Many times when a victim of clergy abuse reports abuse, they are misunderstood and even more damage is heaped on the victim. When churches respond in the wrong way to abuse it often prolongs the healing process and heaps on more damage. When I reported the abuse to another pastor in the church where the abuse had occurred, my identity was not protected and the entire church was told an edited version of my report of abuse. Also the facts about clergy abuse were not given to other members. Many walked away from a congregational meeting thinking the abuse was actually just an affair. It was all in an effort to protect the church’s reputation, rather than the victim. As a result, our family was so traumatized we felt forced to move away from the town where the abuse occurred. Were it not for the professional counselors who have offered us support for the past few years, we would have suffered alone. I strongly encourage anyone in an abusive situation to seek help from a professional counselor, attorney or law enforcement. Below are some excellent guidelines for members and leaders in a church where abuse has been exposed can follow to minimize the damage of abuse.
From the SNAP page:
1) Remain open-minded.
The natural human instinct is to recoil from alleged horror, and to immediately assume that the allegations are false. But the overwhelming majority of abuse disclosures prove to be true. In every case, the proper and Christian response is to remain open-minded.
2) Pray for all parties involved.
Every person involved deserves and needs prayerful support.
3) Let yourself feel whatever emotions arise.
You may feel angry, betrayed, confused, hurt, worried and sad. These are all natural, “typical” responses to an allegation of sexual abuse. None of these feelings are inappropriate or “bad.” Don’t “kick yourself” for feeling any of these emotions.
4) Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common.
It’s far more widespread than any of us would like to believe. Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be molested in their lifetimes.
5) Don’t try to “guess” or figure out who the accuser is.
Abuse victims, like rape victims, need their privacy to recover from their trauma. Openly speculating about who is alleging abuse is essentially gossiping, and helps to create a hostile climate that will keep other victims (even those abused by non-clerical perpetrators) from coming forward.
6) If you do know the victim(s), protect his/her confidentiality.
There are many good reasons why abuse victims are unable to publicly come forward. Often, the person wants to keep his/her elderly parents or young children from suffering too. Don’t compound the pain he/she is in by disclosing his/her identity to others.
7) Understand that abuse victims often have “troubled” backgrounds (i.e. drug or alcohol problems, criminal backgrounds, etc.)
Instead of undermining the credibility of accusers, these difficulties actually enhance their credibility. (When someone is physically hurt, there are almost always clear signs of harm; so too with sexual abuse. The harm is reflected largely in self-destructive behaviors. One might be skeptical of a person who claimed to have been run over by a truck but showed no bodily injury. Similarly, one might be skeptical of an alleged molestation victim who always acted like a “model citizen.”)
8) Don’t allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers.
Stress to your fellow parishioners that there are many good reasons why abuse victims disclose their victimization years after the crime. In most instances, victims come forward when they are emotionally able to do so, and feel capable of risking disbelief and rejection from precious loved ones, including family members, church leaders, other authorities, and fellow church members. Sometimes, they are psychologically able to do so only after their perpetrator has died, moved or been accused by someone else. Sometimes, they have been assured that their perpetrator would never be around kids again, but have learned that this isn’t the case.
(In other cases, it takes years before victims are able to understand and/or acknowledge to themselves that they have been sexually violated. This is a common defense mechanism.)
9) Ask your family members and friends if they were victimized.
Many times, abuse victims will continue to “keep the secret” unless specifically invited to disclose their victimization by someone they love and trust. Even raising this topic can be very uncomfortable. But it must be done. It may be very awkward and your family members may even act resentful at first. But soon they will remember that you really care about them, and will see your question as a sign of that care.
10) Mention the accusation to former parishioners and parish staff now living elsewhere.
They may have information that could prove the guilt or innocence of the minister facing allegations. This is especially important because sometimes abuse victims or their families move away after experiencing abuse.
11) Contact the police or prosecutors.
It’s your duty as a citizen to call the proper civil authorities if you have any information (even if it’s “second hand” or vague) that might help prove the guilt or innocence of the accused.
