Lessons for the Church from Joe Paterno

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I have been in Joe Paterno’s shoes many times.

In case you have been off visiting another planet, the storied coach of Penn State’s football program agreed to retire at the end of the season amidst allegations that he should have done more when he received a report of suspected child abuse on the part of a member of his coaching staff.  Because we have a community-based biblical counseling center at our church, we regularly serve families where an accusation of abuse is part of the story.  It is some of the hardest and most complicated work I have ever done.  Thankfully God’s Word is sufficient (2 Peter 1:3) and provides helpful guidelines as we navigate these terrible situations.

Protecting children

God’s Word is filled with commands to place a high priority on defending those who are too weak to defend themselves.  One representative example is Isaiah 1:17: Learn to do good; seek justice, reprove the ruthless, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.  Frequently a decision has to be made about protecting the child, the adult, or the institution.  A follower of Christ should always err on siding with the rights and needs of the child or even the abused adult.

Learning from professionals

Several years ago we invited the director of our local Child Protective Services office to our site to train our school, counseling center, and church staff on how to recognize and report instances of suspected child abuse.  There is no question about the fact that even though many of the people on our team have been counseling for many years, this woman knew more about the subject than anyone else in the room.  Regardless of where you are in your ministry career, there are others who can teach you better ways to serve others. 

Submitting to our government

The Bible also teaches us to submit ourselves to the governmental authorities (Romans 13:1-7).  I am thankful that we live in a community where the secular authorities work hand in hand with our ministry to address such situations.  I also understand that some people minister in communities where there is more of an aggressive or adversarial relationship with local child protective staffs and services.  Regardless, we must err on the side of making the report.

In our experience, if the accused abuser is part of the counseling process, we encourage him (or her) to file the report of what is being said.  We then follow up immediately to be sure the report was made to satisfy our reporting requirements.  If the abuser refuses to contact the appropriate government agency, we would immediately make the report ourselves.  This is one of the reasons we make it clear to our counselees that we do not practice absolute confidentiality.  Where the law requires us to make a report, we will submit to our governing authorities.

Keeping an attorney on retainer

By God’s grace we are privileged to have a Christian attorney as part of our church’s leadership.  He gives thousands of dollars worth of legal counsel to our staff every year free of charge.  Before that time, we kept an attorney on retainer and instructed our staff to contact him any time there was a question about whether something should be reported.  There were some months where the legal bill was rather large, but we always viewed that as money well spent.

Praying for wisdom and healing

Situations involving child abuse allegations are seldom simple and straightforward.  The twists and turns in the story can make your head spin.  Thank the Lord that He stands ready to answer our prayers for wisdom as we seek to serve every person He brings across our path.  But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him (James 1:5).

May God help His people respond to suspected abuse with unusual wisdom and skill.

Steve Viars
Dr. Viars has served as a pastor and counselor at Faith since 1987. He is an author, national speaker, and Vice President of the Board of Directors for the Biblical Counseling Coalition.