Abuse: confidentiality, reporting, and the pastor's role

The church has a responsibility to cope with the problems of abuse.

Alberta Mazat is a retired professor of marriage and family therapy, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

As Christians we are distressed at the increasing reports of family abuse and violence. And we should be! As members of God's family, we must take seriously His com mission to love one another.

But when we become aware of violence in our own church family, we are doubly saddened. We recall the words of Scripture that our loving interactions can demonstrate to the world that we are truly followers of Christ (see John 13:35). Any type of cruelty, battering, whipping, hitting, pounding, kicking, and sexual abuse is never the result of loving interaction. When churches are not sufficiently concerned to protect the victims or to help people control their evil passions that bring about violence in families, what a sad message that sends.

What should we do about violence and abuse? Should our parsonages be open to needless disgrace? Ought we to dismiss what's going on in families as private matters and ignore them? Should pastors hide behind confidentiality and not report instances of abuse? What should the church do?

The pastor and confidentiality

Confidentiality is an important factor in the counseling relationship between the helper and the one seeking help. It binds the therapist to respect the privacy of clients and to keep in confidence any information obtained in the course of their appointments. It is in tended for the client's benefit. To be able to discuss one's problems in a confidential atmosphere is important in bringing help. Hurting people do not wish parts of their life experiences to become common knowledge. When this ethical concept is ignored, it can bring negative results, such as painful embarrassment, loss of trust, broken relationships, and wreckage of life plans. Clergy of many faiths have long held the ethic of pastoral confidentiality.

When those seeking help are talking about personal problems that do not involve others directly, this poses no problem. However, when the situation involves abuse and violence, we have a dilemma. For example, we have received information about family abuse and violence. Should we report this to appropriate legal authorities? Does this information call for a different treatment on the part of the pastor? If pastors receive reports about a member's plan to hurt himself or herself or others, should they maintain silence in the name of confidentiality?

Should someone be warned if an arsonist mentions a plan for leveling a part of our national forest or blowing up a bridge during rush hour? Should one seek steps to deter a desperate AIDS victim from having unprotected sex? What about a client who exhibits a receipt for a gun just purchased to commit a crime or to settle a score?

What about the persons who are victims of such crime? Do they have rights too--the right to expect our intervention, our protection? Whose right takes precedence?

Take the case of a helpless child victimized by a family member or a teacher or a church worker. Is it questionable to report this abuse to authorities who have the power to protect the victim, and to set in action forces that can be redemptive not only for the victim but also for the perpetrator?

When confidentiality becomes the means of keeping in bondage even for one more day a person undergoing harmful and illegal exploitation, it is no longer serving its purpose. It must be replaced by a carefully thought-out program that can deal effectively with the behaviors of those who are involved. Many times the abusers are average persons we know and care about. Sometimes in reporting such abusers we may feel we are "let ting down" these friends. But what we must realize is that with appropriate therapy, they could be helped. Abusers who have received counseling and therapy have gone on record that their own lives and those of their families were far better and happier after disclosure and therapy than before.

Sometimes the initial response of the abuse perpetrator to any suggestion of disclosure is anger, a sense of betrayal, and an urge to give the pastor/counselor a guilt trip. With time the abuser may be able to admit that the lives of the entire family have benefited, and express gratitude for disclosure and for making help mandatory. Of course there will always be some who will be in denial, who will make excuses for their behavior and seek to justify their actions. These are the people who need intensive therapy the most. They are not amenable to a few sessions of feigned remorse and glib promises. Too many pastors trusting a "quick cure" have found out later that the victims are still victims, many times having been moved to a new setting where there is no record of the crime.

Who must report?

Every state now has laws that make it mandatory for a person in a counseling/therapy/medical/teaching role to report evidence or suspicion of abuse. In some cases clergy are exempted, which often brings a sigh of relief that this difficult task is not expected of them. But let the clergy take heed.

When, in the course of their ministerial duties, pastors assume the role of a counselor to a victim of abuse, they are mandated to report.

Marie Fortune states: "Confidentiality was never intended to be merely keeping of secrets. Nor was it ever in tended to protect offenders from the consequences of their behaviors. Clergy who interpret confidentiality in this way are enabling the offender to continue offending."1 David Delaplane, a pastor on the Clergy Advisory Board of the California Consortium to Prevent Child Abuse, says: "Regardless of the fact that in penitential communication clergy are legally exempt, they are never morally exempt from reporting to protect the abused child. The highest mandate of all faith bodies is to care for and protect the children."2

Nothing is surer than this: Violence will continue if it is not stopped by a strong legal force outside the family. Offenders need specialized treatment, which is most effective when the courts are involved to order, monitor, and evaluate the progress. Accountability must be built into the process. Only with this type of procedure can we communicate to the perpetrator this message: "What you are doing is very wrong. We will not allow you to continue this abusive behavior." When pastors communicate this kind of message, they are saying to the offending parishioner: "Your church cares enough about you to hold you ac countable for behavior that is destructive both to you and your family. We wish to be agents of help, not suppression."3

The role of the minister

What can a minister to do to help those who are hurting and suffering be cause of abuse?

