How should Christians respond to the Royal Commission into the abuse of Children?

Child abuse is bad. In any form. But the sexual abuse of children is especially heinous. It is, I think, the worst form, and example, of sexual brokenness in humanity. And the idea that any Christian institution could not just be complicit in covering this sort thing up, but actively and systematically prevent wrongdoers facing justice for crimes they commit, siding with the perpetrator at the expense of the victim – whether explicitly, or implicitly – makes me sick. It makes me angry.

The obvious answer then – when it comes to the question in the heading – is that we should not just welcome the Royal Commission. We should champion it. We should celebrate it. It’s fantastic. It’s the state doing what the state should do. Pursuing justice. For victims.

But for some reason it doesn’t seem that simple. For some reason the Catholic Church appears, if reports are accurate, to be hedging their bets on this front.

It’s an area of public opinion – and justice and morality – where there’s no room for covering up what’s happening.

Getting caught in a cover up, in a sensitive area like this, is a PR disaster. It doesn’t even do that which it attempts to do – protect your brand. It trashes it. And anybody loosely associated with you, because, say, they have “church” in their name.

It’s not just a PR disaster. It’s a moral disaster. It’s wrong. It’s the wrong way to approach wrongdoing. It compounds it, not just by enabling future abuse, but especially if/when you get caught. The tragedy for Christians is that while the Reformation was a pretty major historical event around 500 years ago, there’s still a little bit of confusion around the traps when it comes to the church – and the difference between Catholics and Protestants. It’d be really easy, and its very tempting, to distance ourselves from the Catholics theologically – to throw them under the bus on this one – but some of those nuances get lost on the public, and you’ve got to figure out what your denomination does when you end up hiring a sinner who sins…

It’s better to deal with the underlying issues as openly and honestly as you can. Partly so that you can be consistent when things go pear shaped at your end, but mostly so that the gospel of Jesus is pretty clear.

And that means saying: “people do wrong. All the time. We all need forgiveness. We all crave justice. And real justice and forgiveness are found in Jesus.”

This isn’t trite. It’s the profoundly uncomfortable truth of the gospel.

It’d be pretty easy to turn child sex offenders into some special category of unforgivable person – and in many ways I wish this were true. I actually think if we’re honest about the Gospel, this is almost a harder sell than Hell. I reckon some of the people who don’t like the idea of Hell would be for it – if it was somewhere reserved for Hitler and child abusers.

The shocking bad news of the Gospel

The bad news of the gospel is that all people – child abusers, and me, and nicer people like you, are broken, and need help. At times it feels like the worst part of the bad news is that help is available to people we wish it wasn’t. The other part of the bad news is you’re just like the child abuser. Naturally. You’re just lucky that you probably aren’t as messed up as them by the life you’ve lived, or the crossed wires in your head. Psychologists are great at making excuses for criminals – and they’re kind of right – most people who do terrible stuff do it because they’ve experienced terrible stuff. But the excuse shouldn’t actually function to stop consequences following actions. It should give us, especially if you’re a Christian, a bit of sympathy for the perpetrator of a crime (though you should have a lot more sympathy for the victim – and we should especially want to protect vulnerable victims).

But we’re all in the same boat – or perhaps in a better metaphor – we’re all lost in the same sea, needing to be rescued.

We’re all pretty messed up, we all hurt people, we’re all wired to be selfish, it’s in our genes, because we’re human – some of us just have different opportunities to express our brokenness, or different generational baggage, different circumstances that make us angry, or deviant, in different ways – because we’ve felt the residual effects of sin from the people who’ve shaped us, and the people who’ve shaped them… We’re all broken, we all inflict our brokenness on others. Some people inflict their brokenness on people whose brokenness hasn’t really had time to develop – children – and that’s abhorrent.

It’s not just abhorrent. It’s criminal. And that’s where this Royal Commission is important, and where the Catholic Church is smashing the Christian brand when it covers up crimes and seems to care more for the people committing them, than for the victims. When people commit crimes – the state should rightly be free to punish those people. Even if they’ve been forgiven by God. That’s why we have governments, and again, if the church is getting in the way of the government because it thinks it operates on a higher plane – then I’d argue its missed that the Biblical truth that Governments are appointed by God to do a job. That the material costs of sin need to be paid (in the absence of forgiveness of the victim), as well as the spiritual.

