In February, Cardinal Keith O’Brien resigned as leader of the Scottish Catholic Church.
His resignation followed allegations that he had made inappropriate sexual approaches. Cardinal O’Brien has publicly apologised and admitted his misconduct.
This is the latest in a series of scandals to engulf the Roman Catholic Church, the most serious of which has been the past concealment of clerical sexual abuse. However, there can be no place for complacency among evangelicals. Every year ministers and elders tragically fall into sexual or financial sin and leave the ministry. Some allegations against church leaders are not taken seriously, and in some cases known failings are hushed up and ministers allowed to resign quietly so as to ‘protect the reputation of the church’. Occasionally leaders have resigned from one ministry and gone on to serve another church, or organisation, which may be utterly unaware of what has gone on.
The proper handling of the sins of church leaders, and allegations made against them, is a vitally important issue. 1 Timothy stipulates not only the qualities and gifts required of leaders, but also provides guidance as to how to address any allegations: ‘Do not entertain an accusation against an elder unless it is brought by two or three witnesses. But those elders who are sinning you are to reprove before everyone, so that the others may take warning. I charge you, in the sight of God and Christ Jesus and the elect angels, to keep these instructions without partiality, and to do nothing out of favouritism’ (1Timothy 5.19-21).
A number of key principles emerge here which apply not just to leaders, but to all in the church.
1. Don’t assume it won’t happen
Paul is clear that there can be no place for the na?ve assumption that church leaders will never fall. Gifted and respected leaders are not above temptation and deceit. If someone makes allegations about a church leader, they cannot be dismissed simply on the basis that ‘it couldn’t be true’. Such allegations must be taken seriously and properly investigated. This is essential both for the protection of the person making the allegation, the accused leader, and the wider reputation of the church.
These verses, as well as the other New Testament passages, make clear that when allegations are made the church has to act as a court. This may seem overly formal to those who view the church only as a warm family gathering. But Paul emphasises to the Corinthians that, because they are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, they have the capacity and ability to make judgments, so that they can resolve disputes internally (1 Corinthians 6.1-11). His concern is that the church should conduct a proper investigation into allegations made, judge whether they are well founded, and take appropriate action. Many problems in churches are left unresolved because of the failure to undertake this ‘legal’ function.
2. Have an established process
It is far better to anticipate such problems, and to have a clear procedure to follow before allegations are made. In the case of employed church staff this ought to be a part of their contract or terms of office, and the church should have a clear disciplinary procedure identifying the process that will be applied, and who will be responsible for undertaking it. Similar provision ought to be put in place to handle allegations that might be made against volunteer leaders and church members. The church Constitution and Rules ought to lay down how church discipline will be administered.
This may seem unduly heavy-handed, but the worst time to be considering how an allegation should be handled is on the hoof after it has been made. The adoption of proper procedures in advance prevents arbitrary, rushed or biased decisions. Policies and procedures ought to be written down and available for all to see. An accurate written record of everything that is alleged, and of the subsequent process that is followed, should be kept.
The fact that the church possesses both the jurisdiction and capacity to make judgments in this way does not mean that there are no circumstances in which allegations against church leaders or others should be passed to the civil authorities for investigation. In the case of allegations that raise concerns that children or vulnerable adults may be in danger, there is an obligation to inform the relevant child protection authorities.
Every church ought to have a proper child protection policy in place, making clear when it is necessary to refer matters to the authorities, and identifying a child protection officer who will be responsible for assessing such allegations and making the decision whether to refer to the authorities. Organisations such as CCPAS provide clear and accurate guidance for churches in this regard.
There is no general obligation to refer alleged criminal behaviour to the police unless children or vulnerable adults are in danger. An allegation of sexual assault against an adult, for example, does not have to be reported, and it is primarily a matter for the complainant to determine if they wish to involve the police. However, those to whom such allegations are brought should certainly advise the complainant of their right to go to the police, and in some cases may feel that it is necessary to report the matter themselves. Those to whom allegations are brought should never, under any circumstances, offer or agree to grant confidentiality to the person making an allegation.
The appropriate person to whom to report an allegation, and who will investigate it, will vary. Where a church belongs to a denomination, systems will probably already be in place. It is often more difficult in independent churches that have no external accountability, since the responsibility may fall to the other elders or deacons, or to the congregation. It may be difficult for them to investigate a leader who ordinarily exercises authority over them. One of the advantages of membership of a body like the FIEC is that help and advice is available.
One of the most significant difficulties is that someone who has an allegation to make may not know who they should contact, or perhaps feel too intimidated to speak up. It should be clear to everyone who they should go to with any allegation. Church business meetings are a good opportunity to remind church members of the procedures.
3. Only act on reliable evidence
Where an allegation is brought against a leader, and it is not a matter which is passed to the police or other civil authorities, then it must be properly investigated. This ought to be done quickly and comprehensively. A church leader may need to be suspended from duty pending the outcome. Allegations cannot be entertained if they are made anonymously. Leaders are not to be judged purely on the basis of gossip or rumour.
Paul insists in 1 Timothy 5.19 that an allegation must be supported by adequate evidence. This requires multiple witnesses to what had taken place. Solid reliable evidence is necessary. This will require caution where there are allegations that inappropriate conduct took place, which might be capable of another interpretation and no other witnesses can corroborate.
However, multiple allegations of similar conduct will prove compelling, as was the case with Cardinal O’Brien.
This requirement of adequate evidence is a necessary protection for church leaders. The Bible demands that we operate the principle of innocent until proven guilty. We need to be aware that people do make false or mistaken allegations. In all cases the accused person ought to have full opportunity to answer and explain.
4. Take public action when needed
Where allegations made against a church leader are substantiated, then it is wholly inappropriate that they should be hushed up by means of a quiet and unexplained resignation. Such concealment is neither helpful for the individual concerned, nor for the church. It also fails to protect other churches or organisations if that person seeks to minister in the future.
Paul makes clear in 1 Timothy 5.20 that, in the event that a church leader has been found to have sinned, they should be rebuked before the church, so that everyone is aware of the circumstances. This does not mean that the church necessarily needs to know all the specific details, but they ought to be informed of the substance of the sin, and the action that has been taken as a result. In many cases this will inevitably result in a leader being disqualified from ministry, even if there is genuine repentance and forgiveness. Even where a church leader chooses to resign immediately allegations are made, a proper investigation ought still to be undertaken, and the church informed of the outcome.
Where an allegation has been made and been found to be unsubstantiated, the accused ought to be publicly vindicated.
As long as we live in a fallen world it is inevitable that churches will have to deal with such situations. The overriding principle ought to be to do what is just and right so as to bring glory to God. God is not honoured, and the reputation of the church will not be protected, by concealment.
5. Look after your leaders
While this article has concentrated on how we ought to handle allegations of misconduct, it is equally important that we take steps to try to protect church leaders from temptation and falling into sin. Ministry is often lonely, and this can lead to added pressures that result in particular vulnerability to sexual and financial sin. Churches need to try to ensure that their leaders enjoy loving and supportive accountability, and that there are those to whom they can, and do, turn to share their struggles and temptations. They need to make sure that they are properly paid and not overworked.
Director of the FIEC
http://www.e-n.org.uk 0845 225 0057