4 Common Ways Churches Fail Abuse Victims (and What To Do Instead)
Last week 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 judgement upon the victim.
3. Silencing The Victims and Covering Up the Abuse
Pastors often attempt to silence victims thereby covering up the abuse. A subtle example would be how the lead pastor told my husband he was taking the matter seriously; but, he failed to follow up with him even one time… even after my husband had reached back out to him. Other times, the abuse is more overt. A pastor told me that if I shared my story that it would crush me, ruin my husband’s business, and make him (the pastor) have to step down from the ministry. And then, in a follow up conversation the same pastor said, “I believe YOU believe that happened; but, I don’t actually believe it happened that way.”
These are just a couple of examples of overt and covert attempts at silencing victims in order to cover up the abuse situation. If false reassurance doesn’t work, they often use a method called gaslighting whereby they attempt to change your perception of reality. And if that doesn’t work, they often resort to threats and manipulation.
A healthy, informed response would have been to praise the victim for being so brave as to come forward with this important information. Then, promise to take the matter seriously but then actually follow through by reaching out to the proper professionals and authorities. Pastors should assist in anyway possible to make sure no one else had been hurt while encouraging the victim to feel safe speaking about their experiences.
4. Failing To Report To The Proper Authorities
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. When I shared my abuse experience, the assistance of professionals was completely rejected and I was told that if I wanted to speak up and pursue legal protection that I would be “putting a blot on the name of Christ”.
Victims have shared with me their accounts of how failing to report abuse to the police has resulted in additional abuse and has even led to more victims. They have shared how substituting the counseling of a licensed therapist for that of an untrained pastor re-victimizes the abused and allows the perpetrators to go free with the potential of continuing to harm others. Refusing to involve professionals whether it be law enforcement, licensed counselors, lawyers, trained victim advocates or investigators only further damages the victim and almost always allows the perpetrator to continue offending.
A healthy, informed response would have been to reach out to trained professionals and authorities immediately following abuse disclosure in order to gain guidance and direction. Even if a state does not enforce mandatory reporting, pastors are under moral obligation to report crimes. Unless the pastor is also licensed and trained in the specific discipline of counseling domestic violence victims, they should have a list of reputable therapists on hand and encourage the victims (and sometimes the abusers depending on the situation) to seek out a professional counselor they feel comfortable with.
Churches responding horrifically with silencing and cover-up tactics to abuse disclosure is happening at epic proportions (3). This is a cancer eating away at the Bride of Christ, destroying Her from the inside out.
I love the Church! In fact, I AM a member of the Church!! And that is why we’ve got to stop this epidemic from spreading!
It’s not too late to stem the tide of abuse within the Church and stop the terrible cover-ups and pastoral neglect from continuing to sweep the nation. However, if we ever hope to do this, we have to start speaking up about abuse and educating our leadership, our congregations, and our families.
Notes and Sources:
(2) 68% of sexual assaults are not reported to the police. -RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network)
(3) According to founder of G.R.A.C.E. ministry (A Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments), Boz Tchividjian, the evangelical church is worse in the area of abuse than the Catholic church because of the independent nature of the protestant structure and the prevalence of leadership frowning on “whistle-blowers”. -Huffington Post