A pastor is counseling a couple in his congregation. In the course of the session it’s revealed that the husband has sexually abused his 12-year-old daughter. He admits his sin. He recognizes it was wrong. It happened three months ago and he hasn’t done anything since. He seems crushed. He cries. He promises never to do it again. The pastor applies the gospel and assures him that Christ paid for his sin of sexually abusing his daughter.
But now what does the pastor do? Does he report the man to Child Protective Services or law enforcement? Does he encourage the man to turn himself in, maybe offer to go with him to the proper authorities? Everyone in the room knows the consequences of such actions. The man will be arrested and charged with child sexual abuse. The family will be torn apart. He is the main provider in the family. They are trying to work out their problems as a family and have made some progress. Besides, he has been an active member of the congregation for many years.
There are a number of factors the pastor has to consider as the spiritual leader of this couple and congregation. First, what does the law say? In most states, members of the clergy are mandated reporters in cases of child abuse and neglect. For example, Wisconsin Statute 48.981(bm) states:
Except as provided in subd. 3. and subs. (2m) and (2r), a member of the clergy shall report as provided in sub. (3) if the member of the clergy has reasonable cause to suspect that a child seen by the member of the clergy in the course of his or her professional duties: Has been abused, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ); or Has been threatened with abuse, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ), and abuse of the child will likely occur.Except as provided in subd. 3. and subs. (2m) and (2r), a member of the clergy shall report as provided in sub. (3) if the member of the clergy has reasonable cause, based on observations made or information that he or she receives, to suspect that a member of the clergy has done any of the following:Abused a child, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ). Threatened a child with abuse, as defined in s. 48.02 (1) (b) to (f ), and abuse of the child will likely occur.
This statute makes it clear that in the State of Wisconsin members of the clergy are mandated reporters of child abuse. It says, “A member of the clergy shall report.” But what is often confusing to many pastors is what is stated in point 3 of this same document:
A member of the clergy is not required to report child abuse information under subd. 1. or 2. that he or she receives solely through confidential communications made to him or her privately or in a confessional setting if he or she is authorized to hear or is accustomed to hearing such communications and, under the disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion, has a duty or is expected to keep those communications secret. Those disciplines, tenets, or traditions need not be in writing.
At first reading we may conclude that this “exception” applies to WELS pastors and that we are not mandated reporters. But let’s take a closer look at what this document says. It states that members of the clergy are not required to reveal “confidential communications” received in a “confessional setting” if the “disciplines, tenets, or traditions of their religion” expect those to be kept a secret.
This leads us to ask the question, “Does Scripture teach what this law describes? Can we say that ‘confidential communication received in a confessional setting in our ministry must be kept a secret’ is a tenet of our religion?” There is no doubt God’s Word instructs us to keep a confidence. It also warns us about spreading false rumors about others. The apostle Paul (1 Tim 5:13) and the book of Proverbs (Prov 11:13) both warn against gossiping. Pastor and people alike are to honor the Eighth Commandment. As Luther explained it in his Small Catechism: “We should fear and love God that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him or give him a bad name, but defend him, speak well of him and take his words and actions in the kindest possible way.” In general, a pastor needs to hold in confidence what is confessed to him. On the negative side, a pastor who shares private information about his members will soon lose the confidence of his people.
In all of this, though, it is important to remember that the reason why God instructs us to keep a confidence and not gossip about others is to protect that person’s reputation from needless and in some cases unfounded accusations. However, the Eighth Commandment does not protect perpetrators of child abuse from facing the consequences of their sin. Keeping a confidence is not an absolute, especially when others are being harmed or may be hurt. God looks at our motive for breaking a confidence. If it is to hurt the person’s good name, it is sinful. But if is done to help that person or protect another from harm, then our motive is God-pleaseing. So while Scriptures does teach a doctrine of keeping a confidence, it does not teach a doctrine of confidential or privileged communication as defined by the law. It doesn’t compel us to keep secret everything that is confessed to us in private. Keeping a confidence has its limitations.
