not a minor thing, but it actually has as much impact for many people as the abuse itself,” Singer said.

The Lima News spoke to Singer amid allegations that former Teens for Christ leaders mishandled allegations of sexual misconduct against volunteers or key staff members for years.

The ministry hired a lawyer to lead a third-party investigation but suspended the investigation after learning that authorities had opened a criminal investigation into the claims. It is unclear whether TFC has resumed the investigation, as the board fired two employees in December.

So how should faith communities respond when one of them is accused of abuse?

“Don’t wait until you get the report,” Singer said. “Have policies and procedures in place upfront… because when the report comes, you’re going to be left in a bind, you’re going to be in crisis mode.”

But when a policy isn’t in place, Singer said, religious leaders shouldn’t get defensive. Instead, ask for help and identify people who have been hurt, he said.

Any potential child abuse should be reported to law enforcement immediately, Singer said. If the alleged victim is an adult, Singer said, it’s best to defer to their judgment when deciding whether to involve law enforcement.

And remember that the entire congregation or faith community has potentially been treated, so a third-party investigation is needed, Singer said.

That investigation shouldn’t replace authorities, Singer said, but it should help leadership identify errors and ethical flaws in handling reports of abuse that don’t always fall within the scope of a criminal investigation.

“One of my GRACE colleagues puts it this way: Writers work very hard to be exactly the kind of person who would push you to say, ‘Oh, they would never do something like that,'” said Singer.

Singer points to an Old Testament story about two men who used their spiritual authority to force people into sex as an example of why Christian churches and ministries should take abuse seriously.

“The Bible calls them worthless men,” Singer said. He added, “Look at what the Bible says. The Bible says this is not a side issue, that this is a big deal, that we need to focus on this, and that, from God’s point of view, there are pretty significant consequences in putting here.”

Timeline of investigation, TFC response to allegations of abuse

—July 22, 2022: The Allen County Sheriff’s Office contacts the FBI and launches an investigation into allegations of abuse against several Teens for Christ leaders. TFC board takes control of ministry, reportedly places leaders under investigation on administrative leave.

-August. 2022: TFC suspends Lima chapters.

—Oct. 27, 2022: TFC hosts Harvest of Blessings fundraiser.

—Nov. 2022: Sheriff’s office turns over findings to the FBI; TFC Fall Newsletter teases ministry’s possible return in ’23.

—Dec. 30, 2022: The TFC board fires two staff members previously placed on administrative leave.

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