The warning signs existed 30 years ago. Will we heed the call today?
About 30 years ago, attorney Richard Hammar sensed churches in the United States faced a crisis they did not realize existed, and if they did, they did not seem to take it seriously.
He believed the child sexual abuse scandals plaguing the Catholic Church at the time eventually would spill over into Protestant congregations across the country—if they hadn’t already.
Hammar set out to track this possibility, both through his work as general counsel for a large denomination, and as the cofounder of Church Law & Tax, which provides articles, resources, and training to church leaders on legal and risk management matters.
Over time, his worst fears were realized. And today, as allegations surface across the country seemingly every day, one can only imagine the devastating physical, emotional, and spiritual effects rendered on victims, their families, and their congregations.
One also wonders whether these damaging tolls could have been largely avoided had leaders responded to this threat when the warning signs said they should.
The question now is whether church leaders will respond to this crisis with the courage necessary to resolve it.
Will they take it upon themselves to minimize the risks of abuse in their faith communities? Will they do so with an eye toward seeing a day when few, if any, accusations surface because the safeguards they use prevent many, if not all, abusive acts from ever happening?
If not, then Protestant churches—and those entrusted to their care—likely face more needless pain and suffering in the years ahead.
The top legal threat facing churches
Throughout these past three decades, Hammar has read thousands of cases involving churches, religious organizations, and educational institutions. As he reviewed these cases, he carefully categorized each court decision. This allowed him to discern broader legal trends affecting churches.
Through this work, he created an annual ranking of the top five reasons churches and religious organizations go to court. Given our cultural and political climates, many might assume religious liberty concerns, employment lawsuits, or personal injury claims vied for the top spot.
But that was never really the case. It was allegations of child sexual abuse—nearly every year.
In response, Hammar developed Reducing the Risk: A Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Training Program. In time, he crafted—and to this day continues to refine—a multistep plan for combating abuse threats. Others have since joined the effort, ranging from denominations to major church insurers, and eventually nonprofits and businesses.
Yet the problem still has persisted year after year.
When I joined Hammar’s efforts in 2008, I witnessed firsthand the frustrations we experienced as we attempted to make comprehensive, effective training available for churches. Leaders I spoke with always said they believed the problem was real and worthy of addressing. But in my experience, there never seemed to be a momentum-shifter nationwide that would tilt that talk into specific, ongoing action on a widespread scale.
The media headlines detailing cases across the country are too numerous to describe here, but Church Law & Tax’s Legal Developments section on the topic paints a telling picture. Perhaps the pervasiveness of this problem, combined with the general public’s growing revulsion to it, will be that momentum-shifter.
As the Evangelical Council for Abuse Prevention and others tackle this important cause, raising awareness, educating leaders, and equipping them, it’s our prayer that more church leaders will see this crisis for what it is.
And it’s our prayer that they fully commit to meaningful, ongoing action, avoiding the same mistakes of indifference and inaction that their predecessors made 30 years ago.