Both the Courts and the Church claim to care about the rights of victims. However, sometimes their actions suggest they’re more concerned about their reputation than the victims they’re supposed to help.
This topic is especially relevant if you or someone you know has experienced abuse or victimization within the legal or religious system. Seeking justice may be a challenging and daunting process.
Many victims are reluctant to report a crime to this system of justice. According to a 2020 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), only 40.9% of violent crimes in 2019 had reports from the victims or others. BJS identified concerns about retaliation or “getting the offender in trouble,” a belief that police “would not or could not do anything to help,” and a perception that the crime is “a personal issue or too trivial to report” as barriers to reporting crimes. (Pew Research Center, November 20, 2022.)
Some victims are equally reluctant to report that they were a victim of a crime, especially if it happened at Church.
The Evangelical Counsel for Abuse Prevention has provided a great source of statistics concerning this issue.
We will examine three ways that the legal system and the courts have cruelly abused the rights of victims.
- First, from a victim’s perspective, the legal system seems solely interested in the offender.
- Second, the Church appears hell-bent on directing the victim to forgive and reconcile with the offender.
- Third, at times, both institutions appear to be more concerned with their reputations and lose sight of the rights of victims.
We will look at the harm caused by these approaches and some practical remedies to address them.
Courts put the pursuit of justice above the rights of victims.
From the perspective of many victims, the rights of victims are not the legal system’s priority. Instead, justice for “the people” is.
How did we get here?
Ancient cultures viewed crimes as a violation of the rights of an individual. Ancient cultures operated on the principle that “Crimes were considered violations of other people’s rights. Victims were to be compensated for the intentional and unintentional harms they suffered, and offenders were to be punished because they had done wrong”.
The emphasis was on acknowledging the impact of crimes on victims and providing them with some form of redress, such as monetary compensation or even a public apology. In addition, the community punished offenders for wrongdoing.
Over time, many cultures began to consider crimes as a violation of the rights of the State. For example, our judicial system in the U.S.A. operates on the principle that any crime against a person constitutes a crime against the State and prosecutes individuals as though they have victimized all of society.
The State’s improper use of its unlimited authority to punish criminals was crucial in developing the accused person’s rights in the U.S.A.’s legal system.
In response to these potential abuses, many legal systems have provided certain fundamental rights to individuals accused of a crime.
If you are like most people in the U.S.A., you can name many of the rights of the accused. We’ve heard them so often on Television that many of you could correctly identify them.
Here are a few of the rights of the accused you will probably recognize. First, the government guarantees the accused the right to have an attorney represent them in Court, the right to remain silent and not incriminate themselves, the right to receive information about the charges against them, the right to a trial that is both speedy and public, with an impartial judge or jury selected from the jurisdiction where the crime was committed, and the right to present a defense. Additionally, if the State does not follow the procedural rules correctly, the accused can appeal the decision.
Many countries worldwide protect these rights by law to ensure that individuals are not unjustly convicted or punished for a crime they did not commit.
We should all want the innocent to be able to defend themselves from baseless accusations. And even the guilty should be able to explain their actions and ask for mercy.
Protecting society (the people) is an admirable goal. But in focusing on “the people,” the legal system has lost sight of the individual victim. And in doing so, they have unwittingly revictimized the innocent.
Ironically, until recently, there appeared to be more concern over the rights of the accused than the actual victim.
Most discussions concerning the pursuit of justice revolve around the criminal. The State treats the victim solely as a witness, with little emphasis on compensating or restoring them.
In the United States, no constitutional amendment protects victims’ rights, nor is there a single norm that all states must follow. I know that this is hard to believe, but it’s true.
The Crime Victims’ Rights Act (CVRA), passed as part of the Justice for All Act 2004, established crime victims’ rights in U.S. federal criminal justice processes.
Most of us are familiar with the accused’s rights, but very few can articulate the victims’ rights. Why is this?
