ELCA Strategy for Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Church

View statement online

Please Note: This is a historical document of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
and while it is still a useful, valid resource, references made to unit and staff names,
publications, financial figures, etc., may be out of date.
Please refer to www.elca.org/safeplace for the most current information.

INTRODUCTION
Sexual abuse in the church has been a matter of concern to the ELCA since it formed in
1988. The first churchwide assembly in 1989 passed a resolution on making the church a safe
place, free from sexual abuse and harassment (see Appendix B, p. 46). Synods, seminaries,
congregations, colleges, social ministry organizations and the churchwide expression have been
struggling with these issues since our beginnings. We have learned a great deal in these years.
What is now needed are ways for sharing our experiences throughout the church, broadening
and coordinating these efforts. To that end, the working group presents this strategy.

THEOLOGICAL REFLECTIONS
As a community of faith, the Lutheran church is shaped by the Word of God. Our faith is
focused in the Incarnation in Jesus Christ, his death and resurrection. Jesus is the revelation
which makes clear that law and gospel implicit in the Hebrew Bible and explicit in the New
Testament literature. We believe that God’s grace continues to be active in our lives today, as
God’s love heals and restores people even in the face of great damage and sin. God’s presence
with us in Word and Sacrament forms us into a community of shalom, a dynamic movement
toward justice and wholeness.
 
Because the church is to be a place for healing and justice, it must recognize, prevent, stop, and
heal sexual abuse. The members of this consultation have been appointed to research and
recommend ways this church can live out its calling, bear witness to God’s creative, redeeming
and sanctifying activity in the world. We are members of the ELCA who have heard the stories
of victims of sexual abuse by ordained ministers, who have worked with offending pastors and
the congregations which have experienced traumatic betrayals and conflicts due to sexual abuse.
…Only as the church sees this concern in light of the saving gospel will it deal
appropriately with the deep human hurt with powerful hope. The consultation calls this church
to engage in further theological reflection and dialogue related to sexual abuse.

POWER AND BOUNDARIES. Within the perspective of the community of faith, human
beings are valued as part of God’s vast good creation. God created the world by establishing
boundaries between the light and dark, the dry land and the wet sea, and between people and
other animals. Appropriate differences create the possibilities for the interactions and
interdependence, which give fullness to life with God and each other. Boundaries are the
structures which support the growth of the human and its appropriate intimacies and community.
Boundaries may be seen as personal, communal, spiritual, psychological, or physical. They are
signs of God’s design in and around us. They are indications that we are not merely material
stuff and processes, but always more, even when we are violated or violate. We are ethical and
spiritual at our very centers, as we are appropriately together and appropriately separate. …

LAW AND GOSPEL. The Lutheran perspective on law includes recognizing sin in all aspects
of life, even in religious places. It is only realistic, not unduly pessimistic, to notice that the
systemic forces of the world around us are twisted by sin. Brutalization and victimization can
occur in all human relationships, including those in the church. Even in biblical stories,
vulnerable individuals were not safe from abuse by the more powerful, including the priests. For
example, the sons of Eli used their priestly status to violate women at the entrance to the Ark.
Both they and their father were punished because of the sinful way they exercised their ministry
(1 Samuel 1-4). The Lutheran perspective on the law includes uncovering the lies and deceptions
perpetrated by trusted leaders in our communities. It includes being led, even by unlikely or
secular forces, to awareness of brokenness and violation. Luther’s use of the law included
recognition for whatever causes individual and social pain, and drives people to receive God’s
gracious power and rule.

Thus, the Spirit has awakened this church’s awareness of serious violations of God’s laws about
proper respect and care for the neighbor, proper care and stewardship of our sexuality, and
proper use of the authority of the ordained leadership of the church. Sin has been revealed. As
sin has been revealed, many of us have been made uncomfortable. This discomfort is positive, a
part of the necessary renewal of the church in this area. Brutalization and victimization can
occur in all relationships, including those in the church.

One form grace is taking in our church is the determined drive and sensitive care to bring light
and healing to bear on sexual abuse. …
 
God wills a human order which protects those who have been victimized and provides resources
for their healing.  …

A CALL TO THE CHURCH. We call the church, its pastors and lay members, its teaching
theologians and seminarians, its pastoral care specialists and victims of sexual abuses, to explore
in detail and depth, the resources of our faith and how they can enable us to respond, heal, and
prevent sexual abuse in the church. Specific ways to do this theological exploration need to be
devised as the church looks into the next several years of implementing this strategy. One
avenue is already opening as the Commission for Women plans to convene a theological
consultation about the church as called to be a safe place for victims of abuse.
 

ELEMENTS OF POLICY AND PROCEDURE RECOMMENDED FOR SYNOD RESPONSES TO
COMPLAINTS OF CLERGY SEXUAL ABUSE
In keeping with ELCA polity, the 1989 Church wide Assembly called upon each synod to create
policies and procedures to empower victims to report incidents of sexual abuse, provide healing
for victims, and safeguard the rights of those accused. Since that time, several synods have
developed such policies.

The material subsequently enumerated is offered to synods for guidance regarding essential
elements of policy as each synod works to develop policies that reflect its specific
circumstances and particular contexts for ministry. These essential elements can be viewed as a
sequence of steps that would normally be followed in responding to a specific complaint, while
recognizing that in applying any policy to a specific situation, some deviation in sequence may
be appropriate.

As part of a larger strategy for this church in all its expressions to deal with the problem of
sexual abuse, and especially sexual abuse committed by clergy, the Church Council of the
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America now calls upon each of the synods to review existing
policies and procedures and to develop policies that include each of the following elements:

EDUCATION, TRAINING, AND PREVENTION
Education and training are among the chief means of prevention. Therefore, educational events
and resources have a high priority for this strategy. The fact that almost all the estimated costs of
this strategy are related to education is an indicator of the seriousness of this projected work.

IMPLEMENTING THE STRATEGY

[To view the complete Strategy please click the above link, "View Online Statement."]

 

 

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