God judges people, and does so justly, but he also appoints governments (Romans 13:1):

“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God.

And he appoints them to do a job.

For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.”

The authorities, rightly, say that the sexual abuse of children is criminal, and deserving of punishment. It blows my mind that anybody thinks it’s a helpful thing for the gospel to be seen helping people avoid that punishment. No matter what the theological agenda you’re running is – if you’re preventing people meeting Jesus because you, or your theology, is getting in the way of the gospel, you probably need to rethink your theology.

Helping people avoid that punishment by suggesting that the confession of a sin, which may (though I believe it doesn’t), solve the spiritual aspect of a crime, so they shouldn’t be punished by the state (which is what I think is the perception of what’s going on) is bad. It’s no better if we grasp the nuances of the Catholic position – they’re saying that if Confession is not kept sacrosanct, such that what is said in the confession booth no longer stays in the confession booth, criminals won’t confess, and they’ll have no Spiritual way out, so they’ll get Hell for their crimes, not just the justice of the state. This kind of misses the point. The justice of the state is something God institutes.

There’s an easy theological solution here – realise that confession only really counts when it’s done to God, begging for mercy on the basis of the blood of Jesus – the whole confession to a priest thing is a theological non-starter…

Anyway. The bad news of the gospel is that when it comes to the judgment we deserve for our brokenness, from God, who requires perfection, nobody meets the standards. Not you. Not me. Not a child abuser. There’s no special category of sinner, though we don’t all deserve jail for our sins.

The shocking good news of the gospel

But the good news of the gospel (which is kind of a tautology when you know that gospel means good news) is perhaps more shocking – Jesus forgives child abusers. Like he forgives me. Like he can, or has, forgiven you – depending on what you think of him, and his good news. This is shocking, and horribly unfair.

Mercy is not justice. It’s not fair. It’s something better.

Jesus tells a couple of parables to explain how God’s approach to mercy, rewarding all those who follow Jesus equally no matter what they’ve done, and even forgiving people who have been more sinful than others, isn’t fair, but that in its unfairness it’s kind of wonderful – especially when you realise that you’ve been dealt a pretty good hand, that’s not what you deserve either.

That’s why Jesus says the lost being found should be something joyful. That’s why mercy shown to us should lead us not just to forgive people when they wrong us, but to extend the offer of mercy to others.

Paul says something about the sort of confession that counts for something in Romans 10.

9 …because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… 

13 …For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”

Everyone is pretty universal – it doesn’t say “everyone except those nasty sorts of sinners we don’t like.

It’s interesting that this is just a little bit before Paul talks about the role of government in bringing justice to wrongdoers  – he doesn’t feel the need to qualify this by saying “everybody except those people the state will punish will be saved.”

The response to knowing that everyone who turns to Jesus will be saved isn’t “don’t tell some people” – it’s tell people. The “they” in this verse are part of the “everyone” in the one before:

14 How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?

It’s a tough balance. Here are some of the factors I think need to be in the mix for our response to things like this Royal Commission.

  • As Christians we want to make children welcome, and better than that – safe from harm – when they come to know Jesus, or come to our church stuff to find out about him. That’s got to be our top priority.
  • We want to allow the state to be the state. Crimes should be punished. Justice should be served. Church and state are separate and we want to affirm the state’s ability to do its job. And comply with it. Fully. Transparently. Accountably. As we do good for people.
  • We also want to be accountable and transparent with how we deal with children, and who we let into situations where children are present.
  • We also want to distance ourselves from other people who call themselves Christians but, at times, don’t seem to do the first two of these things in a satisfactory way, but not in a way that damages the gospel – or prevents us from treating those people who, if they call on the name of Jesus, will be saved, and are part of the family of God, as something less than brothers.
  • We want to create that distance so that the gospel is protected from the damage that people who claim the name of Jesus can do to it when their actions don’t match their words.
  • We want to make sure that the good news of the gospel is available to people who do bad and horrible things.

What this looks like in practice – A Media Release/Public Statement Template

This is a pretty long post already, but here’s a sample media release I wrote that tries to bring this stuff together. This is an issue that I think requires a long release, that should be published quite publicly on your website, along with relevant links to any child safety information you can provide.

