Contrasting Cases: Independent Versus Internal Investigations

SOURCE NOTES: The opening section combines material from my Systemic Abuse Researcher Notes webpage on Independent vs. Internal Investigations and my futuristguy blog post of Part 3 in my Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities series.

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Overview of Key Issues Regarding Investigations into Abuse Accusations

Some institutions accused of harboring abusive employees, volunteers, and/or board members will respond by conducting their own “internal” investigation. Others will arrange for a “third party investigation.” In either case, the institution may or may not release the report — in full or in part — or even summarize the findings. There typically is the expectation that having done or hired out an investigation is sufficient to show sincerity in dealing with the accusations and consequences.

However, past experiences of such investigations in both society and church/ministry communities often raise issues about the legitimacy of investigators’ independence. Whether conducted by an internal individual/group or contracted with an outside individual/agency, these are typical issues that arise:

  • Whether the firm has an inherent bias in favor of the individuals or groups paying them.
  • Whether there are relational, financial, organizational, or other types of conflicts of interest between investigators and the individuals and institutions being investigated.
  • Whether there will be full transparency in releasing the report (with the exception of redacted names of victims, for instance), or at least key findings and recommendations will be released, or whether it will be kept secret.

At this time, GRACE–Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment–is the only organization I know of to whole-heartedly recommend as trustworthy for doing independent, transparent investigations without the issues of bias and conflicts of interest. GRACE has become a trusted resource for abuse survivors, because it has lived up to its promise for “Conducting Independent, Thorough and Objective Abuse-Related Investigations.”

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Independent Versus Internal Investigations

Not all that claim to be an “independent” investigation are that. I am not sure where I got the following framework, probably from something that leaders in GRACE said. But there are two kinds of investigations. One is by an organization that is committed to the best interests of “victims and the vulnerable” (a phrase I know GRACE founder Boz Tchividjian has used). The other is by an organization that is committed to limiting the liability of the church or other organization that hired them. The former tend to share the story of the abused; unfortunately, the latter tend to become part of the story of abuse.

A 2015 article by Boz Tchividjian, posted on the Religious News Service website, sets out what are frequently seen as the four gold standard indicators of whether an investigation is truly independent or not: “Are abuse survivors best served when institutions investigate themselves?” He urges us to evaluate potential “investigations” by watching for who is (1) in control (2) of information, (3) of the process, and (4) of what is done with the findings

Some agencies that try to present themselves as objective and independent in actuality require some form of arbitration, conciliation, mediation, and reconciliation to carry out the task. Some technicalities of these approaches typically may limit the ability of participants to have any follow-up legal recourse, may include non-disclosure agreements, and may bury the findings – any of which could ultimately allow perpetuation of abuse to occur. (And, as has been mentioned before, survivors typically do not want what happened to them to happen to others, so prevention of abuse is a prime value to them.)

We have seen these differences in commitment – to survivors and the vulnerable versus to the hiring institution – several times in the 2018-2019. One example was the attempt initiated by Willow Creek Community Church Elders to engage reported victims of Bill Hybels’ harassment and power abuse into a conciliation process. Their approach would have imposed restrictions on the victims speaking about the process, and it sought reconciliation without first truth-finding. As such, the women survivors were against these pre-emptive efforts, as detailed in blog posts from Vonda Dyer and Betty Schmidt, and a news report from the Chicago Tribune (which broke the original news story about reported sexual abuse/harassment by Bill Hybels, and whose reporters issued updates regularly).

In the series on A Cultural Geography of Survivor Communities, we will consider more details about investigations, what practices they use in attempts to resolve issues with victims, and categories of investigative agencies. Part 4 looks at “Investigations and Their Integration Points,” and whether they focus on benefiting information, institutions, ideologies, or survivors. Part 6 looks at “Pursuing a Process of ‘Truth Before Reconciliation’ – and Identifying Shortcomings of Reliance on Arbitration, Conciliation, and/or Mediation.” Part 7 looks at “Evaluating Christian Agencies That Deal with Abuse Investigations, Arbitration, Conciliation, and/or Mediation.”

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Contrasting Cases:

Independent Versus Internal Investigations

NEGATIVE CASE STUDY: Willow Creek Community Church and Global Leadership Summit. (Notes: Willow Creek is often abbreviated in social media as WC or WCCC. What is now called the Global Leadership Summit–abbreviated online as GLS–was formerly the Willow Creek Association, a non-profit separate from Willow Creek Community Church.)