Here are a few of the rights of victims that have come about in recent years:
The right to be reasonably protected from the accused. The right to reasonable, accurate, and timely notice of any public court proceeding. The right to be reasonably heard at any public proceeding in the district court involving release, plea, sentencing, or any parole proceeding. The right to full and timely restitution as provided in law. The right to proceedings is free from unreasonable delay—the right to be treated fairly and with respect for the victim’s dignity and privacy.
Sometimes it feels like the victims are not the State’s primary concern; protecting society, punishing offenders, rehabilitating criminals, and protecting the Court’s reputation are.
Balancing the rights of the accused with the rights of the victim is essential to achieve a fair and just legal system that addresses the needs of all those directly involved.
The Courts can undoubtedly improve how they treat victims, as can the Church.
The Church Values Reconciliation Over the Rights of Victims.
From the perspective of many victims, their rights and welfare do not appear to be the Church’s primary concern. Instead, the pursuit of forgiveness and reconciliation is.
How did we get here?
From the very beginning of the Church, Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection message has always been beautiful to the abused, marginalized, and powerless.
His followers believed God created everyone in His image and valued and loved them unconditionally.
Because of this, His followers tried to value, love, and forgive everyone, even those who persecuted them or were responsible for their deaths.
The Church believes that forgiving others is good for society, the witness of the Church, and the victim’s mental and spiritual health.
Based on recent scandals and headlines, those outside the Church would argue that the Church is more concerned with forgiveness and reconciliation than the victim’s safety. Some individuals would even contend that “forgiveness has been weaponized.”
At the same time, the experiences of individuals within the Church can testify to the priority placed on the victim forgiving and reconciling with the offender when possible.
Here is a quote from Christianity Today addressing the Danger of Forcing forgiveness (and the practice of discouraging criminal charges). “Again and again, across denominations, we hear stories about how “forgiveness” has been used to vindicate abusers and silence the abused. Once this coerced forgiveness is offered, it seems impossible to retract, which is often why abusers use forgiveness as a silencing technique.” (I highly recommend reading the entire article.)
Too often, the Church has pushed the victim to forgive the offender before allowing the victim to fully grieve their loss or the offender to express remorse for their actions.
There is an unstated expectation that the victim will forgive the offending party and that it will happen soon. But unfortunately, people sometimes judge the victim and question their spiritual maturity when this doesn’t happen quickly.
Like the judicial system, the Church can become so focused on our process and the desired result that we lose sight of the rights of victims.
Over the years, I unwittingly infringed on the rights of the people I was attempting to help. I neglected their need for both justice and mercy. I failed to see the difference between harmful behaviors and criminal activity or that reconciliation might not be possible or helpful for either party. I was reluctant to explore the theological argument for an individual righteously pursuing justice or supporting them.
God calls us to Do Justice and Love Mercy. Sometimes, the righteous pursuit of justice is the Godly thing to do.
Finding the right balance between the doctrine of forgiveness and the victim’s right to seek justice in the courts is critical to the victim’s emotional and spiritual healing.
Despite the rich biblical teaching that advocates for victims’ justice, the Church has sometimes ignored or discouraged them from taking their cases to Court.
The distinction between civil and criminal wrongdoing is often left unaddressed.
In this regard, the Church must improve.
It’s depressing when the organizations supposed to support and protect victims’ rights appear more concerned with their reputations than the harmed individuals.
Both May Prioritize Their Reputations Over the Victim’s Rights.
The Courts and the Church may prioritize their reputation over the rights of victims.
Since 1989, more than 3,000 wrongfully convicted inmates have been exonerated in the United States.
In 2019 a report was released that indicated that an evangelical denomination (SBC) was aware of several leaders guilty of sexual abuse/assault but took no action.
