Faith leaders: More outside investigations of misconduct needed

The Commercial Dispatch [Columbus MS]

April 11, 2021

By Isabelle Altman

‘There are people who are walking away from the faith altogether because of their experiences’

Former church members and employees of Vibrant Church in Columbus say church officials turned a blind eye to sexual harassment by lead pastor Jason Delgado, prompting one of the employees to file a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

“The big concern here is not just that this is alleged to be done by one person, but the fact that it was reported to the entity,” said Corky Smith, the former employee’s attorney.

But sexual harassment in church settings is an issue that affects more churches and religious institutions than Vibrant. Allegations against ministers and religious institutions have grabbed headlines in the last few years as it becomes more common for victims of harassment — or even criminal abuse — to come forward.

In 2019, the Catholic Diocese of Jackson publicized a list of priests and other church officials credibly accused of abusing children, following similar investigations nationwide. The same year, a study sponsored by LifeWay Christian Resources said one in 10 Protestants under the age of 35 reported leaving a church because they felt church leaders were not taking issues of sexual harassment or abuse seriously.

“There are people who are walking away from the faith altogether because of their experiences in the church,” said Amy Stier, director of institutional response at GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in a Christian Environment), a national evangelical organization that works with churches in how to treat victims of abuse.

GRACE trains ministers and church officials in how to work with abuse victims and implement policies that curb sexual harassment, but the organization also investigates allegations of misconduct against church leaders when they arise.

Where Vibrant is concerned, the harassment allegations The Dispatch is reporting are civil matters at this point and do not involve criminal investigations.

In cases of sexual misconduct, and especially criminal behavior, Stier said church leaders or congregants should always contact law enforcement first and foremost. While law enforcement handles the criminal investigation, she said, GRACE officials recommend calling in an outside organization to handle an independent, third-party investigation.

“It promotes transparency and trust,” Stier said. “Oftentimes if you think about it, if there’s a situation that’s occurred within an organization … and that entity is the one that’s handling it, chances are you’re less likely to get information or people are less likely to come forward because there’s been a breach of trust.”

Stier said when conducting investigations, GRACE officials have heard people use biblical scriptures to argue allegations against church leaders should be handled within the church only.

“Matthew 18 is the No. 1 scripture that we see victims grappling with,” she said. “Not in every case, but it’s one that gets a lot of discussion in our work.”

Matthew 18 gives instruction for how Christians should handle disputes between believers, saying one party should confront the other one-to-one, and then bring witnesses from the church if the other does not listen to them.

But Stier said GRACE representatives don’t believe Matthew 18 applies in cases of sexual misconduct by a minister.

“In situations of abuse where there are dynamics of power at play — so say for example a head pastor and a congregant or a head pastor and a subordinate — that is not a situation where Matthew 18 should be applied. … Those two individuals are not coming to the table on equal footing,” she said.

Some theologians back her up. Shawn Parker, executive director-treasurer for the Mississippi Baptist Convention Board and former head pastor at First Baptist Church in Columbus, said Matthew 18 is relevant in cases of civic or relational disputes between church members — not in cases where criminal behavior has occurred.

“Obviously if there is a matter of relational or civic difference, then those matters need to be handled one-on-one, and Jesus gave direct instruction on that in Matthew Chapter 18 … and I think that’s the way those relational issues ought to be handled,” Parker said. “When there is an issue that involves criminal behavior, or in some way violent behavior that’s taking advantage of a vulnerable party, I think we have more than a relational issue there.”

Parker said allegations of sexual harassment, abuse or assault should be investigated “as aggressively as possible,” and reported to law enforcement if the behavior is criminal. He pointed to other biblical passages instructing Christians to respect government authorities and allow them to do their jobs.

Like Stier, he argued cases of abuse in churches can damage the victims’ spiritual lives.

“It creates disillusionment, and it confuses individuals about what it means to have a relationship with God and what difference it makes, and that confusion and disillusionment can have irreparable damage in a person’s life, and it can have irreparable damage in the community as well,” Parker said.

Jasmine Haynes, a communications specialist for the Mississippi United Methodist Conference, said the conference recommends their churches be proactive in their policies, training all church leaders and congregants in how to recognize signs of abuse in victims and making sure everyone — children and adults — feel there are multiple church leaders they can go to if they’ve been victims of sexual misconduct.

“What we really want is for them not to happen at all,” Haynes said.

She said churches now do background checks on ministers and anyone who works with children or vulnerable populations, and never allows one adult to be “behind a locked door” with children. If criminal behavior does occur, she said, church leaders should always report it to law enforcement, and the Methodist Conference will also conduct an investigation.

She added the policies and procedures should be part of “an ongoing conversation” within churches.

“It’s like any other policy. If you create it, it’s great, but if you don’t take it off the shelf, it’s not helping, right?” she said. “If you don’t remember the policy and you don’t keep it prevalent and in front of you, then it’s not helpful. It can’t be a ‘we created this and we’re done.’”