Change - When abuse takes place, statements of regret are not enough. Genuine repentance is demonstrated by making changes to protect others from similar harm. "Produce fruit in keeping with repentance ... Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked" (Luke 3:8; Ps. 82:4). This requires removing the abuser from his position and implementing screening and supervision procedures to prevent other abusive people from being in counseling or child-care positions. Such actions not only protect others from harm but also relieve abuse victims, who are deeply concerned that others not be treated as they were.

Conciliation - It may be difficult for a church to implement these steps if a victim’s family is already threatening legal action or an insurer refuses to support personal contacts. These situations can still be resolved without a legal battle, however, by submitting the matter to biblical mediation or arbitration. "If you have disputes, appoint as judges even men of little account in the church" (1 Cor. 6:4). Christian conciliation by outside neutrals can provide a constructive forum to deal with both the spiritual and legal issues related to abuse. This legally enforceable process provides appropriate confidentiality and promotes confession and restitution, which help to bring about justice and reconciliation.

These five steps are not theoretical. I have seen many churches follow this process, usually with great success. In one case, a pastor discovered that a man had abused several children in the church, including the pastor’s daughter. In the midst of his own personal anguish, the pastor prayed to respond to the situation in a way that would reflect the love of Jesus. After consulting with a Christian conciliator and the church’s insurer, the pastor and his elders set out to minister to everyone who had been hurt by this dreadful sin.

They persuaded the abuser to confess his sin to the families of the children and to turn himself in to the police. He willingly accepted his prison sentence, and was even grateful that his destructive behavior had finally been stopped.

The leaders spent many hours with the families themselves, grieving and praying with them, and making sure they received needed support and counseling. In addition, the leaders improved their screening and supervision policies to guard against similar incidents in the future.

They also reached out to the abuser’s wife and children, who were so ashamed that they planned to leave the church. But the leaders understood what being a shepherd is all about. They ministered to this broken family, reassured them of God’s love, and kept them in the fold.

Instead of being dragged through an excruciating lawsuit, the victims and their families, the abuser and his family, and the entire congregation experienced the redeeming power of God. This remarkable process culminated months later during a Christmas Eve service. As the church prepared to sing "Silent Night," two young girls came forward to light the candles. One of them had been abused. The other was the daughter of the abuser. As they finished their task and smiled at each other, the congregation saw tangible evidence of God’s love and grace.

Abuse in the church does not have to end with catastrophe. When a church follows its Lord, even this great tragedy can result in healing and restoration.

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Ken Sande is an attorney, the author of The Peacemaker: A Biblical Guide to Resolving Personal Conflict (Baker Books, 2nd Ed. 1997), and president of Peacemaker® Ministries (www.HisPeace.org), an international ministry committed to equipping and assisting Christians and their churches to respond to conflict biblically.

Further information on the spiritual, practical, and legal issues related to sexual abuse by church leaders will be provided at a special workshop at Peacemaker Ministries’ Annual Conference. See www.HisPeace.org for details.

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