In Apologetics, Historic sexual abuse

A Safe Church Team pastor, whom I will call Pastor Scot, raised objections to my article, “Journeying into injustice: the National Redress Scheme and the Christian churches” (published in Life News in December 2018 and in Quadrant in June 2019). Given that his false claims and flawed arguments are the same as those the Safe Church Team is putting to the churches, I feel it is not only appropriate but also necessary to share part of my response to him.

Attempting to dismiss my concern that innocent people who are falsely accused of historical child sexual abuse will be unable to defend themselves under the unjust terms of both the Scheme and the Team, Pastor Scot claims, “In some cases a person may be accused and it may be seen that they have not been able to fairly answer the accusations brought against them. However, we should remember the redress scheme is about institutions, not individuals …”

It’s all “about institutions, not individuals”? Why, then, do the Safe Church documents (which presumably Pastor Scot himself had a part in drafting) state that the individual who is accused will not be informed of the accusation? Why do they say that the individual may be referred to the police for criminal charges? I venture to suggest that if Pastor Scot were to become the subject of an accusation-cum-claim under the Redress Scheme, he wouldn’t feel at all comforted by the sophistry that the Scheme is “about institutions, not individuals”. It would be of little comfort to him to hear someone from the Safe Church Team tell him not to take an accusation of child sexual abuse personally because the church will make redress on his behalf. In such a circumstance, I suggest, he would be far less blasé about whether or not he has been afforded the opportunity “to fairly answer” the accusation.

And notice the roundabout expressions Pastor Scot uses to cloud the issue: “In some cases a person may be accused and it may be seen that they have not been able to fairly answer the accusations …” (my emphasis). This cagey phrasing works to conceal the fact that in every case (referred by the Safe Church Team to a local church) a specific person actually is accused and he definitely will not be able to fairly answer the accusation (because the Safe Church Team will conceal from him the fact that he is accused).

Why does Pastor Scot fudge the issue in this way? If his position is so fair and godly, surely he should express it plainly: “Yes, the Safe Church Team is indeed determined to keep every accused person in the dark and thereby to deny him the right to defend himself—and we are proud of this stance and consider it necessary because …” Could it be that he refuses such plain speaking because he is aware that this position is disgraceful, and that he is further aware that such plain speaking would result in the churches waking up to the fact that they have been duped by the Safe Church Team into entering a Scheme that fundamentally betrays basic principles of justice?

I should note that the egregious injustice of denying the accused even the knowledge of his being accused is, in fact, the express and sole doing of the Safe Church Team. Even the Redress Scheme does not stoop that low.

Pastor Scot continues, “the person is not being accused in the same way as if it was a criminal trial or civil case.”

Note that Pastor Scot refers to “the person” who is “being accused”. Again, this contradicts his claim that the Redress Scheme is not about individuals. He can’t get away from the reality that the Scheme is about individuals every bit as much as about institutions. And while the Scheme appears to offer protection (by capping claims at $150,000) to churches, it offers no protection (civil, criminal or “simply” reputational) to individuals within the church. So much for the claim that “the redress scheme is about institutions, not individuals”. In fact, the Redress Scheme is about both institutions and individuals. A church can protect itself by making a redress payment. However, the accused congregant is not protected by the payment, but is rather betrayed and endangered by it.

But to backtrack to the assertion that “the person is not being accused in the same way as if it was a criminal trial or civil case”: This is both a foolish and a false statement.

It is foolish because it tries to say that there are different types of accusation, when in fact there is only the one type, the type that says, “You did this!” And, in our context, the “this” refers to the vilest thing imaginable: “You sexually abused a child.” In one sense, who cares whether such an allegation leads to a criminal or civil trial? The horror of being falsely accused of such a thing—not to mention the horror of having denominational and church leaders accept the accusation without evidence—is almost unimaginable. And the harmful consequences are far reaching—“you” will be viewed with suspicion for the rest of your life, your relationships with friends and relatives will be broken, your position in the church will be destroyed, your ability to be around even your own children and grandchildren will be ruined. It is foolish to pretend that an accusation of child sexual abuse is no big deal if it doesn’t result in criminal or civil action.

