Question: “Why is it sinful for a church to cover-up abuse?”
Answer: Actively hiding, disguising, or keeping a mistake or sin hidden, rather than correcting it, is referred to as a “cover-up.” Regarding abuse, anyone with knowledge of abuse or suspected abuse is morally and legally obligated to act on such information. When abuse is suspected, the organization should carefully and thoroughly investigate with the goal of discovering truth—not prioritizing reputation. Cover-ups seek to evade consequences while ignoring the harm caused by an incident. Covering up abuse is sinful because it perpetuates wrongs, exalts what God hates, and has far worse consequences in the long run than dealing with the truth immediately.
Many organizations have been guilty of cover-ups regarding abuse or wrongdoing. Sadly, some of these are associated with people of faith. Recent examples involve members from both the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. Investigations resulting from these scandals revealed active downplaying of sexual abuse in their churches and ignoring of accusations from victims. Victims were slandered, and abusers were sometimes relocated or re-assigned. Many who should have been prosecuted were never reported. Incidents were treated with spin and whitewashing, diminishing the serious nature of the charges. Worst of all, some abusers continued to harm additional victims when they could have been stopped.
Any self-proclaiming Christian—individual or organization—who participates in a cover-up of abuse is guilty of shameful sin. To identify oneself with the Lord, while enabling something He deeply loathes (Proverbs 6:16–19), violates the command not to take His name in vain. Denying victims justice through crafty deflections is an offensive rejection of the Lord’s will (Isaiah 10:1–2). Such actions lead to people blaspheming the Lord (Romans 2:23-24). God hates—with open disgust—any attempt to use good things as a cover-up for sin and evil (Proverbs 21:27; 1 Peter 2:16).
Those who participate in a cover-up often claim good intentions. A common excuse for creating these smokescreens is guarding the faith-based group’s reputation. They reason that by covering up one person’s sin, the rest of the organization can continue proclaiming the gospel. This thinking is deeply misguided. While it is better to settle disputes quietly rather than to engage in gossip or division (Proverbs 17:9; 25:9), that principle applies to disagreements and errors, not to sexual or spiritual abuse. Christians are called to protect the weak and hurting, not to dismiss them (Proverbs 22:22; 31:8–9).
Another mistaken rationalization for cover-ups is pushing for grace and forgiveness rather than correction. Truthful repentance is never at the expense of justice. Biblical commands to rebuke, correct, or excommunicate flagrant abusers are the very means by which heinous sin is to be resolved (1 Corinthians 5:9–13; 1 Timothy 5:20). They are not embarrassing admissions to be avoided. Nor are they consequences to dodge at the cost of those who have been harmed (Proverbs 19:5). Even if the world sneers at a church for confession, repentance, and change, that’s much better than persisting in sin (1 Peter 3:17). One must fear the Lord rather than man and do what is right rather than protect their image (1 Corinthians 1:11–13; Ephesians 4:15).
Confronting truth can be painful. But few things interfere with evangelism more than self-professed Christians using deceptive, cynical schemes to protect their reputation (2 Corinthians 4:2; 1 Peter 3:17). Most attempted cover-ups will be found out in this life (1 Corinthians 3:13). Those who think God will look the other way are sorely mistaken (Psalm 10:11–15). At the very least, God is aware and cannot be fooled (Matthew 12:36; Hebrews 4:13). Jesus pointedly warned hypocritical religious leaders that their secret actions would be uncovered (Luke 12:2–3). Secret sins will eventually be exposed (Numbers 32:23; Proverbs 26:26; Ecclesiastes 12:14). Once discovered, cover-ups will always make the church or group look worse. It is better to be hated and criticized while repenting of sin than lying to protect one’s reputation (Proverbs 16:8; 28:6) and allowing sin to continue and victims to suffer.
Cover-ups erode trust in everything an organization says. In contrast, honestly confronting sin in a timely manner demonstrates integrity along with repentance. Some embarrassment is inevitable; a cover-up only magnifies the violation of trust (Psalm 7:11–16). Being caught in a cover-up invites skeptics to doubt an organization’s entire message—including aspects that have nothing to do directly with their flaws and failures. Whatever moral statements a person, church, or organization makes are rightly seen as hypocritical, even if they are biblically correct. It would be foolish to assume leaders who enabled or hid abuse in churches should be trusted to suddenly “do the right thing” after they have been caught.
The best way to prevent cover-ups is to establish a clear sense of accountability. This applies to individuals and to organizations. Transparency and integrity are important standards to uphold to prevent abuse from happening in the first place (2 Corinthians 8:20–22). Nothing enables abuse within the church more than leaders who sense they are not truly accountable. Leaders are held to high standards (James 3:1) and are called to account if they fail (Proverbs 27:5). It is unbiblical to blindly accept all things one is told by teachers and leaders especially since not all spiritual leaders are godly and even godly leaders are not perfect (2 Corinthians 11:13–15). Instead, believers are to carefully compare all things—including the words and actions of leaders—to God’s truth, regardless of the messenger (Proverbs 18:17; Acts 17:11; 1 John 4:1; Ephesians 5:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4; 5:21).
If abuse does happen, despite sincere measures to avoid it, the only acceptable remedy is truthful humility. Care for the victim is paramount, far more important than preserving the reputation of a guilty abuser. Ideally, victims of abuse should feel empowered to speak up. This needs to be part of a church’s fundamental culture. Those guilty of abuse should be confronted; they should undergo proper church discipline (Matthew 18:15–20). They should also be referred to the proper legal authorities (Romans 13:1–5), since that is one of the legitimate purposes of government. Care and restitution for victims must be important parts of the process. These principles hold true even if only one individual, not the church itself, is guilty of an explicit sin.
Abuse is a clear violation of God’s will for mankind. Both abuse and cover-ups are twisted opposites of God’s command for Christians to be known for their love toward others (John 13:35). There is nothing loving about disguising sin or failing to address it with integrity.