10 Ways Churches Should Respond To Sexual Abuse

After a few decades of publicity surrounding the issue of sexual abuse in the broader culture, one might think that churches have developed better ways of handling it.  However, there are regularly reports that indicate otherwise.  Especially churches without a Safe Church program are vulnerable to mishandling sexual abuse allegations.  This is highly problematic because it further victimizes victims and often emboldens and protects abusers.   To help churches in developing policies and procedures, I want to share some best practices.  We have to do better and perhaps this can help to further the discussion and create safer communities for the most vulnerable among us.

Obey Mandatory Reporting Laws

All jurisdictions have mandatory reporting laws…It is the responsibility of church leaders to be familiar with the mandatory reporting laws in their own jurisdiction and then follow those laws.  That is a matter of obedience to what Scripture says in Rom. 13:1.  Sexual abuse is a crime and it needs to be dealt with as such by the civil authorities in the way they have laid out.  If a church member was murdered by another church member, would you keep it in-house, even for a short while?  Know the law, follow the law.

Protection is Paramount

Whatever policies or procedures are developed should always keep in mind the safety not only of the complainant, but also of others potentially at risk.  “Love your neighbour as yourself” is the second great commandment according to our Lord in Matt. 22:39….


As a rule, when there are allegations of sexual abuse involving a congregation member, the church leadership should inform the congregation in a timely and well-considered manner….

Choose to Take the Victim Seriously

According to Michael Kruger in his recent book Bully Pulpit, “…the percentage of false accusations in cases of sexual abuse hovers between 2 percent and 7 percent.  And given that most abuse cases are not reported, the actual percentage is probably lower still” (p.88).  Think of the enormous price that complainants often have to pay for coming forward – it is a huge risk. …

To Serve the Victim Best, Get Trauma-Informed

…Many church leaders have made blunders in dealing with sexual abuse victims because they did not understand the complexities of trauma.  If someone in your care has been abused, it serves their best interest for you to get the best understanding you can of trauma so that they are not hurt further.  Two recommended books:  Trauma and Recovery by Judith Herman and The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk (particularly the first three chapters).

Do Not Neglect the Care of Victims

It can sometimes be difficult and awkward, but church leaders should never ignore the pastoral needs of the abused person, especially as these may be long-term…

Read More»

Wes Bredenhof | “Ten Best Practices for How Churches Should Respond to Sexual Abuse” | April 13, 2023


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  1. Regardless of the percentages, is it really right to announce publicly the name of someone who has been accused, before there is any evidence of guilt or innocence? This will destroy much of the life of the accused person, be she or he guilty or as innocent as could be.

    • Dan,

      That’s a reasonable concern. Wes is writing in an Australian context (with a Canadian background). In America it might put a congregation in legal jeopardy to announce the name of someone who has been accused before there has been a hearing of evidence or a trial.

      At some point, when it becomes a public matter (e.g., after charges are filed in a secular court) then a body might, if it judges it to be prudent and for the safety of the congregation, announce the accuser’s name.

  2. The author argues that Matthew 18 does not apply to these types of situations, but that’s not the only place in Scripture where the requirement for multiple witnesses is prescribed. Deuteronomy 19 states that multiple witness are required for a charge to be made. This requirement is repeated in the NT not only in Matthew 18, but also 2 Corinthians 13:1 and 1 Timothy 5:19.

    Scripture seems quite clear on this matter; Deuteronomy 19 says that multiple witnesses are required for a charge for “any” offense, and the NT passages confirm this requirement in the new covenant.

    So, in cases of abuse (which are certainly included in the category of “any offense”), how should the church meet the requirement for multiple witnesses? In these types of cases, can someone be considered a witness beyond the accuser?

    • Ben,

      How do we deal with the reality that sexual assault/abuse almost always occurs privately? The abuser/attacker isolates his victim before attacking/assaulting.

      Thus, courts must rely on the victim’s testimony and circumstantial evidence. This is why rape kits, prompt reporting, and documentation of injuries is so important.

      That evidence constitutes a witness.

      But what happens when attacks are covered up/hidden and not reported promptly? This happens frequently. Are those victims to be denied?

  3. Dr. Clark: You asked the rhetorical question: “But what happens when attacks are covered up/hidden and not reported promptly? This happens frequently. Are those victims to be denied?”. I would ask a similar rhetorical question: Under those conditions, are the rights of the accused to be denied? If alleged attacks are not reported promptly, what’s the limit? Even the civil magistrate won’t hear such charges past certain statutes of limitation.

    • Bob,

      As I understand the situation states seem to be increasing the time that the abused have to report the abuse/attack. It’s a complicated situation. False memories are a reality but it is also true that it is difficult to report abuse. It can be traumatic in that it causes the victim to relive the attack.

      The accused retains his rights in the secular justice system and in the ecclesiastical courts. Before there is a conviction, it’s a matter of wisdom and discretion. If the church waits for the secular courts, then the church might need to make some accommodations for both parties. If they conduct their own investigation, assuming they do so properly and thoroughly, they are entitled to act accordingly.

  4. As for a Christian who falls into this sin and spends what time in prison, the consequences are harsh but what if this person confesses and lives repentant; the question is would he be able to be restored back into fellowship on a restricted fellowship, such as who he will have to have no contact with?

    • Mike,

      I wouldn’t speak of someone “falling” into sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is a sinful choice made by a sinful human being. Let’s not remove their moral responsibility and agency.

      If an abuser/someone who commits abuse shows penitence, then that should be recognized but if they are convicted by secular courts, churches are obligated to recognize that fact too. E.g., people convicted of sexual abuse against minors are escorted while they are on church property and they are not permitted to be alone with minors.

      In other cases, depending on the particulars, a congregation might have to make other accommodations.

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