Brent, you propose two ways that an abuse investigation may not be clear-cut. The first is that you are not able to gather evidence. The second is that the evidence may be conflicting. This creates a difficult situation for everyone--the person bringing the accusation, the accused, and the mission.
When we start an investigation, we assume that abuse could have happened, but not necessarily that it did happen. An investigation must be impartial and open-minded. An allegation of abuse or a violation of a child safety policy can be true, can be mistaken, can be false, or can be some mix of these things. (Some missions don’t use the “abuse” word for a finding, because it sounds like a legal conclusion—and an investigation standing alone is not a legal determination by a court.) Allegations of abuse that are not factually true are fairly common, though are still a fairly small minority of abuse allegations.
If you are doing an investigation, your “finding” that certain actions happened will be either by a preponderance of the evidence, which means that it more likely than not happened, or by clear and convincing evidence, which is a higher standard. If you don’t reach your standard, you won’t take disciplinary action against the person. It is possible that you may be pretty sure that abuse did not happen. It’s also possible that the whole situation is too murky to be sure of the facts. Especially with things that happened long ago and far away, you may have to accept that you will never know.
So your real question is how do you follow up in these situations? I’d like to split the response into three areas: first, the risk of harm to children; second, the impact on the career and life of the accused; and third, the impact on the accuser.
If the investigation is inconclusive, or has concluded nothing happened, is there still a risk of harm to children? This is a key question. If you thought that there was a small chance that abuse happened—20% or 30%—you would still want to put in place a safety plan. Even if nothing can be determined in the investigation, you will not want to take a chance on child safety.
Second is the impact on the career and life of the accused. This is a difficult situation. It is morally wrong to ruin someone’s life because of an allegation that is not substantiated. (In some circumstances, it could also be illegal.) You will have the delicate task of preserving the person’s career and reputation, even though you might not be completely sure that the allegation is untrue. And of course, the safety plan itself could also have some impact on the person’s career. In addition, the investigation will be preserved in the files, in case you get more evidence or further allegations later. How you handle this depends partly on your safety plan and partly on whether the matter is really uncertain, or it’s pretty certain that the person is innocent. Child safety is more important than someone's career, but with careful thought, you will try to do justice to both.
Third is the impact on the person making the accusation, whose accusation has not been substantiated. It is fairly common that allegations cannot be substantiated. The most common occurrence would be an allegation that may have a basis of truth, but because of time and distance cannot be substantiated. Sometimes, memories of actual events have become intensified to where actions are perceived as abusive, when at the time they were more likely unwise or inappropriate. Or actions may have happened that would not have been considered abuse in the historical framework, but would be considered abusive in our time. Allegations that are deliberately untrue are fairly rare. In any of these scenarios, the person bringing the accusation is hurting, and reporting back to the person should be handled with great sensitivity. In addition, the person may need help and support (therapy or pastoral support).
Wrapping up an investigation is a tricky time because of all these issues. You want it to be restorative, but if not handled well, it can bring even more harm.
Disclaimer: not official legal or psychological advice or opinion
- What to Say (or Not to Say) When Someone is Fired for Sexual Harassment, Part 2
- What to Say (or Not to Say) When Someone is Fired for Sexual Harassment, Part 1
- The Give and Take of Religious Accommodations in the Workplace
- Fitness for Duty and Mental Health, Part 1
- Ten Ways to Land in Court over Sexual Harassment