The Statute of Limitations – A Religious Predator’s Best Friend
In recent days Fundamentalism has experienced a rash of scandalous revelations that have left us all disheartened. This most recent series of events has come due to the advent of social media support groups, like the MeToo Movement, who are encouraging people who have been abused to come forward with their stories.
The traumatic events that the people of God have been subjected to are diverse. There have certainly been horrible sexual abuses that have been perpetrated against victims, but that is not all. Churches have been victimized by ministers who have been found guilty of physical abuses that include excessive disciplines. Churches and ministries have also been the victims of a variety of financial scandals that have handicapped ministries far and wide. All abuses are especially terrible among churches because the church is a place where we all come to find fulfillment. When we go to church, we rarely experience this fulfillment unless we make ourselves somewhat vulnerable to ministry. That vulnerability is what predators watch for and prey on.
The statute of limitations is a particularly thorny subject when it comes to religious crimes that have a victim. The term “statute of limitations” is defined as a statute prescribing a period of limitation for the bringing of certain kinds of legal action. That’s right. A person can totally get away with a crime if they can run out the clock and avoid it being reported. This is especially common in ecclesiastical settings because of the trust that Christians usually have for their spiritual leaders. Most believers are not suspicious of their pastor, or an elder, or a Christian school teacher, or their church treasurer, or a deacon.
The statute of limitations varies from state to state, and it is often different related to the nature of the crime. For example, in Florida, the statute of limitation on financial crimes is two years. On one occasion in Florida a pastor managed to perpetrate a 1.5-million-dollar embezzlement over a span of nearly thirty years. The perpetrating pastor methodically spaced his financial embezzlements so that the crimes passed the statute of limitations every two years, limiting the suspicion of his congregation and creating a recipe for criminal success. I can assure you that when a pastor is implicitly trusted by his congregation, a two-year statute of limitations is an easy goal for him to reach.
The statute of limitation in Florida is four years for some civil cases. Many felonies in Florida have no statute of limitations, but generally the availability of credible evidence breaks down after twelve months. This breakdown of credible evidence makes the case much more difficult to prosecute. In sex crimes there are generally no statute of limitations, but the testimony of victims can become convoluted over time, reducing the effectiveness of the case.
It must be understood that it is NOT the churches responsibility or purview to handle criminal cases in house. Too many churches have lost all credibility due to people who are persuaded those criminal offenses are best resolved through church discipline (Cf. Matt. 18:15-20). That is NOT the case. Although a crime inside the ministry can be included in a church discipline case, the Bible clearly teaches that the state must be informed of criminal matters in a timely manner (Cf. Rom. 13:1-5). Why in a timely manner? Because of the statute of limitations.
It is now known that more religious predators are escaping prosecution for egregious sex crimes. How does this happen. If I may offer a quick word of admonition to the victims of these crimes. If you wait to come forward with the truth about what was done to you, you are dramatically weakening the possibility that the perpetrator will be arrested. Physical evidence is key, but it fades quickly. After the physical evidence has disappeared, you are left with victim testimony alone. If the case goes to trial, a defense attorney will string you out over the coals of doubt so much that you will feel like you are on trial yourself. The solution is to come forward early. If it was a violent crime or a sex act that was perpetrated against you, it is NOT necessary for you to go to your church leaders first. Go straight to local law enforcement. They will take the necessary steps to handle the matter.
Also, if you withhold the information for a decade or two, you are permitting the perpetrator to assume that he got away with it, which will empower him/her to think they can do it again without consequence. Stop them while you can! You have the power in your hands to stop them from victimizing another innocent person.
There is also another important legal concept known as “date of discovery.” If a ministry discovers that a crime has occurred within the ministry, the date of discovery condition asks the question, “What did you do when you were made aware of the crime?” If you are worried that you may be implicated in the cover-up, the simple question is, “What did you do when you found out about it?” Florida is a mandatory reporting state in relation to sex crimes. You must report if you know something has happened in your ministry in Florida, otherwise, you could face prosecution for covering up the crime.
There is a new and refreshing mentality among ministries today. Most people want to clean house and expose criminal activities in ministries. You will find it helpful if you are a victim. Support is only a phone-call away in most cases. The price of covering up earlier ministry fraud and crimes has been far higher than we can pay.
In one case a pastor persuaded an older couple in his church to reverse mortgage their home and give the funds to him. This older couple trusted their pastor and complied. The monies disappeared and the older couple was left with nothing in the end. Once the fraud passed the two-year mark, there was absolutely nothing the church could do. The wife died and the elderly gentleman was left penniless and his needs for daily health care caused him to move out-of-state. The couple lost their assets, the church lost its reputation and the criminal pastor sailed off into another ministry in a neighboring state without consequence. How? His best friend was the statute of limitations.
I say this to the shame of my own profession: pastors can be very crooked, and churches are often willfully blind. I close with a handful of admonitions:
1. If you, or a loved one has been the victim of a sex crime in ministry, come forward as soon as possible. Do not let ministry personnel persuade you that the reputation of the ministry is more valuable than your right to expose the perpetrator.
2. The clock does not always stop when an investigation begins. You might assume that the statute of limitations is paused when an investigation begins, but many of us have found out the hard way that this is not always the case. An investigation can be very lengthy. If the statute of limitations deadline is approaching, an investigator may disappoint you by telling you that nothing can be done because the investigation will take too long, and the statute of limitation will expire before it can be completed. This is just another reason to come forward as early as possible.
3. Never leave criminal charges in the hands of the local church. The church is not equipped to handle such issues. Church discipline is not sufficient in addressing criminal behavior. If a theft has occurred, report it to law enforcement. If a sex crime has occurred, report it to law enforcement immediately.
4. Do not let abuse continue past the statute of limitations. For the sake of those who will be victimized by someone who “got away with it,” tell your story now! I was victimized as a child outside of the church and when I tried to tell my story, I was shut down by adults. What haunts me now is that I did not persist and stop the perpetrator by reporting it, and I now have no idea how many others may have been hurt. Only you can stop him/her from doing it to others.
5. Hold the Bible, the church, and the name of Christ in high esteem. When man fails, nothing of God fails. The church deserves to be delivered from these predators.
Brad Bailey is a husband, father of four, author, pastor-teacher and college president in Brandon, Florida
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