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Church Opens Up About Abuse: Lessons to Learn

By on Monday, April 4, 2011

The Washington Post ran an incredible front page story yesterday about Vienna Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia and the congregation’s struggle to deal with sexual, emotional and spiritual abuse of a dozen young girls by a youth minister.

The original abuse was uncovered when one survivor bravely came forward, but when another tried, she was rebuffed. The fact that the congregation had been previously warned about inappropriate contact with a minor by the abuser by another ministry when he was hired, should have sent off alarm bells when the first girl came forward and triggered a serious internal investigation. Even though their denomination offers a sexual abuse response team to work with churches, the congregation tried to keep things quiet.

Members of the congregation raised money for the abuser, allowed him to bid farewell to the youth group even after he was ousted for abuse, and wrote dozens of letters vouching for the abuser’s character to a court when the abuser was tried. The message their behavior sent abuse victims was stifling and hurt. Now six years after the abuse ended, the church is still struggling to move through this incident and wrestling with it.

Just like corporations and traditional nonprofit organizations that are not faith-based, churches can make similiar mis-steps when it comes to communicating during a crisis. By not confronting what happened honestly and openly, the church created an environment where they appeared to betray their most deeply held values and suffering festered.

A little over a week ago, Pastor Peter James delivered what was the most difficult sermon of his life and apologized to the victims in public, for the very first time. He said:

“We failed as leaders to extend the compassion and mercy that you needed. Some of you felt uncared for, neglected and even blamed for this abuse. I am sorry. The church is sorry.”

What can we, as communicators, learn from this church’s experience, in facing our own organizational crises?

1. Understand the extent of what happened. Don’t pretend to not see what happened, or brush off other concerns. This is the time to look around – eyes wide open. Look at the impact of the situation on the organization and understand how far things went. A bad situation will fester into a cancer that consumes your organization if you don’t.

2. Always be upfront and honest. Don’t try to hide a serious problem or “handle it” internally by keeping things quiet.

3. Ask for help. The church messed up in many ways by not involving people who understood abuse and how to deal with it within the context of a faith-based organization. They put the 15-year-old girl who came forward about his abuse of her sister, in the position of having to confront the abuser with her accusations – a painful and damaging situation. The church forced him to resign but waited a week to call child protective services (unconscionable). Had the church involved someone with training in handling abuse (such as their denomination’s response team that assists congregations in dealing with situations like this) they might have avoided some of their early mistakes.

4. Communicate clearly and honestly. Look at your actions large and small, and what they are saying.Tell people what happened and say you are sorry. In a situation like this, you want to extend compassion and support to those who were victimized. Understand how small actions contribute to overall communication – by writing letters vouching for the character of the abuser, helping him move, etc. – the congregation sent a very loud and accusatory message to those victims.

5. If you mess up, you can find a way forward. But it may be very difficult. Your response should be heartfelt and consistent with your values as an organization. Even if you don’t handle things well in a crisis the first time around, you can reach forward. The keys are owning up to what happened honestly and taking real-life steps to show you mean it when you say you’re sorry. The church has now set up a ministry to help abuse victims and is reaching out to own up to its mistakes.

Everyone wants to know what you think.

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