Victim Protections During Trial in the PCA

The 50th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) wrapped up this week in Memphis, TN. Multiple Overtures related to abuse and victim protection were on the agenda. This article is part of a series tracking these Overtures and their progress.

Cross-Examined by Your Abuser

The Book of Church Order (BCO) contains a provision for each party in an ecclesiastical trial to be able to question the witnesses of the other party. This cross-examination is an important part of the process of uncovering truth, but, as Overture 2021-40 pointed out, it could result in a scenario like one of the following:

  • A teenage girl who was raped by a church staff member is cross-examined by the man who raped her.
  • Someone who was emotionally and/or physically abused is cross-examined by the abuser.
  • A young child who was sexually abused is cross-examined by the predator.

Overture 2021-40 (read the original text here) sought to provide protection to victims of abuse in such circumstances. The Overture as submitted (read the original text here) recommended adding the following paragraph to the end of three different chapters of the BCO (32-13, 35-1, and 35-5)

"However, throughout the trial in cases involving alleged child abuse, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, or sexual assault, a court may make reasonable accommodations to shield accusers from face-to-face contact with the accused. This can be done upon request by the accuser or when the court determines that such accommodation is necessary. Such accommodations might include procedures such as written testimony or videoconferencing testimony, in which a reasonable path for cross-examination is provided. The court shall include in the record its reasons for any accommodations and any objection from the accused to such accommodation, and the objection and the court’s response shall be included in the record."

This Overture was originally submitted to the 48th General Assembly in 2021, and was referred to the 49th General Assembly in 2022.

Amended Language

The Overtures Committee of the 49th (2022) General Assembly amended the Overture (read the rationale for changes and amended language here). The amended version of Overture 2021-40 rearranged some of the paragraphs of Chapter 35 of the BCO and added this paragraph:

35-3. A court may, at the request of either party, or at its own initiative, make reasonable
accommodation to prevent in-person contact with the accused:
a. The court may have testimony taken by videoconference. The videoconference shall
employ technical means that ensure that all persons participating in the meeting can see
and hear each other at the same time, and which allows for live cross-examination by
both parties.
b. The court may restrict the accused from appearing on the videoconference screen,
and when the accused is represented by counsel (BCO 32-19), cross-examination
shall be conducted by that counsel.
c. In all cases where such accommodation has been made, videoconference testimony
by witnesses under the age of 18 shall be taken by written interrogatory to be read
to the witness by a person appointed by the court in accordance with the applicable
provisions of BCO 35-12.
d. The court shall include in the record of the proceedings its reasons for this
accommodation and any objection from either party.

Overture 2021-40 as amended was passed by the 49th General Assembly (2022) and proceeded to the Presbyteries for ratification. Most of the Presbyteries approved Overture 2021-40 (see the voting record here) and, with the required ratification of at least two-thirds of Presbyteries, it returned to the floor of the 50th General Assembly where it was finally approved. It is now an official part of the Book of Church Order and will be reflected in the next update.

Expand to Read All Changes from Overture 2021-40

Note: Aside from the inserted text in 35-3, all other changes move text from one paragraph to another. Strikethrough indicates removed text. Bold and underlined indicates inserted text.

BCO 35-1.
All persons of proper age and intelligence are competent witnesses, except such as do not believe in the existence of God, or a future state of rewards and punishments. The accused party may be allowed, but shall not be compelled to testify; but the accuser shall be required to testify, on the demand of the accused. Either party has the right to challenge a witness whom he believes to be incompetent, and the court shall examine and decide upon his competency. It belongs to the court to judge the degree of credibility to be attached to all evidence. {Strikethrough sections moved to other paragraphs of Chapter 35.}

BCO 35-2.
The accused party is allowed, but shall not be compelled, to testify; but the accuser shall be required to testify, on the demand of the accused. A husband or wife shall not be compelled to bear testimony against one another in any court. {Inserted text moved from 35-1 to 35-2}

BCO 35-3.
A court may, at the request of either party, or at its own initiative, make reasonable accommodation to prevent in-person contact with the accused:
a. The court may have testimony taken by videoconference. The videoconference shall employ technical means that ensure that all persons participating in the meeting can see and hear each other at the same time, and which allows for live cross-examination by both parties.
b. The court may restrict the accused from appearing on the videoconference screen, and when the accused is represented by counsel (BCO 32-19), cross-examination shall be conducted by that counsel.
c. In all cases where such accommodation has been made, videoconference testimony by witnesses under the age of 18 shall be taken by written interrogatory to be read to the witness by a person appointed by the court in accordance with the applicable provisions of BCO 35-12.
d. The court shall include in the record of the proceedings its reasons for this accommodation and any objection from either party.

BCO 35-5
Witnesses shall be examined first by the party introducing them; then cross- examined by the opposite party; after which any member of the court, or either party, may put additional interrogatories. No question shall be put or answered except by permission of the moderator, subject to an appeal to the court. The court shall not permit questions frivolous or irrelevant to the charge at issue. It belongs to the court to judge the degree of credibility to be attached to all evidence. {The strikethrough section was relocated to 35-7, inserted text relocated from 35-1}

BCO 35-7
Witnesses shall be examined first by the party introducing them; then cross- examined by the opposite party; after which any member of the court, or either party, may put additional interrogatories. No question shall be put or answered except by permission of the moderator, subject to an appeal to the court. The court shall not permit questions frivolous or irrelevant to the charge at issue. {This section was relocated from 35-5 to 35-7}


Note about the numbering of Overtures: Each Overture is given a number based on the order in which it was submitted to the General Assembly. Overtures submitted in the current year have a simple number (i.e. 9 or 41). However, Overtures submitted in a previous year have a prefix indicating the year of original submission (such as 2021-41) to distinguish from Overtures with the same number submitted in other years or the current year.

About the author 

Lynna Sutherland

Lynna has been in the PCA since 1982. Four generations of her family have participated in PCA church planting. Lynna has been around long enough to see the good, the bad, and the ugly and her particular calling is to equip the people in the pew to understand their church government and to advocate for victims of abuse in the PCA.

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