Too often, when issues of sexual abuse come up, the Church simply stays silent. But a Gospel-centered response to sexual violation of anyone at any age begins with understanding that silence is not an option.
When the Church community is a safe place, survivors of sexual abuse regain momentum and hope for their future. It is crucial that their safety is associated with a house of worship, where they can love God and exercise their rights and privileges as an equal and belonging member. No matter what created your injury or mine, we are designed to heal with people. We are designed to be restored in connection.
When sexual abuse survivors are validated by the Church, they begin to know that their pain is part of their story, but not the core of who they are. But when a survivor is misunderstood, shamed or rejected by the Church, she is likely to dam the flow of what she feels. Instead of sharing the process of healing with a community of believers, she can fall into surviving on the empty calories of addictive work styles, religiosity, perfectionism, promiscuity, addiction and other escapist activity.
Survivors need the expertise of knowledgeable therapists as well as the compassion and safety of everyday people. But if churches really want to handle cases of sexual abuse well, survivors also desperately need pastors and clergy to share their pain and educate congregants about the prevalence of sexual trauma in the world today. Church leaders need to stand by the oppressed sister or child use their resources—practical, financial and spiritual—to fight for victims. After all, Jesus was our advocate before He was anything else.
Here are some practical ways church leaders should respond to the issue of sexual abuse:
Learn the Facts About the Rampancy of This Problem
Globally, one in three women will be victimized sexually in her lifetime.
Rape is the fastest growing crime and the most underreported violent crime.
60 million children in America alone are victims of childhood sexual abuse.
At least 10 percent of married women are being raped by their husbands.
Because these statistics represent an underreported concern—63 percent of the time, these crimes are not reported—we can safely increase these numbers by 25 percent. (Sources for these statistics and more can be found on sites such as ParentsforMegansLaw.org, RAINN.org, WHO.int, GNESA.org, and NDAA.org.)
Mandate That the Children’s Ministry Staff Be Trained in Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA) Prevention
Offer CSA prevention trainings for the adults in your church community. In doing so, your ministry can become known for the priority you place on protecting those under 18 years of age. In addition to strengthening your congregation in this way, you also ward off potential perpetrators and teach volunteers to recognize signs of abuse.
Speak From the Pulpit About the Reality of This Problem
Speak to the survivor individually—tell them of their value and that they are designed to be honored, safe and dignified. But don’t stop there. Give the statistics from the pulpit, speak directly about the perpetrators who mock and demoralize those God has entrusted them to cherish.
Act on Reports of Abuse
If someone discloses that they are being abused or have been violated, tell them that you believe them and will not abandon them (the average of false reporting is only 2 percent). Ask for permission to act. Call local authorities, such as the police, child protection services and other trusted adults in the community. Gather names of recommended therapists, and begin the hunt for the advice you need to nurture, comfort and support this person.
If someone discloses that there are abuses in your church, call the police.
Show Righteous Anger
Don’t dismiss the severity of what has happened. Allow the victim to be angry that they were violated. Join them in their feelings. Don’t counter them with adages, Christian language or Bible verses about forgiveness.
Develop a referral network for counseling that is both in-house (if your church has this) and/or in the community for therapists and attorneys who specialize in sexual trauma.
Remember, it’s less what you say and more what you do. Abuse victims hear your words, but they mostly gauge the spirit and intention of your behavior.
In my own journey, I have found many tools that have given me the courage to continue to stand with other survivors. One of these is a powerful statement written by the executive director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment), Boz Tchividjian. I encourage you to allow it to inspire your determination to act on behalf of the abused:.
We must face the truths of our own teachings:
To be a shepherd in the body of Christ and blind to the knowledge that your sheep are being abused by wolves in your midst is to be an inattentive shepherd.
To judge merely by outward appearances is a failure of righteousness.
To fail to obey the laws of the land as Scripture commands by declining to report and expose abuse is to be a disobedient shepherd.
To be told that wolves are devouring our lambs and fail to protect those lambs is to be a shepherd who sides with the wolves who hinder those same little ones from coming to Jesus.
To fail to grasp the massive web of deception entangling an abuser and set him or her loose among the sheep is to be naïve about the very nature and power of sin.
To be told a child is being or has been abused and to make excuses for failing to act is a diabolical misrepresentation of God.
To know a woman is being raped or battered in hidden places and silence her or send her back is to align with those who live as enemies of our God.
Protecting an institution or organization rather than a living, breathing lamb is to love ministry more than God and to value a human name or institution more than the peerless name of Jesus.
Jesus said in describing anyone who would harm “one of these little ones” that it would be better for the abuser to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea (see Mark 9:42). Jesus would never condone protecting the abuser at the expense of the abused.
Together, “we [can] eliminate harmful beasts from the land, make places of blessing for the sheep, deliver them from their enslavers and make them secure in places where no one will make them afraid” (Ezekiel 34: 25-28).
Many voices in support of abuse survivors silences the shame that kills their hope. Together we can do this.
Licensed clinical social worker and President of Mann Counseling Group, P.C., Mary Ellen Mann has dedicated her life to empowering women devastated by the aftermath of sexual trauma. In From Pain to Power: Overcoming Sexual Trauma and Reclaiming Your True Identity, Mann combines clinical expertise with profound Biblical truths.