Thomas McKenzie
by grace alone
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When Prayer Isn't Enough

Yesterday morning, I received an e-mail. A woman in another state had written a prayer request and sent it to about a dozen of her friends. One of those friends forwarded it on to a staff person here at my church. That staff person forwarded it on to me.

In the prayer request, the lady said that a friend of hers was going through a rough patch and needed prayer. Apparently this friend cares for a child with special needs. The e-mail goes on to say that the friend is talking about killing the child and possibly herself.

When I received that e-mail, I prayed. I prayed for all the people involved. I am sure that caring for a special needs child is incredibly difficult. I would say that many people who are caregivers get depressed, even despondent. Some of them may even consider extreme things. I believe in the God who answers prayer. I do think that God intervenes; that he gives grace, strengthens the weary, and helps those who are in need. He loves and cares for this caregiver, and the child.

And sometimes prayer is not enough.

After I prayed, I did something else. The original e-mail listed the name and address of the sender. So I Googled the name of the town she lives in, and I called her local police department. After being transferred to four different people and calling back once because a line was fuzzy, I spoke to a person who works with a detective in the Sheriff's office. I told her my story and offered to forward the original e-mail. She did not know the detective's e-mail address (!) but took a message. He called me back after lunch. I gave him the information, and sent him the e-mail.

I don't know if the detective will follow up. I hope he gives the sender a call, finds out who this friend is and where she lives (possibly in another city, or another country for all I know), and moves forward in some way. Or, perhaps, he will determine that this is just two people speaking privately about their feelings and that outside action is not warranted. I don't know; but I will continue to pray.

Now, you might be asking the obvious questions. What are the ethical implications of taking a letter not written to me and forwarding it on to the police? Haven't I violated some sort of trust by doing this? Aren't clergy supposed to keep secrets?

This morning, I wrote another e-mail. I wrote to the person who was one of the recipients of he original prayer request, the person who forwarded it on to my staff member. This is part of what I wrote to her:

(I notified the authorities) because, from the e-mail, it seemed to me that there is a person making threats to kill a child. I am obligated, both morally and professionally, to notify the authorities when I learn that a child is in physical danger. So that's what I did.

The physical safety of children takes precedence over any other ethical issues. If I learn that a child is being abused or threatened, I will pray about it. But I won't keep it to myself. I will move quickly to notify the appropriate authorities.

In the case of this e-mail situation, I know none of the actors involved. So informing the police is the best I feel I can do. If I had received this e-mail directly from a member of my congregation, I would have called the sender and gotten involved personally.

There have been many, many moments in the (recent) history of the Church in which pastors and priests have been notified that a child is suffering harm. Rather than take action, these people have tried to work things out behind the scenes (at best), or simply kept the secret (at worst). This is the essence of the sexual abuse of children by clergy and other church leaders. It is the cause of the pain suffered when churches cover up physical abuse on the part of their members.

As both priest and pastor, it is my duty to protect the vulnerable. This outweighs any duty to keep the secrets of those who would harm them.

Do I keep confidences? You bet I do. That is an important part of my job. But there is a line that separates legitimate confidence from illegitimate conspiracy. And the line is this: if you tell me that you are actually going to physically injure yourself or someone else, or if you tell me a child is in danger, I am going to act.

I write this today for one main reason. If you come into possession of information that a child is in danger, I believe you are morally obliged to act. It might hurt someone's feelings, it might get you in trouble with someone. But let's keep our eye on the ball, as it were. As a society, and as Christians if you happen to be one, I believe we are called to defend those who can not defend themselves.