All of us in the church, but especially anyone in a role of leadership (teacher, parish council member, etc), should make ourselves familiar with the laws that govern the mandatory reporting of child sexual abuse. In the U.S. these laws are generally set at the state level. Someone who suspects (or even, as the laws often state, “reasonably should have known of”) child abuse is expected to report it to the civil authorities. (And some people in society, often medical personnel, teachers, youth workers, and sometimes clergy are mandated to report sexual abuse even if they only suspect it). This duty to report does not mean the reporter is making an allegation. They simply are telling the authorities of a concern. The civil authorities then have the responsibility to investigate the report and decide what action, if any, to take. Those who have reason to suspect child abuse is taking place and fail to report it to the civil authorities themselves can face serious criminal charges.
We can keep in mind that though this is now law in most states, it is fairly new in the law books. The Church itself is in the process of adapting to these child sexual abuse laws and incorporating their intent into its own climate and culture. This is all one effect that the recent highly publicized church sexual abuse scandals has had on all churches in America.
Sometimes someone in the church is the reporter of such an event to the civil authorities. Sometimes someone in the church is reported to the authorities (and fortunately this isn’t often – we must work to make sure it isn’t!). The Church today by law must take all reports of sexual misconduct seriously. This means that the Church has to act upon reports of sexual misconduct of which it becomes aware. This is not acting on rumor, but following the law. If someone warned the Church that a report of sexual misconduct has been made against a clergyman, the Church these days must take that seriously and move to protect its children. A report about sexual misconduct usually exists before an investigation takes place. If the Church is aware of such a report, it will and should take such actions as to protect its children. This usually means the clergyman involved would be put on leave of absence or suspended while the investigation takes place. This is not the Church taking sides against the clergyman, but rather doing a responsible thing while the report is being investigated. A report being made is not proof of guilt. An investigation taking place is not proof of guilt. A clergyman being suspended is not proof of guilt, nor proof that the Church believes the clergyman guilty. It only means the Church is doing due diligence while an investigation by civil authorities occurs, and/or the Church itself is doing an investigation. (I would say just keep in mind what jurors are told in a trial – the fact that someone is wearing a uniform or holds some position of authority does not mean that person’s testimony is more reliable than anyone else’s. The same logic applies during an investigation into possible clergy sexual misconduct – everybody’s words must be considered fairly and weighed with or against all the evidence and all the pertinent testimonies – both those making the allegations as well as the accused must be given a fair hearing. In other words, the assumption now is that just because a person holds high office or a position of trust doesn’t mean that person’s word is more trustworthy than that of others when it comes to sexual misconduct. Liberty and justice for all includes children, the oppressed, the defenseless, minorities, the weak, and the abused, not just those in power and authority or who can afford it).
The court may decide that there is insufficient evidence to pursue a criminal or legal verdict, which does not say that the allegations are false. In such an event, the church’s own investigation will also have an important say in the matter. The Church can decide that though there is not sufficient evidence for a criminal conviction, that there is in fact sufficient evidence for the church to act on and rule on the allegations. The Church’s authority to rule on such cases is not pre-empted by a civil court.
Where there is a separation of church and state, two investigations (one civil and one ecclesiastical) are needed. Even in Byzantium, where there was no separation of church and state but rather a “symphony” between them, St. Basil reminded the civil courts in a case involving theft from the church of donations collected for the poor, that the civil criminal investigation does not supersede what the Church decides about guilt in the Church’s internal affairs. The church may take into consideration any of the findings of the civil investigation and also whatever actions the civil authorities took. But the church’s own investigation and actions are not determined by, limited to or coterminous with the civil investigation and civil administration of justice.
When an allegation of clergy sexual misconduct involving minors is made, two investigations are called for. First, the reporter of the suspected misconduct should go to the civil authorities (this may be mandated by local law). The civil authorities have their own responsibility to investigate such a complaint. Second, the reporter should inform church authorities that such a report has been made with the civil authorities, which then initiates a church investigation. The two investigations will hopefully cooperate to make sure a complete investigation is conducted, but they are two separate investigations: one is deciding criminal liability, the other moral culpability. (The church has to react to such a report even if the police have not yet opened an investigation). The result of the two investigations have different consequences: civil authorities are not concerned with whether the alleged perpetrator is allowed to continue holding a clerical title – that is the church’s business. Conversely, church authorities are not in the position to order criminal penalties such as jail time. Whether or not the accused is found guilty of a crime, the church can decide the behavior was egregious enough to defrock the cleric.
A list of other blogs I’ve posted on church sexual misconduct with links to them can be found at Blogs on Church Sexual Misconduct.