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Supreme Court of the United States

Ministering to the Congregation Amidst a Scandal

October 17, 2017

All my life, pastors have been telling me that the ways of Christ are not the ways of man.  The Bible says that if you follow Christ, you are called to act in ways that are contrary to the ways of this world.  Deny yourself. Pray for your enemies.  And if someone slaps you on the right cheek, then turn to him the left as well. 

But what if following the ways of this world could save your church from closing its doors, while doing the “right” thing could shut you down?  For a church in Vienna, Virginia, this admonition was more than just an abstract hypothetical.   And their response is a good reminder to all of us what the church should be about.

The USA Today reported that for several years, a youth ministries director for the Vienna Presbyterian Church was allegedly engaging in improper sexual relations with students.  The Church’s lawyers, hired by its insurance company and acting like most lawyers would, wanted to minimize the Church’s liability.  That is the way of the world.  On March 23, 2011 the lawyers told the Church:

 “Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything that may be evidence of or interpreted as (a suggestion that) the actions of Vienna Presbyterian Church … caused or contributed to any damages arising from the intentional acts/abuse/misconduct” by the youth director.” 

This is not uncommon in the legal world.  We as attorneys never want our clients talking about matters that could be litigated.  Statements might be taken out of context.  Words can get confused.  It is just prudent to not have your clients comment at all about litigious matters.

But what about the truth?  What about ministering to the needs of a hurting congregation?  Does the church simply allow the legal process to play out to determine the truth and then to help the congregation heal? 

It is not as if telling the truth in this case would be without cost to the Church.  Under our legal system, if the Church erred in reporting sexual abuse by its pastors, and thereby caused more abuse to occur, it could be liable for millions.  Such a verdict could shut a church down.  Since 2002, dozens of lawsuits have been filed against churches by people alleging sexual abuse by clergy or church employees.  Jury awards and settlements have ranged from tens of thousands of dollars to many millions. In a 2007 case, the Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to pay $660 million to 500 people who alleged they were sexually abused by clergy.

So how did the Church in Virginia respond to the lawyer’s demand?  The very next day, the church sent a letter to its congregants saying, “Members of Staff and of [the Church Board] are profoundly sorry that [the Church’s] response after the abuse was discovered was not always helpful to those entrusted to our care…"

And in a sermon on the following Sunday, Pastor Peter James went further.  "We won't hide behind lawyers. … Jesus said the truth will set us free."

Then, turning to a group of young women in the audience, he said:

"Let me speak for a moment to our survivors.  We, as church leaders, were part of the harm in failing to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed in this church. I am truly sorry … I regret the harm this neglect has caused you."

We, as members of the Church, should never forget our true calling – to be obedient and faithful to our Lord Jesus Christ – even if this comes at a cost.  And as an attorney with ADF's Church Project, I'm committed to helping churches make difficult choices when that cost may come in the form of a lawsuit.

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