What reputation does the Court want? As the enforcer of the rule of law in society. They want to be seen as infallible, fair, and effective. To accomplish this, the court system pursues high-profile cases it can win, dismisses cases they believe it cannot win, and plea bargains as often as possible to ensure a positive result for the State. This is done to ensure that they can be reelected to their position in the legal system.
What reputation does the Church want? As a living example of Christ’s teaching about unconditional love, forgiveness, redemption, reconciliation, and resurrection. To accomplish this, the Church will exalt the “turn the other cheek” or the admonitions to “settle matters out of court” or the “caution in bringing a charge against an elder of the Church” to an extreme that is not consistent with the entirety of the Bible’s message.
What is the harm of these two approaches?
- The current emphasis on “the people” has created a complex and often ineffective punishment system that does not satisfy anyone involved.
- Victims may feel unsupported by the institution or community where the abuse occurred.
- Victims may struggle to find closure or move on from the abuse, especially if they do not receive the justice or support they deserve.
- Victims may face financial obligations related to legal fees, therapy, and other costs associated with the abuse.
- Victims may feel betrayed by religious leaders or members they believed they could trust. Victims in a Church setting may struggle with their faith or beliefs after the abuse or misconduct.
- Victims may feel that justice was not served, especially if the institution prioritizes reconciliation over accountability.
- Victims may feel shame or guilt, even though they are not responsible for the abuse they endured.
- Victims may feel stigmatized or judged by others who do not understand their experiences.
What are the potential remedies?
In the Courts:
The legal institution needs to formalize a bill of rights on a federal level and take steps to involve the victim as a more active participant.
Legal institutions can learn from the Church and consider a more active use of restorative justice where the victim can face their offender and see if healing can occur.
In the Church:
The Church needs to develop a robust theology of the victim. Neither Justice nor Forgiveness should be neglected.
The Church needs to allow the victim the time to lament and grieve their loss. (And be patient as the individual moves from victim to survivor.)
The Church can learn from the legal system by taking a more active role in pursuing justice for the victim. If the victim wants to pursue this or give an impact statement, they should find support, not discouragement.
Here are a few rights I believe we should intentionally extend to victims in our churches.
- The victims have a right to be respected and treated with dignity. However, we dare not forget that they are created in God’s image and treasured by Him.
- They have a right to be heard at a time, place, and pace that they choose. It is their story, not ours.
- They have the right to be heard without condemnation for their role in the incident. Too often, we treat the victim as if they were complicit. No one wants or deserves to be a victim. They should not have to defend or explain their actions that led to the harm.
- They have a right to be angry at the offender. Jesus taught there was a proper place for anger. There is righteous anger. We need to differentiate between normal and righteous anger. Sometimes anger is a necessary step in the healing process.
- They have a right to lament. There is a time to mourn a loss or injustice. To question why it happened and where God was in the process.
- They have a right to be comforted. There is a reasonable expectation that the Church should extend compassion without reservation or limit.
- They have the right to protection. The Church should be a refuge for victims of all kinds. Too often, Churches have counseled a woman to return to a dangerous marriage. The God who hates divorce hates spousal abuse as much or more.
- They have a right to pursue justice and restitution. We are big on forgiveness but fall short of supporting the individual’s pursuit of justice.
- They have a right to privacy and confidentiality, except for an expressed intent to harm themselves or others.
- They have the right to be seen, recognized, acknowledged, and heard. Jesus saw needy, hurting people, and he interacted with them. So should we.
As a nation and the people of God, we must never neglect the rights of the victims of crime or abuse.
The courts and the Church must prioritize victims’ rights and well-being before their reputations. The harm caused by these institutions cannot be ignored.
You can make a difference by asking your elected officials and Church leaders to engage in a continuing dialogue about the rights of victims.
I encourage you to sit down and wrestle with this issue for yourself. Please feel free to share this article with others.
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My mission is to help individuals and churches become safe havens for the broken.
*This updated and expanded article was initially published on August 2, 2021, and is the final concluding article in a three-part series.