Stop Living in Fear of a False Report

By Alan Stucky

Fear of being falsely accused of sexual misconduct or abuse can cause significant pause for pastors when hearing victims’ stories of abuse, sexual or otherwise, particularly when the accusations are leveled against church leaders. This fear of false accusations leads to the thought, “Well, maybe the story isn’t true.”

As I did some self-reflection to examine where this fear comes from, I began to wonder if it was based in reality or not. How often do people actually falsely accuse someone of abuse?

As it turns out, the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC) points to at least three different studies that found a false reporting rate between 2% and 7.1%.[1] Another meta-analysis of seven other studies put the number at about 5%.[2] While these numbers are low to begin with, it is important to understand that there are also different types of cases that may be labeled as a “false report” and that there is a lack of consistency in the terminology used to describe these reports. For example, while an incident that is determined never to have happened would be counted as a false report, in some locations an incident that is believed to have happened but does not meet the criteria for a crime may be determined “baseless” and may be counted as “false” in certain circumstances.[3]

What’s more, these studies are in reference to the number of false reports within reported cases. The statistic that is much more telling about our culture, and significantly more disturbing, is that the vast majority of abuse cases aren’t reported. The NSVRC states that 63% of abuse cases go unreported.[4] For children, the number increases to more like 80%.[5] Reliable surveys over time, such as the Adverse Childhood Experiences survey, have demonstrated that up to 25% of women and 16% of men have experienced some type of sexual abuse before the age of eighteen. For physical abuse, the numbers increase to up to 27% of women and 30% of men.[6] All of this data about underreporting means that the number of false reports is even lower in comparison to the total number of abuse cases that exist in this world.

Therefore, someone making up a story of abuse and accusing someone of that abuse happens in an astonishingly small number of cases. While it may occur, it certainly does not happen often enough to justify a default attitude of skepticism when encountering a story of abuse.            

So what are pastors and church leaders to do? Dr. Katherine Melhorn, a clinical professor of General Pediatrics and Child Abuse and Neglect for the Department of Pediatrics at University of Kansas School of Medicine–Wichita, offered a helpful perspective. She said that when an abuse case comes through the emergency room, for example, it is important that everyone knows his or her role and works together. It’s also important to understand what your role is not. The doctor may do a physical exam, but it’s the investigator’s job to do the forensic interview.

When a case of abuse is reported, pastors have an important role to play. Both the victim and the abuser still need a pastor to help them navigate the events spiritually. [7] Usually the same pastor can’t pastor both the victim and abuser, but both parties still need spiritual guidance of some sort.

That said, it is also important for pastors to remember what we are not qualified to do. For example, without very specialized training, pastors are not qualified to adequately interview and assess the victim’s story. We are not qualified to do clinical counseling for victims or abusers. We are not qualified to set up adequate safety plans for the victims. We are not qualified to make the decision about whether the case meets criteria for criminal charges. These skills, and many others, are not generally part of most seminary educational training. 

The good news is that while pastors are not trained in many of these areas, there are people who are trained and who are very good at their jobs. When it comes to child abuse specifically, in many states pastors are legally mandated reporters. This means that we are required to report abuse, or even the suspicion of abuse, to an outside agency. Even if we don’t know for sure that abuse has happened, we still have to call. While mandated reporting laws vary from state to state,[8] each state has its own twenty-four hour hotline (see footnote) that anyone can use to anonymously report suspicion of abuse.[9]

While there are some situations and locations where pastors are not mandated reporters for child abuse or required to get outside help, we must remember that, regardless of location, every adult has a moral obligation to act as though we are mandated reporters. Even in cases that involve adults where a law may not have been broken, seeking outside help to appropriately navigate a case of abuse is simply the moral and ethical thing to do. And again, in many of these situations there are resources available beyond law enforcement and child protective services. For example, in Wichita we have a group called the Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center[10] that provides advocates to walk with victims, making sure that they get into appropriate counseling, navigate the legal system, and so on. Another resource is to call a local mental health agency to get connected with counselors who specialize in abuse, both for the victim and for the abuser. There are also several national victim advocacy and resource organizations that work interdenominationally or have denomination specific chapters, for example, SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests), GRACE: Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment, and FaithTrust Institute.

All of this information has brought me to the clear conclusion that it is completely unjustified to be skeptical of a report of abuse out of fear that it may be a false accusation. False reports very rarely happen. What’s more, if we are appropriately working with outside people who are trained in interviewing victims, those false reports will almost always be identified correctly.

What should be abundantly clear from the rate of underreporting of abuse is that we still live in a culture where victims of abuse of all sorts do not feel safe coming forward with their stories.  Our task as pastors and church leaders is to work to change this culture. Within that task, our role as pastors is to:

1) Believe the victim’s story. Our default response should be one of belief, not skepticism. Believing the victim also means not just believing it in private but also standing with the victim publicly.

2) Remember that the role of the pastor in situations of abuse is one of spiritual guidance, not assessment, counseling, or treatment. Both the victim and the abuser are in need of spiritual care, although the same pastor, or even the same congregation, will most likely not be able to provide spiritual care for both the victim and the abuser.

3) Know the limits of our skills and abilities, and do not overstep those limits.

4) Connect both victims and abusers with professionals who can provide appropriate assessment, safety plans, and counseling.

Alan Stucky is the pastor of the First Church of the Brethren in Wichita, Kansas. He is married to Katie Best, and together they have one son, Levi Stucky. Read Alan's first piece here. 


[1]
“False Reporting Overview,” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), accessed May 10, 2016, http://www.nsvrc.org/publications/false-reporting-overview.

[2] Claire E. Ferguson and John M. Malouff, “Assessing Police Classifications of Sexual Assault Reports: A Meta-Analysis of False Reporting Rates,” Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015, December 17, 2015.

[3] “False Reporting Overview,” National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Katherine Melhorn MD, Abuse prevention, reporting and statistics, Verbal Interview, May 10, 2016.

[6] “About the CDC-Kaiser ACE Study,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), accessed May 18, 2016, http://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/acestudy/about.html.

[7] Melhorn MD, Abuse prevention, reporting and statistics.

[8] Child Welfare Information Gateway, “Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Children’s Bureau, 2016.

[9] “Child Abuse Reporting Numbers Contact Information for Related Organizations,” accessed May 11, 2016, http://www.nccafv.org/child_abuse_reporting_numbers_co.htm.

[10] “Wichita Area Sexual Assault Center,” accessed May 11, 2016, http://wichitasac.com/.