In Apologetics, Theology

In an article titled “Journeying into injustice: the National Redress Scheme and the Christian churches” (published in Life News in December 2018 and in Quadrant in June 2019), I exposed the injustices underlying the National Redress Scheme set up by the government to exact compensation from churches and other institutions for alleged victims of “historical” child sexual abuse. I also exposed how the “Safe Church Team” of a mainstream Christian denomination was not only endorsing, but also compounding those injustices, in direct opposition to the teachings of Holy Scripture.

As if in a race with the National Redress Scheme to see who can journey furthest into injustice, the Safe Church Team requires churches to withhold all information from a congregant who is accused of historical child sexual abuse. The accused person must not be told even that he is accused, let alone of what and by whom.

A pastor belonging of the Safe Church Team wrote an email (addressed not to me, but to another pastor, who forwarded it to me) criticising my article and defending the Team’s stance, in particular its insistence that an accused person be kept in the dark and thereby denied any opportunity to defend himself. This pastor, whom I will call “Pastor Scot”, states:

Andrew has quoted many scriptures. He has interestingly not quoted this one … that gives an interesting perspective on what is to happen if an allegation happens and there are no witnesses… (interesting biblical precedent for hearing the testimony of the victim, and apparently not of the accused – it was after all done “in the open country” – possibly we can say “in secret” – which of course is the situation for most acts of childhood sexual abuse – the scripture seems to indicate a preference be given to hearing the victim’s story, and believing it, and holding her to be innocent).

He goes on to quote Deuteronomy 22:25-26.

As I noted in my response to Pastor Scot, these two verses are part of a longer treatise on the fair trial of those accused, and the appropriate punishment of those convicted, of sexual sins/crimes. Verses 13-21 deal with the need for evidence (a term used 4 times in the 9 verses) before condemning to death a woman who is accused by her husband of having given her virginity to some other man when she was single. Verses 22-27 shift to the matter of adultery:

(22) If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman. … (23) If there is a betrothed virgin, and a man meets her in the city and lies with her, (24) then you shall bring them both out to the gate of that city, and you shall stone them to death with stones, the young woman because she did not cry for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife. … (25) But if in the open country a man meets a young woman who is betrothed, and the man seizes her and lies with her, then only the man who lay with her shall die. (26) But you shall do nothing to the young woman; she has committed no offense punishable by death. For this case is like that of a man attacking and murdering his neighbour, (27) because he met her in the open country, and though the betrothed young woman cried for help there was no one to rescue her. … (Deuteronomy 22:22-27, ESV; emphasis added)

According to Pastor Scot, verses 25 and 26 justify the Safe Church Team’s refusal to inform the accused or to consider his defence. He claims these verses provide an “interesting biblical precedent for hearing the testimony of the victim, and apparently not of the accused”. An archer who fires with his back to the target could not miss the mark more completely than Pastor Scot misses the meaning of this passage.

Note that Deuteronomy 22:25-27 is dealing with a crime that is known to have taken place. In stark contrast to the “historical” cases before the Redress Scheme, there is no uncertainty about the actual occurrence of the sinful/criminal act and no great lapse of time between the act and the trial. The man and the woman concerned “lay” together, and of that there is no doubt and no dispute: the evidence is in and it is conclusive. Most likely, not even the two themselves deny it.

However, while the evidence is settled concerning what happened, it remains to be determined why and how it happened. The question is, Was the woman a willing participant or was she forced? And the answer to this question will determine whether or not she is condemned along with him.

This is not a situation where a female complainant is facing off against a male defendant. The man and the woman are not on opposite sides of the dock. They are in the dock together, facing a common charge and a common fate. There are two accused persons in this situation, not one. The woman is on trial for her life every bit as much as the man. She is in real and present danger of being stoned to death for adultery.

So her testimony is not primarily the testimony of a victim, but of a suspected offender. She is testifying for the defence, not the prosecution. And the successful outcome of her testimony is not his conviction but her acquittal.

Yes, if the woman’s innocence is proven it will inevitably have the effect of also proving the man’s guilt concerning rape. But, nonetheless, that is not the first purpose of her testimony. Furthermore, to accept her testimony is not unsafe for the man, because it is already established that he committed a capital offence. Whatever the verdict regarding rape, the fact remains that, with or without consent, “he violated his neighbour’s wife” and is thereby condemned to death. So, if it is found that he did in fact force her, he will be doubly condemned, for rape as well as for adultery, but his punishment will remain unaltered, because he can only be executed once.

For the woman, however, the question of rape is crucial. She might yet be spared the death penalty if it can be established that she did not consent to the act, but rather was forced. Her life hangs on the answer to this question:

Was she willing or unwilling? If she was forced, she will be cleared of guilt and can walk free.

The elders are obliged to weigh up the evidence to determine if she was forced or not. To begin with, they will consider the evidence of the testimony of the woman herself. Next, they may cross-examine the man—and, feeling pity for her and knowing he is going to die anyway for the crime of violating another man’s wife, he may confirm the woman’s account. Failing that, they may pursue other avenues of proof.

They may ask witnesses about the physical and emotional state of the woman when she returned to the city after the rape: “She was distraught and it took us a long time to quieten her down.” They may hear reports from the women (midwives or elder’s wives?) who first examined and treated her: “She was clearly forced, because she is badly bruised and torn down there.” They may listen to a few of the many available witnesses who can testify to her character: “We have known her since she was a baby and she has always been chaste in her dress, speech and conduct.” And, of course, they will take into account circumstantial evidence such as that mentioned in the Deuteronomy passage: she was alone when she was “seized” by a man whose strength was far greater than hers and she was in an isolated place where her cries for help could not be heard or answered.

The elders will consider all such evidence by and about the accused woman before finding her “not guilty”, thereby exonerating her of adultery and rescuing her from stoning.

Contrary to Pastor Scot’s claim, Deuteronomy 22:25-26 does not support the idea that a court (or a Safe Church Team or a local church, for that matter) can hear the testimony of the victim without hearing the testimony of the accused. Nor does it support the notion that the accused can be condemned without a hearing on the strength of the testimony of the victim alone.

There are no exceptions to the principles of justice woven throughout the Bible.

And foremost among those principles are: the right to be heard (“Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” – John 7:51); the right to be heard without prejudice (“You shall not be partial to the poor or defer to the great, but in righteousness shall you judge your neighbour” – Leviticus 19:15); and the right to acquittal in the absence of corroborating testimony/evidence (“Every charge must be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” – 2 Corinthians 13:1).

The Safe Church Team’s determination to deny these biblical principles of justice to those accused of historical child sexual abuse is appalling. The churches should condemn such injustice, not comply with it.

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