Protecting the Least of These: Mandated Reporting of Child Abuse

Katherine Burkey Wiens, Dove’s Nest Speaker’s Bureau Member

Recently, I visited with a pastor who needed counsel about how to handle a situation of possible abuse. The pastor’s struggle was whether they should make a report to the state or simply talk with the family about what had happened. Adding to the complexity, clergy are not mandated reporters in the pastor’s state, therefore they are not required by law to report suspected child abuse. The question I posed to this pastor was “Who are you trying to protect in this situation?” 

What are church leaders to do when they suspect a child may be in danger? Some church leaders may seek direction from Scripture. Matthew 18 has a lot to say about how we care for and value children. Verse 5 states, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Verse 6 says, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Finally, Matthew 18:10 says, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” 

However, I read a policy that states church members should use Matthew 18:15–20 when dealing with suspected abuse. This scripture states that if someone sins against you, you should go directly to that person and talk to them. If he or she does not listen, then you should take someone else with you to speak with that person. And if that doesn’t work, then you should take the matter to the whole church.

But when a child is being abused, it is not a sin against the adult—it is a crime against a child. Matthew 18:15–20 is talking about reconciliation between adults. Focusing on this scripture shows a lack of understanding about perpetrators and how they groom children, adults, and entire congregations. Congregations create unsafe environments for little ones when we view crimes against children through the lens of conflicts between adults.

Reporting does not mean we are convinced abuse is happening. Reporting needs to happen when we suspect abuse. We do not need evidence or proof to make a report. Objective professionals use the reports to investigate and then determine if abuse is occurring. Churches are not equipped or trained to do these investigations. Professionals are familiar with identifying patterns, deceptions, and perpetrators. These objective judgments are necessary when dealing with child abuse. Without the objectivity of professionals who work with these situations on a daily basis, we miss an important piece of child safety in our churches.

Abuse in all its forms—physical, sexual, emotional, and neglect—are crimes against children. If a pastor or other church leader knew someone in their congregation was stealing cars, robbing homes, or embezzling money, they would report that to the local authorities. How would a congregation feel if they knew their pastor was remaining silent and protecting the person who was committing these crimes? We should resist the temptation to treat child abuse differently. As this poster from Mennonite Church USA states, “child abuse is not an issue to deal with through church leadership.”

Child abuse is a crime in every state in the United States. Crimes where a person, adult or child, is being physically attacked are even more heinous than taking money or possessions. States vary in their sentencing and severity levels. When the abuse is sexual violence against a child, it is viewed as a more severe crime and sentencing is often more severe. So, again, we are talking about reporting a suspected crime that is considered a severe crime by the legal system and one that is committed against children.

What are pastors to do? Like the pastor I mentioned who was in a quandary about what action to take, other pastors may be left with the same question. To help pastors with this decision, denominations could make resolutions that require pastors be mandated reporters. This would create safer environments for children in our churches and help pastors know exactly what to do in a case of suspected child abuse.