The Christian Reformed Church is reviewing how it handles appeals of decisions. The church’s Council of Delegates called for the assessment in June, in response to a formal request to synod. (Synod is the annual general assembly of the CRC. The Council of Delegates works on behalf of synod in between meetings.)
The decision to call for a review was in response to a request to Synod 2020 from Judy De Wit from Sioux Falls, S.D. She wrote, “The appeal process ... is not appellant friendly and is church leader protective when allegations are raised concerning abuse and abuse of power” (Agenda for Synod 2020, Overture 9, p. 316).
The Council asked executive director Colin Watson Sr. to recommend possible improvements to the process. Watson said the work is just beginning. He is assembling a team to help and will have an update in September.
De Wit said she hopes the review will determine that the current process is inadequate. “The (current) appeal process lacks love, care, and respect for the victim and fails to require a process that restores the victim back into the fellowship of believers,” she said.
“I believe the (review) will show how church leaders are typically ill-equipped and ill-informed in identifying what power dynamics are, what abuse of power looks like, and the damage abuse does,” De Wit wrote to the Council on June 29. Her letter has been shared with Watson as he prepares for the review.
De Wit has written five overtures (requests) about abuse of power to synod in the past two years. (See Agenda for Synod 2020, Overtures 9 and 10, and Agenda for Synod 2021, Overtures 14, 15, and 16.) It’s unusual but not unheard of for one person to submit requests to synod. Requests from one person first have to be heard by a church council and then by classis (regional assembly of churches). If neither of those bodies elects to submit the request to synod, the writer of the overture may do so. De Wit’s two requests from 2020 were adopted by the council of Hancock (Minn.) CRC but not adopted by Classis Lake Superior. The council of Hancock CRC decided not to forward either overture to synod. The three 2021 overtures were processed through the local council of Hancock (Minn.) CRC and through Classis Lake Superior but were not adopted. The Council of Delegates considered all five overtures at its June 2021 meeting in place of synod. (Synods in 2020 and 2021 were canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.) Requesting a review of the appeals process was the only action the Council took.
(The minutes of the special meeting note that De Wit’s other overtures requested things that either were already “currently available,” Overture 10; involved a scope that was “too large to take on,” Overture 14; fell under the authority of a different body, Overture 15; or were “overly broad,” Overture 16.)
De Wit said there were important changes asked for in her overtures that she wishes had not been set aside. However, the No. 1 thing she wanted was a review of the appeals process.
History of Attempting to Address Abuse
De Wit, who is a marriage and family therapist, said there is a long legacy of the Christian Reformed Church failing people who bring forward allegations against pastors. Synod has attempted to respond in different ways. In 1994 synod created the office of abuse prevention (later renamed Safe Church Ministry). Synod 2006 called for an Abuse Victims Task Force to make specific recommendations to strengthen ministry to people who have experienced abuse in the church. Synod 2010 adopted all of the task force’s recommendations. Close to a decade later Synod 2019 received yet another report, this time prompted by a formal request in 2018 by a single author, Bev Sterk. She asked the church to work harder at preventing abuse of power. The Council of Delegates appointed a committee to implement many of the report's recommendations, including developing a code of conduct and minister training. Council received that committee's final report at the June meeting (Agenda for Synod 2021, pp. 44-71).
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