Willow Creek constitutes a negative case study for its attempts to institute “reconciliation” processes before truth-finding processes, coupled with ongoing failure to retract false statements about the victims. This situation has gone on unresolved since early 2018 despite additional details and related allegations of sexual abuse (such as against Gilbert Bilezikian, former seminary professor and a mentor to WC leader Bill Hybels).

Resolution Processes Case Study Willow Creek Community Church. This is found in Part 6C of the Cultural Geography series. This page includes an initial exploration into three investigation/negotiation/resolution processes (arbitration, conciliation, and mediation), plus a case study from Willow Creek Community Church leaders hiring Crossroads Resolution Group and the women victims refusing to play by those rules, and why.

Case Study: Willow Creek. A case study tracking events from March to August 2018 for Willow Creek Community Church and Willow Creek Association/Global Leadership Summit. This incorporates details from news reports, official statements by individuals and institutions involved, analysis, and reflection/discussion questions.

POSITIVE CASE STUDIES: Immanuel Baptist Church, Rehobath Baptist Church, Tates Community Presbyterian Church. Angie Ward posted this request on Twitter, March 27, 2019:

Help me, folks: do you know of any good/positive examples of corporate confession and repentance by a church in the wake of a scandal/crisis/moral failure?

Several members of abuse survivor communities responded with links to specific situations that role model doing things wisely and well.

Immanuel Baptist Church – Louisville, Kentucky / from @wademullen.

Our Pastors’ Statement to the Washington Post (May 31, 2018; church website).

Background: Rachael Denhollander’s website. Read Rachael Denhollander’s full victim impact statement about Larry Nassar (January 30, 2018; CNN).

Rehobath Baptist Church – Tucker, Georgia / from @futuristguy.

Statement from Pastor Troy Bush (March 13, 2019; church website).

Rehoboth Baptist Church: using the past to address the present and future (March 13, 2019; The Christian Index).

Tates Creek Presbyterian Church – Lexington, Kentucky / from @R_Denhollander. “The report isn’t out yet, but this response so far is incredible. Everything I’d look for.” Her tweet was in March 2019. The report was issued in June 2019, about a year after the church commissioned GRACE to conduct an independent investigation. The leadership in this congregation provide us with a substantive role model for how to repair system issues including allegations of sexual abuse by a ministry worker, failures in church responses at the time, and how to take responsibility and repair damages with multiple communities affected by those damaging actions.

Addressing Our Past — Tates Creek Presbyterian. A Letter from Robert Cunningham (June 24, 2018; church website). This letter is noteworthy for being informative, taking responsibility to lay out a plan for truth-finding and damage-repairing actions, and directly addressing four groups affected: the victims, the outside community, the Tates Creek church community, and the media.

Addressing Our Present & Future — Tates Creek Presbyterian. A Letter from Robert Cunningham (June 8, 2019; church website). This letter includes point-by-point responses by the church to each of the six recommendations in the GRACE report. It also includes statements and/or apologies to the same four specific groups mentioned in the “Addressing Our Past” letter of a year earlier.

The June 2019 Letter on the church’s website includes this link to a 34-page PDF of the GRACE Executive Summary and Recommendations report. It has been redacted to block out certain personal details. This report is especially helpful for showing what an actual independent investigation involves. It includes sections on:

    • Introduction and methodology of the assessment process.
    • Details on the investigative findings (alleged sexual misconduct by a church employee, what the church knew about the allegations, and how the church responded to the allegations).
    • Analysis of the investigative findings (reporting abuse to law enforcement, policies and procedures, training and institutional awareness, and sensitivity toward abuse survivors).
    • Spiritual impact and conclusion.
    • Recommendations (policies, leadership training, informing the congregation, developing a Safeguarding team, conducting a policy audit, and guarding young adults from one-to-one situations with church leadership).

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Reference Links

1. Stage 1: Repair – Sustaining Hope and Help.

2. Stage 2: Renovate – Hope is on the Line.

3. Stage 3. Reclaim – Hope in Definite Jeopardy.

4. Stage 4. Raze – When Hope Fades or Fails.

5. Introduction to Contrasting Case Studies in Doing Organizational Repairs Wisely or Poorly.

6. Contrasting Cases: Independent versus Internal Investigation.

7. Contrasting Cases: Genuine Apologies Versus Deflections.

8. Contrasting Cases: Transparency Versus Secrecy.

9. Contrasting Cases: System-Wide Repairs Versus No Substantive Repairs.

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