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Sexual abuse by clergy: We need to confront these 10 harmful responses

sexual abuse by clergy focus

Some of the church’s responses to sexual abuse by clergy have startled me. But I was surprised by the reactions of non-churchgoers as well.

Maybe like me, you are reluctant to talk about the subject.

Perhaps, you fear that you will say the wrong thing and cause additional harm.

But people are openly talking about the issue. Everyone seems to have a hot take on the subject.

Sometimes these responses cause unintentional but significant harm to those within listening distance.

There are ten typical responses to allegations of sexual abuse by clergy that we must respectfully confront when we hear them.

7 Harmful responses to sexual abuse by clergy from those inside the church.

Unfortunately, I have heard the following seven statements in response to sexual abuse by clergy from within the church. I wish I could say this was a work of fiction. 

  • Well, I am not in favor of it.
  • That’s not an issue at our church.
  • They are trying to bring a good man down.
  • That’s all in the past.
  • We’ve handled the matter internally.
  • We need to focus on the mission of the church.
  • The alleged victim is after a financial settlement.

What in the world are they trying to say?  

  1. “Well, I am not in favor of it.” 

Using humor to change the subject or dismiss the severity of the harm done by the church is wrong. Making light of sexual abuse by clergy is never appropriate. I can’t believe that I even have to write that sentence. 

2. “That’s not an issue in our church.” 

Hopefully, it won’t be an issue. But pride always precedes a fall. Unfortunately, very few churches that have experienced sexual abuse by clergy saw it coming. Moreover, with the advent of non-disclosure agreements, many church members would be unaware that an incident or settlement had occurred at their location.  

3. “They are trying to bring a good man down.” 

Some will make excuses for the perpetrators because of the good they have accomplished. However, there is a difference between doing good things and being a good person. God help us if we are so blind that we can’t tell the difference.

4. “That’s all in the past.” 

Some will want to dismiss the allegation of abuse because it happened in the past. But most people understand that the justice system does not summarily dismiss legal consequences and punishment. Neither should the church. 

5. “We’ve handled the matter internally.” 

Unfortunately, too many churches fail to see the difference between moral failure and criminality. And the result is that the individual continues to break the law and hurt the innocent.

6. “We need to focus on the mission of the church.” 

Some will want to cover it up because they believe it tarnishes the reputation and effectiveness of the local church. However, one argument for the Bible’s genuineness is that God does not excuse his followers’ shortcomings. As a result, I can’t imagine God approving of a cover-up.

7. “The alleged victim is after a financial settlement.” 

Some will profess disbelief of any accusation, no matter how credible or numerous the sources are. But unfortunately, sometimes, the threat of a lawsuit is the only way to force a church to address the harm done by a minister in their employ. 

3 Harmful responses concerning sexual abuse by clergy from those who do not attend a church.

And I have heard the following damaging statements about sexual abuse by the clergy from people outside of the church. 

8. “Why are we surprised by sexual abuse from church leaders? They are a bunch of hypocrites.

The church and politicians are not the only places where hypocrisy exists. And I’m not ready to write off the majority of women and men who live up to what they believe because of a few who don’t.

9. “Ministry attracts narcissists who want to profit off of the vulnerability of others.” 

But not all people who are attracted to ministry have an ulterior motive. Some people are attracted to the vulnerable because they genuinely want to help. I am sure you have met a few of them.

10. “They ought to ban them from ministry and remove them from any form of leadership in the future.” 

It might surprise non-churchgoers that most current pastors believe that sexual abuse by clergy is a permanent disqualification from ministry leadership. However, this is probably not the answer that many expected.

Most current pastors (83%) believe the office of pastor is incompatible with having sexually abused or assaulted another,” said Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research. “This does not convey that they believe these behaviors are beyond God’s forgiveness, but a large majority believe sexual abuse is a permanent disqualification from ministry leadership.”

Here is some additional information that reflects the changing attitudes in churches toward sexual abuse by clergy.

Sexual abuse by clergy: And the survey says…

The 2019 Sexual Misconduct and Churchgoers Study conducted by Lifeway Research explored the perceptions and experiences of Protestant churchgoers.

The study found that if sexual misconduct allegations were made against a pastor, most churchgoers say they would want a careful investigation of the facts (75%) and the truth to be known (63%).

Half (51%) say they would want the alleged victim protected.

More than a third (38%) would want the police involved.

Fewer say they would like it dealt with quietly (15%), the pastor protected (14%), or would doubt the validity of the accusation (11%).


We need to carefully consider how we will respond when the subject of sexual abuse by clergy comes up.

Hopefully, this short article has helped you prepare for that moment.

If you like this article, check out Sexual Abuse and the Church: 21 Ways to help and not harm.

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