A large number of victims that I have talked to said that their churches failed to involve the proper authorities (2) because the churches themselves believed that they were capable of handling the situation in-house without the assistance of professionals. Many of the stories that have been shared with me have highlighted that even in instances of child rape, the sexual abuse was not reported to the police and licensed counselors were never recommended for the trauma victims.
Recently I posted my story of abuse by a spiritual leader. The response has been overwhelming as victims from literally around the world have reached out to me to share their own abuse stories. One common theme in almost all of the stories was the damaging way the leadership at their churches had handled their situation.
In light of this, I’ll share four common, destructive responses to abuse disclosure that churches often give. And, I’ll offer four healthy alternatives.
1. Instinctively Siding With The Abuser
When I reached out to church leadership about the abuse I had experienced, one of the pastors quickly began defending the abuser. I was told, “it’s not a big deal” and “he is NOT a predator”.
This response shows a positional bias. Without even putting forth the effort of an investigation, it is far too common for pastors to side with a person in an influential position rather than to take seriously the claims against him or her by a less influential individual. Statistically speaking, only about 2%-8% of abuse accusations are based on falsehoods (1).
A healthy, informed response would have been to take the accusations seriously. Recognize how difficult it is for a victim to come forward and that anyone (even a spiritual leader) is capable of great sin. Assure victims that that the church values their safety and that they will do everything in their power to protect the victim and others from further harm while they investigate the accusation.
2. Shaming and Blaming
A pastor asked me when I was disclosing the abuse I experienced, “if it was so bad, why didn’t you say anything sooner?”. Other victims have told me that pastors have questioned what they were wearing and asserted to them that it was their own fault (the way they were dressed) that they were abused.
These responses inappropriately place the blame and responsibility for the abuse on the victim instead of where it belongs… on the shoulders of the abuser. It distracts from the real issue and shifts focus towards the victim’s perceived imperfections. Victims are held to the letter of the law and abusers are given excessive amounts of what I call “cheap” grace.
A Healthy, informed response would have been to believe and reassure the victim that there is nothing they could ever do to cause someone else to hurt them. The pastor should have offered empathy for the trauma the victim had experienced rather than project judgment upon the victim.