You’ve seen the little clip: a person does something wrong and the camera crew films a neighbor–or family member–making a comment about the character of the person.
“He was a quiet boy, never caused any trouble.”
So, let’s say one of your good friends was accused of abuse of children. How would you respond to reporters (or bloggers asking for you to weigh in)? Should you speak? Stay silent? Would it matter if the friend was a regular Joe or a famous leader of a church? Would it matter if you were famous or in leadership? Would it matter if you both served on an important ministry together? Should you wait until the court case has finished or speak your mind about what you know even if the case is not completed?
This is the question that has been raging a bit regarding the ongoing complaints of clerical and child abuse (and now a civil lawsuit) against Sovereign Grace Ministries leaders. After many calls for colleagues of SGM leadership to speak out against child abuse as they had against Penn State, two different sets of public letters were published commenting on the cases.
It seems to me that silences and then explanations of any length rarely serve any good purpose. Those who wish for you to speak will not be happy you waited. Then when you speak, you are likely to say things that will say more than you intended and reveal more than you care to reveal. For example, if you point out the fact that civil lawsuits are notoriously hard to litigate, may arise from those desiring to receive monetary damages, may damage innocent reputations, you would be speaking the truth. All of these things are possible. But it is easy to reveal more than intended,
- when you speak after a significant portion of the lawsuit has been dismissed, not on fact but due to missing a statute of limitations deadline
- when you speak more sentences about questions of merit and only a few sentences about the need for justice for victims
- when you raise doubts about civil allegations while you hide behind the fact that you are not finder of fact (AKA the judge or jury)
A better response?
Say something immediately or nothing at all.
Of course, it is ALWAYS easier to criticize and to offer hind-sight answers. I do not think that I am above protecting a friend. I suspect I would be tempted to act in just the same way. We want to protect those we know and love and to doubt those we do not know. But, consider for a moment, how this response:
Our friend has been accused of doing some very horrific acts (or failures to act). These are serious charges. We love our friend. These charges doe not seem to fit the man we know, and yet we know that anyone is capable of [sin/crime]. We will support him. And yet, our support does not hinder the need for truth, justice, and healing for all victims. We will be meeting with our friend and encouraging him to speak the truth, to admit any wrongdoing, no matter the risk to so-called reputation. We will examine whether we have any information that would help bring justice in this case and we will not hold this information back to protect our friend. If others have information, we implore you to bring it so that this case can be quickly concluded. We want you to know that we will not tolerate [sin/crime] in other leaders or ourselves. We serve the glory of God and not the glory of each other. We will not be making any further public comments until the case has concluded. This is a difficult time, please be in prayer for all those involved in this case.
Would that be enough? Probably not for some readers, especially if there were longstanding behaviors in question that suggest a system of cover-up. And yet, I think an early statement like this probably eliminates the firestorm that silence or blanket statements of approval create. Once the firestorm starts, there is almost nothing that can be done without a very simple, “we have erred in our silence.” Anything else will be an attempt to parse the silence and so any later words will be parsed by others…and found wanting.