Sexual abuse in the church does not have to end in broken lives, agonizing lawsuits, and divided congregations. When people follow God’s ways and words, these terrible incidents can result in healing, justice, and healthier churches.

When victims of abuse first come forward, I have found that most of them are seeking four reasonable responses. First, they are looking for understanding, compassion, and emotional support. Second, they want the church to admit that the abuse occurred and to acknowledge that it was wrong. Third, they want people to take steps to protect others from similar harm. And fourth, they expect compensation for the expense of needed counseling.

As national headlines reveal, many churches have unwisely ignored these legitimate needs. Instead, like many other institutions, they have blindly followed their lawyers’ and insurance adjusters’ textbook strategy to avoid legal liability. They try to cover up the offense and deny responsibility. All too often they distance themselves from the victims and their families, leaving them feeling betrayed and abandoned.

Many frustrated victims eventually talk to a lawyer who tells them they could win a million-dollar damages award. Soon everyone is locked in an adversarial process that reopens wounds and generates even more pain and anger. Whatever the verdict, both sides lose, since money alone can never heal the wounds of abuse.

There is a better way.

God is a redeemer and a problem-solver. He has designed a powerful peacemaking strategy for dealing with offenses between people, including sexual abuse. When churches follow it, as I will show later, the cycle of abuse is broken and restoration can begin.

Compassion - If there is one place that victims of abuse should find understanding, compassion, and support, it is among people whom God commands to respond to suffering with tenderness and selfless love: "Be kind and compassionate to one another ... Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit ... Each of you should look not only to your own interests but also to the interests of others" (Eph. 4:31; Phil. 2:3-4). Instead of pulling away from victims, churches should draw closer to them, listening to their stories, mourning with and praying for them, and bearing their burdens. Responding with love and compassion is one of the best ways to show that the church abhors abuse and is committed to serving those who are suffering.

Confession - Attorneys instinctively instruct their clients to "make no admissions." Hundreds of churches have followed this shortsighted counsel in recent years, prolonging the agony of abuse victims, infuriating juries, and triggering multimillion-dollar punitive damages awards. In contrast, everyone benefits when people trust God’s promise that "He who conceals his sins does not prosper, but whoever confesses and renounces them finds mercy" (Prov. 28:13). When abuse has occurred, a church should express sorrow and acknowledge its contribution to the situation. It should also counsel the abuser to confess his sin, take responsibility for his actions, and seek needed counseling. These steps can prevent a court battle and speed healing for victim and offender alike. (Since an impulsive admission could allow an insurer to cancel coverage, church leaders should consult with their insurer, lawyer, and a Christian conciliator to plan their words carefully.)

Compensation for Counseling - The Bible places a strong emphasis on requiring a wrongdoer to repair any damage he has caused to another person. "Pay the injured man for the loss of his time and see that he is completely healed" (Ex. 21:19). Therefore, churches should be earnest to do whatever they can to bring wholeness to victims of abuse. As soon as abuse is revealed, the church should immediately come to the aid of the victim and his family, holding forth the redeeming power of Jesus and offering to provide or pay for needed counseling.