Another teaching of Scripture where the doctrine of keeping a confidence plays a part is Christian admonition. When someone sins against us, Jesus instructs us to confront the person privately at first—“just between the two of you.” Here again, confidentiality is not presented in an absolute sense. If the person doesn’t listen to our admonition, we bring others into the mix. Finally, we make the sin of an impenitent sinner known to the entire congregation. We do not keep this sin a secret because that would not be in the best interests of the sinner.1 So it is with perpetrators of child abuse. It is not in the best interests of the sinner to keep the sin a secret. He or she needs help to avoid this sin in the future. This person needs to bring forth fruits of repentance which means doing all he or she can to avoid that sin in the future and help the person who was sinned against.
Keeping the sin a secret does not help the person who was abused, either. Even though that person’s life may go from bad to worse in the near future, he or she will be spared future abuse at the hands of this perpetrator. This person also can begin to go down the long road toward healing.
So it is clear that nowhere in the doctrines of Christian admonition, the ministry of the keys, or the Eighth Commandment does Scripture teach a doctrine of confidential or privileged communication as defined in Wisconsin law. This means that in Wisconsin and other states with similar laws WELS pastors are mandated reporters of child abuse. (You can check the law in your state childwelfare.gov/topics/systemwide/laws-policies/state/ and should consult your District President.)
Legal counsel would concur with this understanding. Victor Vieth is a former prosecuting attorney in child abuse cases. He presently serves as the national director for the National Child Protection Training Center. He is a frequent speaker on child abuse and his legal counsel is sought on various levels of government. He is also a WELS member. In an email communication with this writer he stated,
First, a pastor is only protected from a criminal prosecution (or a lawsuit for that matter) if the information about abuse is received “solely through confidential communications in a confessional setting.” In other words, if the pastor learns of the abuse from the victim or another source or sees obvious signs of abuse, he would be still be required to report, though not necessarily required to report what he heard in the confessional. Second, the pastor must also be withholding the information obtained from the confessional pursuant to the “disciplines, tenets, or traditions of his or her religion.” I am not aware of a Wisconsin Synod Creed (much less a scriptural creed) that requires a pastor to keep confidential the confession of a child molester, particularly when keeping the confidence will likely cause ongoing harm to children.
However, there is a more compelling reason than compliance with civil law why we as pastors should report cases of child abuse or neg lect. This is what God would have us do. In our circles we have given much attention to Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:15-18. Yet what we often overlook is that Matthew 18 also includes verse 6 where Jesus warns, “If anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.” The biblical text uses the verb skandalivzw which means to “cause to stumble, give offense or scandal to someone.” Child abuse causes children to stumble in the faith in many ways. Later in life it can trigger sinful behavior such as substance abuse and promiscuity as the person looks for ways to cope with the painful memories. It often confuses the person spiritually and theologically: “If there is a God, why didn’t he help me? If God promises to answer our prayers, then why didn’t he stop my abuse? I prayed about it many times.” Just consider how difficult it can be for a person who has suffered abuse to pray the Lord’s Prayer:
- Our Father in heaven—“My biological father abused me. I struggle to call God ‘Father.’”
- Your will be done—“Was it really God’s will that my relative abuse me? And if it wasn’t his will, then why didn’t he stop it?”
- Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us—“Do I really have to forgive this person for hurting me? I am not sure I can do that. Does that then mean I am not forgiven?”
- Lead us not into temptation—“Am I really at fault for this abuse? Am I really the one who tempted my abuser? That is what this person kept telling me.”
- Deliver us from evil—“Why didn’t God deliver me from this evil?”
These are only a few examples that demonstrate how child abuse can cause children to stumble in their faith.
Some pastors resent, even reject, the idea that they are mandated reporters of child abuse. Instead we as pastors should thank God for this law and embrace it. This law reflects God’s Word. This law tells us to do what God would have us do. Jesus cared deeply for children, even as he cared for all. Jesus recognized that children were valuable and vulnerable. That is why he spoke the strong warning in Matthew 18:6.
Dealing with cases of child abuse is difficult. The situation can be complex and we are not always sure what we should do. Seeking the advice of a professional is wise. But as we work through these challenging matters, let’s not only show concern for the spiritual welfare of the abuser and lead that person to repentance. Let’s show equal concern for the child who was abused. Through no fault of their own, this child was the victim of a sin. Remember, Matthew 18 also includes verse 6.