Believe the victim's account. Some times pastors do not want to take abuse seriously, because of the possibility that the report could be false. One representative study found that only about 8 percent of cases reported turned out to be fictitious accounts. In most of these cases the trained, experienced therapist was able to recognize the falsity of the accusations. To discredit 92 percent of true cases because of concern for the 8 percent seems hardly desirable.

Take the complaint seriously. It takes much courage for an abused and hurting person to come to the pastor. In taking such a step, victims often risk further harm. Far too often in the past, the clergy have not been helpful in these situations simply because they did not know how to intervene. They felt it was improper to break confidentiality. Yet they were not themselves trained to counsel their parishioners effectively in these problems. Sometimes they have not realized that counseling the perpetrator alone is not effective in bringing about change.

Don't start giving glib advice. Pas tors often tend to limit their role to simple words of advice, such as "Pray more"; "Be a better wife/child"; "Bear your load with Christian grace"; "I'll talk to him; things will be better." But things will not be better.

An abuser does not quit simply be cause a pastor had chosen to advise. Indeed, such an approach may leave the victim and the concerned family members in a disheartened and hope less situation. They have already prayed long and earnestly. They have already done everything they could to be deferential, even abject, and the situation has not improved. They may feel powerless, hopeless.

Recognize that abuse is against the marriage vow.

Sometimes pastors, with a view to prevent divorce and maintain the sanctity of marriage, work hard to bring couples together, even though one of the partners has been subject to continual physical and sexual abuse. Marriage is indeed sacred. But the sacredness is already broken, the marriage covenant is already shattered by the abusive relationship and the suffering the spouse has endured. Does the argument of permanency in marriage justify battering a spouse? Abuse of a spouse is the abuse of the marriage itself, and the home is already "broken up." The marriage covenant is also broken when acts of deviance take place. The wife will not be mending the family by staying indefinitely with a battering/abusive situation that affects the entire family. Sometimes the best way to preserve the family is to call a halt to the abuse by separation. This demands a realization on the part of such perpetrators that they are being given responsibility for their behavior, and that change on their part is mandatory. If they continue to shift the responsibility onto others, promises to change create only false hope.

Don't promise the abuser absolute confidentiality. Pastors working with abusers should not promise absolute confidentiality. They should not make such statements as "Nothing you say will ever be spoken of outside this room. You can trust me to keep our conversations strictly private." Few people ask for this type of a statement. Sometimes it is proffered by the counselor in an attempt to enable the discussion of personal details. But the relationship that the counselor builds with concepts such as careful listening, empathetic regard, nonjudgmentalism, and acceptance will do more to encourage beneficial disclosure than sweeping assurances of confidentiality. The following statement would be more appropriate: "We will work together to bring help and healing to your problem. I don't wish to belittle your problem by working beyond my abilities as a minister. Sometimes we may need the assistance of another's expertise to fill in the gaps. But I will always be available for spiritual guidance and support for you and your family. I'll stay by you." Spiritual guidance and support are exactly what ministers are best at and what they are trained for.

The role of the church

The church should not expect pastors to deal with these difficult situations alone. It is not their primary job. Plans should be made in advance to guide the process. A small committee of about three members could be formed. These may be chosen from professionals in the church: nurses, doctors, social workers, counselor/therapists, or psychologists. This committee could meet in advance to form guidelines as to what steps should be taken if abuse problems came to light. They may want to give immediate study to the reporting laws and the means of reporting in their community. They could outline guidelines for the confrontation procedures that should be adopted.

Plans for crisis intervention, awareness of local shelters, and provisions for emergency assistance to victims should be part of the church strategy. The perpetrator also may be in need of help.

Prevention is better. In cooperation with other church members with special skills, workshops or seminars could provide education as to what violence consists of and how to recognize it. There should also be an emphasis on programs to aid in avoiding abuse. Included should be such topics as youth and dating, premarital counseling, parenting classes, and marriage enrichment opportunities. Seminars on conflict resolution, social skills, communication, and problem solving would be helpful. A congregation would more likely take advantage of all of these opportunities if they were presented to them, not only as a challenge to their personal growth enrichment, but in the context of meeting a real need.

This combined knowledge could be the means of alleviating some of the social stresses that often are associated with abuse and violence. Prevention of family violence should be a high priority in all our churches.

1 Marie M. Fortune, Violence in the Family
(Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1991), p. 208.

2 In Fortune.

3 Anne Horton and Judith Williamson, Abuse
and Religion (New York, Macmillan Pub. Co.,
1988), pp. 166, 167.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Alberta Mazat is a retired professor of marriage and family therapy, Loma Linda University, Loma Linda, California.

November 1995

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