Church/Denomination X welcomes Royal Commission, offers hope of Jesus to victims and perpetrators

CHURCH NAME unequivocally welcomes the announcement of a Royal Commission into child sexual abuse within Australian institutions, including church run institutions.

CHURCH NAME takes child protection seriously. Children must feel safe, and especially have no reason to fear abuse, when participating in activities sanctioned by the church, including its Sunday services, kids programs, and camps.

CHURCH NAME complies with relevant child protection legislation, and recognised best practice for the provision of services to children, in its operations. All CHURCH NAME representatives and volunteers who work with children are blue card accredited (A QUEENSLAND THING?), and we ensure adequate training is provided to our team through NAME OF TRAINING PROGRAM.

While much of the emphasis of this Royal Commission will rightly focus on the inappropriate treatment of children within church run institutions, CHURCH NAME welcomes the shining of light into this darkness, and the genuine chance this represents to bring justice to victims, closure to families, and punishment for wrongdoers, because the name of Jesus is tarnished when crimes go unpunished, or are hidden behind a curtain of religiosity and secrecy.

CHURCH NAME spokesperson X, says church and state are separate, and the state has a responsibility to carry out justice and punish wrongdoers, which the church must prayerfully support, without getting in the way.

“We believe in the separation of church and state,  that this rightly follows the teaching of Jesus when he said “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s,” and that governments are elected by the people, but appointed by God to carry out justice and protect the vulnerable. People who break the law of the land should bear the cost of breaking the law.”

“Our job is to focus on the spiritual cost of breaking God’s law. His judgment. And the free and shocking mercy and forgiveness he offers to all people in Jesus.”

“God takes loving and protecting children, and any poor, weak, or vulnerable members of our society very seriously. He will punish wrongdoers – both via the government, and in judgment. But his mercy triumphs over his judgment when a wrongdoer confesses, truly repents, and throws themselves at his feet.”

“The mercy and forgiveness of God must never prevent the government carrying out its role in society. The separation of church and state means there’s a bit of a spiritual double jeopardy happening – those forgiven by God, through the shocking truth of the gospel of Jesus, must still face punishment for their crimes.”

“The shocking news of the gospel is that while Jesus loves and values children, and the kingdom he began with his death on the cross and his resurrection, is a kingdom that loves, values, and includes, children. The shocking news of the gospel is that the love and forgiveness found in Jesus offers hope for those broken by sexual abuse, both the victims, and truly repentant perpetrators.”

“The church can be quick to demonise sinners, and while we crave justice, and long for a day when no child will be endangered by the brokenness of human nature, we must continue to offer this shocking hope to the lowest of the low, recognising that we too were low in God’s sight before he offered his mercy to us.”

CHURCH NAME will fully comply with any aspects of the Royal Commission that involves its services or ministries, and continue submit to the authority of the government, and adopting best practice methods for protecting children within its care. Our pastoral team are also available for pastoral care and counselling for any victims of sexual abuse, or parties affected by the long term consequences of such abuse in our community.

For more information on CHURCH NAME and our child protection policies, visit WEBSITE.


So. Over to you. What would you put in/leave out in a statement like this?


Russell says:

Cracking post could not agree more.

Adrian says:

Great post I agree. Wouldn’t recommend using that format of PR statement. It should be shorter so if it is actually picked up the language that will be used to represent your org. Will be tighter and less susceptible to manipulation or misunderstanding.

Nathan Campbell says:

Hi Adrian,

I disagree on the length of media releases – I’ve always found that longer releases are better, not just at giving a journalist more context to work from (they’re time poor, and won’t always pick up the phone before running your story), but also because they guard against being taken out of context now that you can release your statements in full to the public over the web.

I actually think a longer (but not too long) statement reduces the ability for misunderstanding too. I’d say 500 words is a good ball park for a media release. The key is interesting and newsworthy content with a good hook though, and I think the chances of this being picked up are slim – but it’s a good statement to be featuring on your website.

