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Thou Shalt Not Disclose: How Churches and Ministries Use Legal Agreements to Silence Victims and Conceal Sin

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If you’re famous, powerful, and wealthy, NDAs can cover up your dirty deeds. 

Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Bill Cosby, The Catholic Church, and Donald Trump have used nondisclosure agreements to hide sexual abusehelping them abuse again. 

The goal is to shut people up. Because former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson signed a nondisclosure agreement as part of her $20 million settlement of sexual abuse claims against Roger Ailesshe was prohibited from consulting on Bombshell, the recent movie about her ordeal, or talking to journalists about her experience. 

So why are Christian churches and nonprofit organizations increasingly relying on this legal maneuver? That’s the question World magazines Mindy Belz asked in her 1,900-word article, “Silence of the sheep.” 

The October 2019 article’s subhead spells out an answer: “Christian nonprofits and churches have adopted practices from the for-profit world of avoiding liability, sometimes leading to devastating outcomes.”

“Done right,” Belz wrote, “confidentiality agreements help institutions protect members’ privacy and can fend off ruinous litigation. But NDAs can also mask institutional disease and leader misconduct. And even when an institution doesn’t enforce its NDA, the widespread institutional fear of liability can lead to unintended, devastating outcomes.” 

A month later, Christianity Today’s Morgan Lee and Mark Galli interviewed Belz for the Quick to Listen podcast. Belz said that when many churches face problems with misconduct, priority number one isn’t caring for the victim or rooting out the causes of the misconduct. 

Instead, priority number one is avoiding legal liability by locking up all evidence of organizational negligence. As Belz said: “So the point of private settlements is, ‘We’re going to have this person leave the organization without litigation and save ourselves a lot of money.’ ” 

Tool for Good and Bad 

Healthy churches may use nondisclosure agreements for legitimate ends, such as preventing staff members from divulging who puts how much into the collection plate.  

But unhealthy churches—including Mars Hill, Harvest Bible Chapel, and Willow Creek Community Church—have weaponized legal agreements of various kinds to silence  members and staff who were troubled by habitual sin, financial fraud, or cultic practices. 

Scot McKnight is a New Testament scholar, prolific author, and former member of Willow Creek, which is reeling from the early retirement of founding pastor Bill Hybels due to sexual abuse allegations that Hybels continues to deny. More recent allegations say Hybels’ esteemed mentor Gilbert Bilezikian abused a woman at the church in the 1980s but continued in ministry there long after elders had been informed about his behavior. 

McKnight lashed out against nondisclosure agreements — and their cousin, nondisparagement agreements — iSeptember 2018 Patheos blog post, “Non-Disparagement Agreements And Truth-Telling In The Church.” 

Money being offered in non-disparagement agreements can be a messy and sometimes profoundly evil transaction. At times people are asked with an offer of money to hide acts that are wrong, evil, and even criminal; some are asked for money not to talk about a corrupted institution.

no one with a theologically-informed ethic should be thinking of nondisparagement agreements when the issue is dirt on the floor in the church. Such a person, instead of advocating silence, should be advocating rebuke and repentance and a return to basics, including unflinching truth telling. 

Willow Creek responded to McKnight’s criticism with a statement published in the Christian Post. 

McKnight isn’t alone. Others have criticized NDAs on moral, ethical, and legal grounds, arguing that:

  • They are virtually unenforceable; 
  • Their real purpose is to intimidate people into silence; 
  • In churches and ministries, they can foster working environments and cultures that prioritize privacy over transparency, concealment over accountability. 

Birth and Growing Use of a Legal Tactic   

Tech companies began using NDAs in the mid-20th century to protect vital new technologies  and trade secrets. By the 80sall kinds of companies were using them to protect all kinds of information. 

Lately, more churches and ministries are following suit. Belz says lawyers who created NDAs in the corporate world recommended that churches and ministries be “smart” and seek similar protection for their assets. 

She cites one NDA turned over to her by an employee of a Christian radio station preventing employees from communicating “any information of any kind.” 

When Belz said NDAs can lead to “devastating outcomes,” she wasn’t overstating the problem. 

We’ve seen how the Catholic church’s old policy of nondisclosure has played out in the last few decades. Now, some evangelical churches have seen their hidden sins exposed in the #MeToo movement’s aftermath. 

The Houston Chronicle’s 2019 investigative series into sexual abuse within Southern Baptist Convention found more than 260 offenders—including some who were silently moved from church to church—who abused more than 700 victims over the last 20 years. 

One official with the SBC’s Texas Convention told the Chronicle:  

We know of churches and institutions that have written policies never to disclose the reason for a termination to anyone seeking a job reference. The sole purpose of these policies is to minimize exposure to civil liability. But we are not ordinary businesses. We believe that it rests on us a moral obligation that demands more. 

The Chronicle’s series led the Texas legislature to pass a law allowing nonprofits to disclose accusations of sexual misconduct against staff or volunteers. 

Kicking the Can Down the Road 

There’s a familiar pattern to the way churches and ministries use NDAs, Belz told the podcast Quick to Listen”: 

What happens often is that someone will leave an institution over some sort of misconduct and will quietly sign some severance agreement, then the institution can’t really give any sort of detailed reference to the next institution that hires that person. We’ve seen this happen so many times where there’s just not information sharing between institutions because of fear of liability and often that goes back to confidentiality agreements. 

Belz’s story cites one devastating scandal currently working its way through the courts. A children’s ministry volunteer named Jacop Hazlett may have abused 15 children at three SBC churches. 

Lawsuits claim that two North Carolina churches — Cove Church and Elevation Church — removed Hazlett from their children’s ministries out of concern for his behavior. But they never disclosed that information to the folks down at South Carolina’s 23,000-member NewSpring Church, one of the fastest-growing churches in the country, where Hazlett served as a children’s ministry volunteer. 

Other cases that weren’t included in the World article show further problems with NDAs. 

The former chief financial officer at John Gray’s troubled South Carolina megachurch, Relentless Church, allegedly violated an NDA when he spoke out about Gray’s financial misconduct, which included buying his wife a $200,000 Lamborghini sports car. 

A Mormon mother whose four-year-old daughter was abused by a neighborhood Mormon teen was later asked to sign an NDA when the team wanted to go on a mission. After the mother declined to sign, a church stake president warned her that the sins of the people that (the teen) would have baptized would be on our heads.” 

The World Mission Society Church of God in Ridgewood, New Jersey, which was founded in South Korea and had predicted the end of the world by 2012, required members to sign NDAs protecting its financial practices and cultic techniques, threatening those who didn’t sign with punishment by God in a fiery hell. 

Some Christians have declared that all NDAs are inherently evil and cultic. 

“Plain and simple, if your ‘church’ asks you to sign something promising secrecy it only means that they have secrets to keep that could embarrass, and thereby impoverish, the ‘ministry,’” reads one online post. 

Others say NDAs have their place, but argue Christians should never use them to protect stronger parties (leadership of churches and organizations) against weaker parties (individuals who are applying or resigning from jobs) to prevent them from telling the truth. 

“The only reason for asking for the agreement is because it knows something that is wrong has been done and it wants it not known,” complained Scot McKnight. 

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.