Feb 252014 4 Responses

Dealing With the Accused and the Accusers in a Small Community

An accusation is made. The town is small. Everyone knows everyone.

If true, it’s a deplorable action deserving severe punishment.

If false, it’s a tragic character assassination.

But until all the facts are known, what is a community to do?

You don’t want to stone the innocent.

But you also don’t want to empower the guilty.

And beyond a community, what is a community of faith supposed to do? How does grace change our interactions with both the accused and the accusers?

The church has a long tradition of getting this wrong. For years, people have been allowed to perpetuate evil in the midst of the faith community often under the blessing of a perverted definition of grace. At the same time, others have been banished from faith communities at the very moment in which they need them the most. And far too often, those with the courage to speak have been doubted, ostracized, and doubly-victimized not only by the perpetrator but also by the community. (See: 3 Ways to Protect Your Child from Sexual Abuse)

All of this is unacceptable.

So what do we do when an accusation is made?

1. We pray for the truth to be revealed. No matter the situation, we pray for the full exposure of truth so that we can handle the situation appropriately. While the truth is often difficult to find and very often uncomfortable to hear, it is our only hope for justice. As I’ve written before, you cannot heal until something is revealed.

2. We understand our responsibilities and the responsibilities of others. Legal authorities have a different task than common citizens. Parents have a different responsibility than friends. When an accusation is made, different people have different responsibilities. We should understand our role and play it. As a mandatory reporter, it is not my job to know if an accusation can be prosecuted or to make a judgment of the validity of the claim. It is only my job to report the information I have and allow others to do their job. (See: When a Baby Cries in a Restaurant, Rejoice)

3. We seek to support those involved without feeling the need to defend them. The greatest mistake people make when an accusation is made is to immediately pick a side, defend that side, and attack the other. It’s unnecessary and dangerous. Imagine defending someone guilty of child abuse. Imagine defending someone who falsely accuses another. The issues are too big for us to be wrong. We cannot jump to conclusions. Yet the people involved need and deserve support. We can support without defending. We support the right of someone to make a claim. We support the right of the accused to get a fair hearing. And instead of defending a side, we seek that the truth will be revealed.

Whenever we defend a side, not only is there a great danger that we could be wrong, we could also unknowingly hurt other victims. Anytime an accusation is made—true or false—other victims are watching. They are determining if it is worth it to let others know about what’s happening to them. Many victims remain quiet because society is quick to blame the victims instead of the perpetrators. For this reason, we should not attack accusers.

At the same time, we should not attack the accused. Making threats, demonizing people, or trying to intimidate the accused neither helps the judicial process nor prevents future abuse. Attacking the accused or the accusers is its own form of abuse. (See #6 of 7 Lessons Learned from a Crisis)

4. We should make wise choices based on the information we have. The presumption of innocence (or innocent until proven guilty) is a legal right. It’s an important American privilege. However, the presumption of innocence from a legal standpoint does not prevent individuals, families, and organizations from making necessary decisions. For instance, when someone is accused of child abuse, they are presumed legally innocent, but schools, churches, and parents should make wise choices regarding contact between the accused and children. The presumption of innocence does not prevent taking precautions in case the charges are true.

5. We should distinguish between inappropriate behavior and illegal behavior. Just because something is inappropriate doesn’t mean it is illegal; just because some is legal doesn’t mean it is appropriate. While the justice system only punishes illegal behavior, society has every right to impose negative consequences for those who chose to engage in inappropriate behavior. Even if a person doesn’t go to jail for an action, they might should lose their job. Even if they are found innocent of a charge, they might need to experience restrictions when dealing with a certain group of people.

6. We should apply, but never misunderstand, grace. The hard message of grace is that even if the accusation proves true, both the accuser and the accused should be offered grace. It’s hard to fathom and causes more people to dislike Jesus than they are willing to admit. Yet grace does not mean legal action shouldn’t be pursued. Grace doesn’t mean the absence of consequences after a serious mistake. Grace does not mean we pretend as though nothing happened. Grace is a gift of love in light of the truth. A murderer can be offered grace even as he goes to prison. An abuser can experience grace, even as he is never allowed around children again. Too often, members in a faith community cannot distinguish between God’s command to forgive with our need to protect those among us. (See: Love Doesn’t Always Feel Loving)

Thankfully, we live in a far different day than just a few decades ago. In the past, far too many evils have gone unreported—child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual harassment, physical abuse, etc. But today, what use to be kept in the dark is coming into the light. This change is a blessing because it provides victims a voice, allows offenders to be incarcerated, and limits the evil that can be done. Yet this new day comes with its own challenges. How does a community, especially a faith community, handle the accused and the accuser in the most fair way possible?

4 Responses to Dealing With the Accused and the Accusers in a Small Community
  1. dennyneff Reply

    You are right when you talk of evil being brought into the light. I lived in one of those dysfunctional families with the functioning alcoholic abusive dads. Image was everything, heaven help the family who didn’t outwardly say to the world “Everything is okay here”. A time when women and children were seen more as property where a husband/father could do anything short of murder. A time where… well you get my drift. Wonderful and wise advise. Always appreciate and am enlightened by your writing. Thank you

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