How should churches handle abuse? ‘This is not a side issue,’ advocate says

LYNCHBURG, Va. — For years, Pete Singer has worked with churches and other faith communities to investigate reports of sexual misconduct.

Survivors often lament: “The abuse was terrible. How the church responded to it was worse,” said Singer, executive director of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment.

The Virginia-based nonprofit conducts independent investigations and trains faith leaders in how to prevent and respond to abuse within the church.

When faith leaders contact GRACE, Singer reminds them that false reports of sexual violence are incredibly rare — estimated at anywhere form 2% to 10% of all reports made — while one in every six women and one in every 30 men have been sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. Those survivors are watching how the church responds, he said.

“We need to recognize that how leadership responds to these allegations isn’t a secondary thing, isn’t the lesser thing, but actually has for many people as much of an impact as the abuse itself,” Singer said.

The Lima News spoke with Singer amid allegations that former Teens for Christ leaders reportedly mishandled sexual misconduct allegations against key volunteers or staffers for years.

The ministry hired an attorney to conduct a third-party investigation but paused the inquiry after it learned authorities had opened a criminal investigation into the claims. It is unclear whether TFC has resumed that investigation, as the board terminated two employees in December.

So, how should faith communities respond when one of their own is accused of abuse?

“Don’t wait until you get the report,” Singer said. “Have policies and procedures in place ahead of time … because when the report comes in, you’re going to be left scrambling, you’re going to be in crisis mode.”

But when a policy is not in place, Singer said, faith leaders shouldn’t become defensive. Instead, reach out for help and identify people who have been hurt, he said.

Any potential abuse against minors should be reported to law enforcement immediately, Singer said. If the alleged victim is an adult, Singer said, it’s best to defer to their judgement when deciding whether to involve law enforcement.

And remember that the entire congregation or faith community has potentially been groomed, so a third-party investigation is needed, Singer said.

That investigation shouldn’t replace authorities, Singer said, but should help leadership identify ethical lapses and flaws in their handling of abuse reports that don’t always fall within the scope of a criminal investigation.

“One of my colleagues at GRACE says it this way: Perpetrators put a lot of work into being exactly the type of person that would prompt you to say, ‘Oh, they would never do something like that,’” Singer said.

Singer points to an Old Testament story about two men who used their spiritual authority to coerce people into having sex as an example of why churches and Christian ministries should take abuse seriously.

“The Bible calls them worthless men,” Singer said. He added, “Look at what the Bible says. The Bible says that this is not a side issue, that this is a big deal, that we need to be focused on this and that, from God’s perspective, there are pretty significant consequences in place here.”

Timeline of investigations, TFC response to abuse allegations

• July 22, 2022: Allen County Sheriff’s Office contacts the FBI and opens investigation into abuse allegations against several Teens for Christ leaders. TFC board takes control of ministry, places leaders reportedly under investigation on administrative leave.

• Aug. 2022: TFC suspends Lima chapters.

• Oct. 27, 2022: TFC hosts Harvest of Blessings fundraiser.

• Nov. 2022: Sheriff’s office turns findings over to FBI; TFC fall newsletter teases ministry’s possible comeback in ‘23.

• Dec. 30, 2022: TFC board terminates two staffers previously placed on administrative leave.