Must Pastors Report Abuse? Some States Aren’t Clear, But the Bible Is

Christianity Today [Carol Stream IL]

February 9, 2023

By Stephen Ko

As a pediatrician-turned-pastor, I believe reporting suspected child harm is our civic and Christian duty.

After entering the exam room to greet a 4-year-old patient, I couldn’t help but notice bruises on her arms. Black, blue, green, and yellow—each was in a different stage of healing. Injuries on the arms and legs are typical for young children as they run, grow, and play. But her bruising pattern resembled the imprint of a wire hanger.

While looking through her medical chart, I asked what had happened. The little girl sheepishly explained that she fell while playing hopscotch with her friends. Her stepfather nodded in approval, but red flags erupted in my mind. I continued with her well-child check as if not overly concerned. But as I examined her frail body, more bruising was evident on her torso, back, and thighs—where children do not typically get hurt.

“How did you get so many boo-boos?” I asked. Shrugging her shoulders and lifting her hands, she said, “I don’t know.” That’s when her stepfather quickly interjected, explaining that she was clumsy and often tripped and fell at home. Though it was the first time I’d met her, I had difficulty believing his words, given the 4-year-old’s otherwise normal exam and unremarkable history.

After finishing the checkup, I left the room while contemplating next steps. In my heart, I suspected child abuse. Was the child in imminent danger? It was hard to say. The Spirit persuaded me to call the Division of Child Welfare for advice. After sharing my findings, they directed me to keep the child in my office until they arrived.

This patient was later taken into the custody of Child Protective Services. Unfortunately, a deeper investigation uncovered a pattern of physical and sexual abuse from her stepfather. After many tumultuous years, she now lives with Christian foster parents and is flourishing in a local youth group.

Child abuse doesn’t always leave a visible imprint. It includes physical, emotional, sexual abuse, and neglect. As a pediatrician, mandatory reporting of suspected child abuse was ingrained through my training. With every patient, I proactively looked for signs of potential abuse.

But now as a pastor, I’m surprised by the lack of uniformity in the laws governing clergy reporting between states—and the confusion this causes among my fellow church leaders.

Every state delineates the categories or professions of “mandatory reporters”—that is, individuals who have a legal duty to report actual or suspected child abuse cases. For such persons, withholding this information is a crime and could lead to misdemeanor charges, criminal penalties, and lawsuits.