However, the statement is more than wickedly foolish—it is blatantly false. For Pastor Scot himself notes that an accused person could be referred on for criminal prosecution. (More on this below.)

Again, Pastor Scot states, “This means the onus of proof – whilst there are checks and balances in place – is not as high. It also means the person is not guilty of a crime – even though the institution may be called up on to provide redress.”

Yes, indeed, “the onus of proof … is not as high”. Pastor Scot’s understatement is disarming. The alarming thing is that he has some detailed understanding of just how low the Scheme’s standards of proof are, and he is not alarmed by it.

Continuing to justify the appallingly low standard of proof that the Scheme will operate under (and the even lower standard that the Safe Church Team will operate under, vis-à-vis keeping the accused in the dark), Pastor Scot says, “It also means the person is not guilty of a crime”.

But (again) doesn’t Pastor Scot say that an accused person could be referred on to the police for potential criminal prosecution? The truth is that churches who participate in the Scheme potentially place an accused member of their congregation at enormous risk. They prejudice that person’s chance of justice in civil or criminal court by paying compensation and making an apology, both of which, as Professor Zimmermann has said, will likely be viewed by police, judiciary and juries as an admission of guilt.

It cannot be stressed enough that church participation in the Scheme and payment of up to $150,000 compensation does not eliminate the possibility of civil action against the accused pastor or deacon or Sunday School teacher: it only protects, for the time being, the church itself from civil action. Indeed, churches who make payments on behalf of (though without the knowledge or consent of) accused individuals actually increase the likelihood of civil action against those accused individuals. For what could embolden an accuser more than having “won” his case before the Scheme? Why wouldn’t this cashed-up and “vindicated” accuser try his luck for yet bigger bucks in civil court?

On another tack: If you re-read Pastor Scot’s words above, you will see two curious notions of justice: (1) “a person is not guilty of a crime” if he isn’t charged with the crime and (2) an institution may be compelled to pay for a crime for which its accused member is not guilty.

Pastor Scot continues, “If accusations are made against a person and they are deemed serious enough, then the police will act by instigating a criminal trial …”

What a vile contradiction! Pastor Scot begins by saying that “the person is not being accused in the same way as if it was a criminal trial or civil case,” and ends by saying that the accused person could be referred for criminal investigation and trial.

Further, Pastor Scot gives the impression that there is some neutral, passive process that might lead to a police investigation. In actual fact, there will only be a police investigation if either the Redress Scheme or the Safe Church Team take the accusations to the police—accusations which they have not investigated fairly because they have not even spoken to the accused person. (Note: While the Redress Scheme apparently will not bother to interview the accused person, the Safe Church Team expressly forbids such an interview.)

Pastor Scot states, “Sure, there may be some stories that are unverified. This does not mean things did not occur.”

It is the glib dismissal of the rights of the accused, and in particular the offhanded lack of compassion for the innocent accused, that I find most distressing about Pastor Scot’s position. “Sure, there may be stories that are unverified …” If we expressed his sentiments less obliquely and less casually, they would go something like this: Certainly, there may be individuals who are subjected to false allegations, and those false allegations may be accepted with little or no supporting evidence, but don’t fret, because individuals must be sacrificed for the Greater Good, which is determined by those of us who burn with the Greater Selective Compassion. This is socialist “justice”, and it is fiercely opposed by every precept of biblical justice.

Justice that is true—the justice that God reveals and commands in his word, the Bible—never sacrifices the individual for the collective, never says that we can do evil to achieve good, never says an innocent victim is more valuable than an innocent accused, never even says that a guilty accused can be condemned without just process.

In this fallen world, we cannot always get justice, but we can at least always refuse to perpetrate injustice. You do not address the abuse of an innocent child by convicting an innocent adult of that abuse.