It’s your duty as a Christian to help seek justice and protect others from harm. Remember: abuse thrives in secrecy. Exposing a physical wound to fresh air, clean water and sunlight can be healing. Exposing sexual crimes is also ultimately healing. And remember that police and prosecutors are unbiased professionals with the skills and experience needed to ascertain whether an allegation is true or false.
12) Don’t allow other parishioners to make disparaging comments about those making the allegation.
Remember, the sexual abuse of children has terribly damaging effects. As a Christian, you want to help prevent such victimization. And you want anyone who is in pain to get help as soon as possible. Critical comments about those who make allegations only discourage others who may have been hurt. Such remarks prevent those who need help from reaching out and getting it. Show your compassion for abuse victims. Tell your fellow parishioners that hurtful comments are inappropriate. Remind them that they can defend their minister without attacking his accuser.
13) Educate yourself and your family about sexual abuse.
There are many excellent books and resources on the subject. There are also good books specifically about molestation by clerics (Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Frank Bruni & Elinor Burkett’s Gospel of Shame, and the Boston Globe’s Betrayal). Check out the web site for clergy abuse victims: SNAPnetwork.org
14) Support the accused minister PRIVATELY.
Calls, visits, letters, gifts, and prayers – all of these are appropriate ways to express your love and concern for the accused minister. Public displays of support, however, are not. They only intimidate others into keeping silent. In fact, it is terribly hurtful to victims to see parishioners openly rallying behind an accused minister. You may want to publicly defend a minister, collect funds for the minister’s defense, and take similar steps. Please don’t. Express your appreciation of the minister in a direct, quiet ways. Even if the minister is innocent, somewhere in the parish is a young girl being molested by a relative or a boy being abused by his coach or youth leader. If these children see adults they love and respect publicly rallying around accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report their own victimization to their parents, the police, or other authorities. They will be scared into remaining silent, and their horrific pain will continue.
15) Don’t be blinded by the pain you can see.
The trauma of the accused minister, and those who care about him, is obvious. You can usually see it in his face, his posture, and his actions. But please try to keep in mind the trauma of the accuser too. Because you rarely see his/her pain directly, it’s important to try and imagine it. This helps you keep a balanced perspective.
16) Try to put yourself in the shoes of the alleged victim.
It’s easy to identify with the minister. Most Christians have met dozens of ministers and know them as warm and wonderful individuals. On the other hand, few Christians have met clergy abuse survivors. In the gospels, Jesus calls us to identify with the hurting, the vulnerable, and the innocent, the hurting. Try, as best you can, to imagine the shame, self-blame, confusion and fear that afflict men and women who have been victimized by trusted religious authority figures.
17) Use this painful time as an opportunity to protect your own family.
Talk with your children about “safe touch,” the private parts of their bodies, who is allowed to touch those parts, what to do if someone else tries, and who to tell. Urge your sons and daughters to have similar conversations with your grandchildren.
18) Turn your pain into helpful action.
In times of stress and trauma, doing something constructive can be very beneficial. Volunteer your time or donate your funds to organizations that help abused kids or work to stop molestation.
19) Keep in mind the fundamental choice you face.
On the one hand, at stake are the FEELINGS of a grown up. On the other hand, at stake is the PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, SPIRITUAL AND SEXUAL SAFETY of potentially many children. If one has to err in either direction, the prudent and moral choice is to always err on the side of protecting those who can’t protect themselves: children. Remember too that it’s easier for an adult to repair his reputation than for a child (or many children) to repair his/her psyche and life. Another way to look at this: Being falsely accused of abuse is horrific. But actually being abused, then being attacked or disbelieved is far worse.
20) Ask your pastor to bring in an outside expert or a therapist who can lead a balanced discussion about sexual abuse.
Therapists understand and can answer the questions you and your fellow parishioners are facing, and help you deal with the emotional impact of this trauma too.
21) Urge your all church employees to follow these guidelines too.
For additional reading, here is an article by Carol J. Adams: When the Abuser Is Among Us: One Church’s Response to a Perpetrator.