Viewpoint: Christian Social Worker Reflects on Church and Child Abuse

By Robert Mackay
Independent Catholic News
October 3, 2010

Icon: Jesus blesses the children

In writing this I recognise that all organisations and individuals are prone to error, and will have acted or failed to act in wrongful ways. These remarks are not made in the spirit of accusation about wrong actions or inactions, but rather an attempt to clarify how Church organisations should address the question of responsibility in relation to child abuse from one New Testament perspective, that is, based on my limited and untutored reading. It is suggested that whatever is scripturally valid in this perspective, that is, can be sustained under critical scrutiny, must take priority over subsequent ordinances or traditions of any church that claims to be acting in accordance with the scriptures. At the end of the paper I canvas two suggestions for responding to the abuse of children in the context of the churches and the wider community.

There are four distinct themes that have to be addressed. These are:

- The condemnation of harm to children

- The relationship between Church and State, submission to civil authority and the purpose of law The injunction on the settlement of disputes between Christians

- Forgiveness, correction, punishment and ostracism from the church

- The clear condemnation of harm to children

Christians are enjoined to welcome children because it to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Those who do not welcome children will never enter the Kingdom (Matthew, 19: 13-15; Mark, 10: 15; Luke 18: 15-17).

The presentation of an obstacle to bring down a child who has faith in Jesus is clearly condemned in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, 18: 5-7; Mark, 9:42; Luke 17: 1-3). Whilst obstacles are inevitable, those who bring them about face dire punishment.

There can be no doubt that the corruption of a child is a sin which is specifically identified as amongst the worst that anyone can commit. In Luke, the disciples are instructed to ‘watch themselves (Ibid, v 3). Thus, the Church is not simply warned of the consequences of harming a child, but is also commanded, in what appears, even in translation, to be peremptory terms, to take steps to prevent such abuse.

The relationship between Church and State, the purpose of law and submission to civil authority

The synoptic gospels each record the famous injunction to ‘give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God’ (Matthew 22: 21. See also Mark 12: 17 and Luke: 20: 25). This injunction arose from the question of paying tribute. However, it must also relate to the general question of how a Christian and the Church should address obedience to both God’s commands and the legitimate demands of civil authorities.

Paul in Romans 13 states: ‘You must all obey the governing authorities’ (ibid, v 1). The civil authorities were appointed by God, and resistance to authority is rebellion against God’s decision and is subject to punishment (ibid, v 2). Christians are subject to the civil law: ‘If you break the law, you may well have fear: the bearing of the sword has its significance’. The authorities are there to carry out God’s revenge by punishing wrongdoers (ibid, v 4); ‘You must obey, therefore, not only because you are afraid of being punished, but also for conscience’s sake’ (ibid, v 5).

Peter (1 Peter, 2: 13 – 16) enjoins Christians, ‘[F]or the sake of the Lord, accept the authority of every social institution: the emperor as the supreme authority, and the governors as commissioned by him to punish criminals and praise good citizenship. God wants you to be good citizens, so as to silence what fools are saying in their ignorance.’

It follows that if the State defines a wrongful act as an offence, a Christian and the Church in general is bound to submit to and co-operate with the State’s authority.

Paul is clear about the scope of the civil law in the first letter to Timothy. Laws are for criminals, including those who are immoral with women and boys (1 Timothy 1: 10). (One may infer that girls are to be included in this categorisation.) In modern times many States and some Christians have decided not to consider what Paul has deemed sexual immorality between adults as criminal, but the sexual abuse of minors still falls under the scope of civil laws which Christians and the churches are scripturally bound to obey.

The injunction on the settlement of disputes between Christians

Christians refer to the doctrine that disputes between church members should not be referred to the civil authorities (1 Corinthians, 6). It might be suggested that this doctrine provides a cover for not reporting crimes by members of the church community to the civil authorities. However, the injunction refers to disputes in terms of ‘settling differences’, ‘lawsuits’ and ‘complaints’. It is true that in Roman law the line between what was deemed to be a crime and what a civil dispute is different from that which obtains in contemporary legal systems. It is also true that criminal offences may entail a corresponding claim for damages in the civil courts. , It may be competent to settle such claims without involving the civil courts. It may also be possible to use restorative justice procedures, involving the victim and the offender with the agreement of the criminal courts. However, there is nothing in I Corinthians 6 to justify the view that crimes can be settled as if they were civil cases and not drawn to the attention of the authorities. Furthermore, it would be an abuse of power to suggest to a victim of crime that they should not report an offence to the authorities.

Forgiveness, correction, punishment and ostracism from the Church

Christians are required to forgive (Matthew, 6: 12; 18: 21-22; Luke, 11:3). They are not to judge others, if they do not wish to be judged themselves (Matthew, 7: 1-5). However, victims are afflicted. We should remember that the Lord’s Prayer is addressed not to individuals but to the collective. Victims may not be able to forgive by themselves. They are caught in a ‘time of trial’, not of their own making.

How can the community of the Church expect them to forgive if the Church itself is implicated in creating the time of trial and has not removed its afflicting conditions?