While it is grievous when a genuine victim fails to obtain justice in court, it is even more grievous when an innocent defendant is subjected to injustice by the court. And we know that the latter is more grievous, because God absolutely refuses to allow us to judge a person as guilty unless and until due processes are followed to ensure a just judgment. Let me state this plainly: It is evident from the biblical teaching on justice that, if a verdict cannot be justly reached in a human court, God would rather a guilty person be acquitted than an innocent person be convicted. And this is not because he is either insensitive to the hurt of the victim or unaware of the guilt of the perpetrator: it is because justice cannot be meted out by injustice, nor can the hurt of an innocent victim be healed by inflicting hurt on an innocent suspect.

Furthermore, while the court had no control over what happened to the victim, it does have control over what happens to the accused. It can and must ensure that injustice of one sort is not compounded by injustice of another sort. The court’s first concern is to ensure that an innocent person is not convicted (if this were not so, there would be no need for a trial at all because the accusation itself would be sufficient to condemn the accused). The court’s second concern is to ensure that a guilty person is convicted. Justice for the victim is achieved (if it can be achieved) through the court’s balanced pursuit of these two concerns.

Still, to be clear, I never said that accusations that are unverified are thereby untrue. I have simply argued that an accusation needs to be verified before the accused is judged guilty, and that if an accusation cannot be verified, then it should not be acted upon in terms of civil penalty or criminal punishment.

Pastor Scot states, “Studies indicate that many don’t disclose abuse until many years after it has occurred, and some people never disclose.”

Yes, it is apparently true that some people don’t disclose that they have been abused for some considerable time after the abuse has occurred. And I will return to this fact in a moment.

However, we would be naïve to uncritically accept every delayed claim of abuse. A person who falsely claims that he is a “survivor” of abuse can play upon the widely held supposition that survivors take years to speak up. No one will challenge him about his 10-, 20-, 30- or 40-year silence, because everyone knows … On the contrary, everyone will praise him for his “courage” in finally coming forward. (Perversely, commentators and advocates of various sorts will even cite a decades-long delay in reporting abuse as decisive evidence of the abuse itself: it must be true because he has agonised over it for 19 years—can you imagine!—before he managed to find the courage to speak out!) And because everyone understands that the supposed passage of time makes it nigh impossible to prove his accusation, he will not be expected to present solid proof. His story and his accusation will be enough—enough to get him a redress payment, or a commendation for “bravery” and an official status as “survivor”, or a moment of fame in the media, or a satisfying guilty verdict against someone he’s got it in for, or a valiant blow against those bastions of the patriarchy, Christian churches and traditional families. There is a lot to be gained from false allegations of historical child sexual abuse and little likelihood of discovery—and less likelihood of punishment in the event of discovery.

By the way, be on the lookout for that tell-tale epithet, “historical”. The next time you hear or read a news item about someone accused of historical child sexual abuse or historical sexual assault, be cautious. Be mindful that this newly-minted and innocuous-sounding descriptor for sexual crimes often (though not always) both flags and hides the fact that the authorities have little or no evidence against the accused other than the say-so of the accuser. And be merciful, knowing that the accused stands almost no chance of a fair trial or a just outcome in either the court of law or the court of public opinion. Pray, even, for mercy’s sake, that he is actually guilty, so that the ruin that is surely coming upon him might in fact be deserved.

Pastor Scot is a little too dogmatic when he claims that “some people never disclose” abuse. I think this is probably true, but it is something that is unproven and unprovable. We can only make deductions and assumption to that effect. For, logically, abuse that is undisclosed is unknown; and given that it is unknown, it cannot be said for certain that it is undisclosed.

Many supposed “professionals” and “experts” massively inflate the figures of child sexual abuse in this way. Yes, they say earnestly, our figures are just the tip of the iceberg—90% of cases go unreported! Really? How do you know that, since they are unreported? And if you don’t know of a single one of these unknown (ie, unreported) cases, how can you know that there are so many more that you don’t know about? And even if we assume (no doubt with some justification) that there are indeed unreported cases, why assume that they constitute 90% of all cases? Why not 59%, or 19% or, since we are pulling invisible numbers out of an invisible hat, 5%. Of course, these professionals “know” that verified cases represent only 10% of cases because they “know” that 20-33% of children are sexually abused—and (wait for it) they “know” that 20-33% of children are abused because they “know” that 90% of abuse cases are unreported/undisclosed. It’s called circular reasoning. It could also be called (depending on the intelligence and/or motives of those who make these claims) idiocy or lying.

