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"Do Not Make Any Statements . . ."

May 18, 2011 — Categories: ,

This is the advice given by many insurance companies to clients who are churches or religious organizations when faced with a disclosure of abuse by one of their leaders. Frankly, it is advice that will very likely lead to lawsuits brought by survivors of abuse and to significant settlements paid out by insurers.

"Do not make any statements, orally, in writing or in any manner, to acknowledge, admit to or apologize for anything . . .”

This is the advice given by many insurance companies to clients who are churches or religious organizations when faced with a disclosure of abuse by one of their leaders. Frankly, it is advice that will very likely lead to lawsuits brought by survivors of abuse and to significant settlements paid out by insurers.

Fortunately, the people of Vienna Presbyterian Church in Virginia decided to trust their own hearts and minds and to be faithful to their values. In 2005, they discovered that their youth minister had violated sexual boundaries of students under his care. He resigned. The church was not initially responsive to the victims.

They recently revisited their response and, contrary to the advice of their insurance company, took a different approach. In a letter sent to members, they said:

"Members of Staff and of Session are profoundly sorry that VPC's response after the abuse was discovered was not always helpful to those entrusted to our care." In a subsequent sermon, Pastor Peter James went further, "We won't hide behind lawyers . . . Jesus said the truth will set us free."

I commend this congregation’s actions in support of those who were harmed by the youth minister. They are acting, not from a place of fear and an attempt to avoid liability, but from a place of faith and concern for the wellbeing of their members. They are doing the right thing.

If your faith community becomes aware that one of your leaders has violated boundaries and caused harm to congregants, you have two options: you can deny responsibility and hide behind your lawyers or you can accept responsibility, be open with your people, apologize to and provide for those who have been harmed.

In the first instance, you can expect to be sued by survivors and spend your resources on lawyers. You will increase your risk of landing in court and losing. In the second instance, you lower your risk of being sued, but, more importantly, you are free to respond to the needs of your congregation.

In the first instance, you contradict everything your faith community stands for and further betray the trust of your members. In the second, you maintain your integrity, are consistent with your values, and begin the process of restoring trust with your people.

The first option is a lose-lose proposition; the second is a win-win.

The choice is yours.

Rev. Dr. Marie M. Fortune
FaithTrust Institute
www.faithtrustinstitute.org

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lawyers and insurance companies

Posted by Alan Yost, SJ at May 19, 2011 05:12 PM
While I agree that in an ideal world this is the way things would work, and if they did, no doubt other religious communities would have discovered it and would be practicing it. The Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus, of which I am a member in good standing, and about which you wrote on April 8, tried this tack at first. We tried to apologize and to settle out of court with those who wanted recompensation. We were taken to cleaners. There are stories of people in Alaskan villages who made claims against us, and whom we trusted and paid, and then who were later discovered not to have been even born when the person they accused was in their village. I truly wish it were as you say. I know that the vast majority of the men in my province wish that as well. We want desperately to be true to our vocation of truth and justice. I'm delighted it worked for the Presbyterian church you mentioned. And I know that the opinions many of us have of lawyers has sunk to an all-time low because of what we've seen. But the world is just more complicated for most of us than this article suggests.
Blessings on your ministry.

Searching for the truth

Posted by Bruce Schiroo at Sep 15, 2011 01:22 PM
I think the guiding word here should be TRUTH. The church and the victim would both heal much quicker, if the leaders of the church would look for the truth and deal with it, instead of looking for a way to cover it up. I will however grant you that your church leaders should have checked if it was even possible for the person from Alaska to have been assaulted.