Church members are required to correct each other (Matthew 18: 15-18; Luke 17: 4). In Matthew a recalcitrant member of the community should be treated as a pagan or a tax-collector. Paul is more explicit. In 1 Corinthians 5 (vv 1-2), he states that a committer of incest should have been expelled from the community. At verse 13 Paul quotes Deutoronomy 13: 6: ‘You must drive out this evil-doer from among you’ (ibid).

The Church has authority to judge spiritual offences – binding in earth and in heaven (Matthew, 18: 18); the judgement of angels (1 Corinthians 6: 3); Peter’s challenges to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5: 1-10) and Simon the Magician (ibid, 8: 18-24).

Conclusions from the New Testament

If a church works from a scriptural standpoint, the burden of these teachings is clear.

Abuse of children is a grave spiritual offence. The Church has a duty to adjudge the spiritual offence. The Church has a duty to expel from its membership (let alone positions of authority) egregious offenders. Its duty does not end there.

Abuse of children constitutes a crime. The Church has a duty to respect the authority of the State and to co-operate with it to assist in the upholding of the law.

The Church once negotiated with States the right to reserve to itself the handling of all offences by clerics. Clerical immunity no longer obtains in the contemporary world.

The argument that the Church may treat criminal offences as disputes between church members fails to recognise three things. First, child abuse is more than a civil dispute. Second, it is not simply spiritual a spiritual matter to be dealt with within the Church. Third, the upholding of the secular criminal law has priority.

The argument that avoidance of scandal to the Church is justified to protect the organisation is undermined by Peter (1 Peter, 2: 13 – 16) where he writes that it is by the example of good citizenship that Christians may silence foolish opposition. The best protections against scandal are exemplary citizenship and effective preventative strategies (Luke 17: 3).

Discussion and suggestions

An argument has recently been made that a priest who has been convicted of child abuse should not be laicised because to do so would release him from his vow of obedience to his bishop. The bishop could thus exercise a degree of control over the offender, such as requiring the priest to live in a certain place or avoid contact with children, One advantage of this approach is that the period over which this control might last is for life, whereas there could be a time limitation of such controls under the penal law. It is possible that such controls might work. However, this argument rests entirely on the tradition of top-down authority within some of the churches. It does not constitute a policy for dealing with what is now a widespread problem.

The bishop who took this view is clearly concerned to act responsibly, using his authority to protect the community. There is, however, another way to exercise a degree of control and authority in a very different way. In the UK and Canada a new approach to working with serious sexual offenders called Circles of Support and Accountability. This approach involves the creation of a dedicated group of volunteers whose task is to both support the offender in his return to society, and to challenge any tendency to relapse. These circles should be part of a post-release programme for the offender. Subject to laws of individual countries his participation could be included of the condition of licence.

Granted that both the offender and many of his victims are likely to be part of the same church, the Church itself might offer to support and fund these programmes. That would demonstrate a to the world a recognition of the principle applicable in the environmental field that the polluter pays, which is applicable here in the light of the systematic failure of some churches to prevent and respond to this problem. In order to ensure that there was no suggestion of hierarchical control or conflict of interest, such programmes could be managed and delivered by lay people and ministers of both genders, with the professional support and involvement of suitably qualified people who are not members of the denomination, or any denomination. Such arrangements should be offered to the criminal justice authorities as a contribution to the post-release supervision of offenders and be subject to their general oversight.

The churches might also consider supporting and funding the establishment of dedicated restorative programmes to deal with the consequences of criminal acts by church members towards other church members. These programmes have been developed within and in collaboration with the criminal justice system in many countries. They enable victims of crime to obtain some redress, sometimes in the form of compensation, or apology and the opportunity to express their views about the offence and its impact to the offender. It also gives the offender the opportunity to express remorse. Forgiveness is not demanded of the victim. These programmes require quite stringent safeguards for all those involved, and should only be conducted by suitably qualified and experienced practitioners. The principles of lay and external involvement and accountability to the civil authorities would also apply. For further information the websites in the endnote may be consulted.


The Church, in the widest sense of that term, has begun to recognise the need to co-operate with civil authorities. However, it needs to do this not out of fear of the civil consequences, or because of the need to conform to the laws of civil powers, but because it is only by acting in this way that it can fulfil its own teachings. We should do so out of conscience (Romans 13:5), for the love of God and of our fellow human beings.

The Church also needs to respond in practical ways to the consequences of child abuse by its priests and others in positions of authority.

Notwithstanding everything that is rightly said about discipline of ministers and church members, the Church also has responsibility to provide opportunities for redemption and for realistic structures through which victims may be relieved of the affliction of the ‘time of trial’,in which forgiveness is feasible, and some form of restoration achieved.

Rob Mackay is a Quaker and registered social worker. He has been involved in social work education and the development of restorative justice in UK and internationally. He has written extensively on restorative justice theory. He currently lives in Newcastle, New South Wales. The views expressed are his own and do not represent the positions of any organisation of which he is a member.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.