With regard to crimes involving the sexual abuse of children and the sexual assault of women, society in recent years has taken a dreadful turn towards injustice. In the noble hope of attaining justice for victims of such crimes, advocacy groups and lawmakers have embarked on the ignoble process of dismantling our longstanding, biblically-inspired legal practices. They have overturned, or are attempting (like the Royal Commission and the Redress Scheme) to overturn, basic tenets of natural justice and due process of law by (among other things) abandoning the presumption of innocence, shifting the onus of proof, lowering the standard of proof and removing the statute of limitations.

This is a wrong and unsafe path to take, and Christians should not support it. A better path, I think, would be to introduce and inculcate the following two principles into the minds of all people in the community at large. Firstly, concerning child sexual abuse and female sexual assault, justice cannot always be done, and it can hardly ever be done if the crime goes unreported for a long time. Therefore, secondly, it is imperative that you report such crimes as soon as possible after experiencing them: indeed, if you do not report them before the statute of limitations expires (after, say, seven years), we will not be able to prosecute them at all.

Pastor Scot states, “Andrew’s focus seems to be on protecting the accused. This is not an unworthy goal.”

Yes, that is a good part of my focus, and I appreciate Pastor Scot’s acknowledgement that this is a worthy (or, at least, not an unworthy) goal. However, my focus is wider than that. I am concerned to uphold the biblical principles of justice that protect every one of us in our society. Also, I am concerned that involvement in the Scheme will endanger our churches in various ways, and that it will bolster the false notion that child sexual abuse has been rampant (1 in 4 or 1 in 5 children) in Bible-believing, evangelical churches with regenerate memberships.

I would note that the Safe Church Team’s focus is on protecting those who have been abused. And, without cynicism or reservation, I would further note that this is a worthy focus. While I disagree with many assumptions about the magnitude of the problem and the way in which to address it, I entirely agree that some children have been abused in the nation’s institutions (churches included), and that that abuse is profoundly evil, and that those guilty of it ought to be severely punished.

But in saying this I am simply saying what millions are saying. The Royal Commissioners, the media, the Government, the Opposition, the political parties, the welfare lobbies, the churches, the general population—all say the same thing and feel the same way. And the Safe Church Team has joined this populist movement, safely singing all the same words to the same tunes.

But this is the problem. Everyone feels so virtuous and so certain and so united in their convictions and concerns that (virtually) no one is questioning anything anymore. Everyone agrees that … Everyone knows that … But do we truly know? Should we so readily and completely agree? I suggest that much of the received wisdom is in fact foolishness, and I further suggest that much of the agreement is feel-good and mindless conformity.

Anyway, I do not need to add my voice to the great consensus choir. Singing along or staying silent is neither here nor there. I don’t need to speak in support of the abused because they already have all the support they need.

But who will speak in support of those who are accused? Who will show the same sort of indignation and sympathy for the innocent victims of judicial abuse as is being shown for the innocent victims of sexual abuse? Who dare to be unpopular and even risk danger by crying Injustice! on their behalf? There ought to be a voice or two expressing caution and standing up for the God-given rights of the accused. And there ought to be great outrage and great sorrow at the prospect of an innocent person being wrongfully convicted and punished.

The problem with the Redress Scheme’s and the Safe Church Team’s position is that it seeks to get redress for those who claim to have been abused with scant regard for the legal principles that protect the innocent. Unless it arises from conformity to populist notions and/or eagerness to virtue-signal, I don’t understand how the Safe Church Team can profess such deep concern for justice for the innocent abused and yet display such unconcern for justice for the innocent accused.

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