Gary Ware says:

Our local minister’s association is offering a statement to our local paper, which I drafted.
The current working version is:
The Mount Gambier and Districts Minister’s Association support the establishment of the Royal Commission into institutional responses to instances and allegations of child sexual abuse in Australia.
We share the community’s heartbreak and revulsion at the accounts of abuse and institutional failure which have lead to the Royal Commission’s establishment.
We affirm the right of victims to have justice for past abuse. We also affirm that every person, young and old, has the right to expect that appropriate standards will be in place to ensure they will be protected from abuse by those who hold positions of trust and authority, and welcome any enquiries about the protection policies which our various churches have in place.
Your material is perfectly understandable to me, but I’d reserve it for a bit further down the track. I think the community want (right at this point in time) to know that the church is revulsed and shocked by the abuse and sense that institutions have covered up for perpetrators to spare themselves. I wouldn’t be surprised if the extended material at the end and repeated use of the word shocked was interpreted as the church being more interested in using the situation to further their own ends and justify themselves. I don’t think folks are looking for a sermon at this point, just empathy.
The church/state stuff reads more like it’s directed at Christians as well.

Nathan says:

Hi Gary,

Interesting thoughts.

I’m committed to every media release containing the gospel, or why are we saying anything? And to me, not putting the gospel in a statement where it is more likely than usual that you’ll get a bite from the media is letting an opportunity go begging.

The church and state stuff is a response to the Catholic response, which has been to basically tell the state to pull its nose in when it comes to ecclesiastical matters. I think the contrast makes a distinction between a Gospel position, and their position, without saying “we don’t think they’re the church.”

Gary Ware says:

Maybe in this moment our ‘gospel’ content is in the ‘act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God’ area of the Gospel.
Sometimes that’s enough.
Lots of stuff I’d like to explore, but comment threads lack the nuance to be able to express them without sounding critical, snarky or passive/agressive.
Wish we could sit down over a coffee and talk about this sort of stuff.

Nathan Campbell says:

Also, if you genuinely want media coverage in an area that’s being dominated by the Catholic response, I think you want to differentiate yourself with something a little left of centre. Rather than just saying “we’re not Catholics, sic em boys…” I want to say “we’re not Catholics, but we too, still think of the perpetrators as people.”

Nathan Campbell says:

Gary and Adrian,

I’ve fleshed out where I’m coming from in this subsequent post.

Chris Ashton says:

Hey Nathan,

I’m not so sure about supporting the Royal Commission. Obviously I’m opposed to child abuse (one must mention that, these days!), and I’m all for churches owning up to their failings, sins and criminal offences, and never protecting those individuals who have perpetrated them.

And maybe a Royal Commission is the best and most necessary component of this. But I very much doubt it, and certainly it will be useless in its current form. For one, a Commonwealth Royal Commission can probably investigate anything it wants, but sexual assault, child protection, community services, and policing are all state and territory matters.

Secondly, it is unclear what the length, the subjects and the scope of the commission will be, or even whether or not there will be state involvement (some states have already ruled out a joint royal commission, which would make a commission that only includes some states pretty meaningless). For anyone to give unequivocal support – or any support – is unhelpful and irresponsible, and for a church to do it is a terrible witness to an outside world.

Thirdly, churches should be as sceptical as anyone else – or more so, given what they ought to know about God and about man – about government solutions. Let’s remember that we have seen decades of government money, legislation and policy about child sexual abuse, but it is debatable whether or not it has made any impact whatsoever. And remember also that the number of children sexually abused in churches is a small fraction of the overall problem. Certainly the number of kids abused in government care is greater than the number in church care. Now to be fair, government institutions are to be included in the Royal Commission’s remit (that much we do know), but everyone seems to realise that this is mainly about the churches. To support what will become a Royal Commission industrial complex, sucking tens of millions of dollars for probably very little outcome is something that churches should be cautious about.

Finally, because churches should be interested in “pursuing justice,” supporting what will likely become a never-ending witch-hunt is not what the church should be doing. You can be certain that innocent lives will be ruined as erroneous allegations are made about people who did nothing wrong – and even people who may or may not have “averted their eyes” – as people are forced to give information under the Royal Commission’s coercive powers, and as evidence that would not normally be admissible is given and then later used in criminal and civil proceedings.

Of course, there is an opportunity here for churches to testify to God’s goodness, as they submit to the authority’s directions (as reasonable or unreasonable as they may be), and to put their own house in order (which, of course, should have been done ages ago but has inexcusably been neglected). My Two Kingdoms theology – and the Bible – is clear here. But there may also be opportunities for churches to say and to show that it is God who sets the limits of civil authority, and that it is God who administers ultimate and perfect justice, and that they will not be pushed into being complicit in what will be miscarriages of justice.