Approximately one in four girls and one in six boys suffer abuse in their lifetimes. This means that, as we look out into our congregations, it is likely many have experienced this brokenness—and may even be currently experiencing it as we minister.
If you have a congregation of 100, then approximately 25 women and 17 men have experienced it. And we know through multiple sources that sexual abuse (and covering it up) occurs both in Protestant and Catholic congregations.
Sexual abuse can impact a person’s relationship with self, community, and God, and must be taken seriously as a ministry concern.
Sexual abuse is defined as when a person, especially a child, is “forced or persuaded to take part in sexual activities;” this can include both contact and non-contact abuse and includes grooming the person for abuse and/or making them watch sexually explicit material. In other words, sexual abuse is not merely rape or molestation; it includes the actions around and connected to that.
“Grooming” includes building trust with the individual in order to exploit him or her. Often, abusers not only abuse the victim but will groom the community around the victim. Sixty percent of sexually abused children are abused by a person the family trusts. This makes it even more difficult for victims to come forward and, if they do, makes it likely that they will not be believed.
It is also important to recognize the aspect of power in sexual abuse.
Sexual abuse occurs whenever there is an imbalance of power—an adult with a child, an employer with an employee, or a pastor with a parishioner.
When a pastor uses *his office to coerce someone into a relationship, this is abuse. Many times, when a married pastor has sex with a congregant, the incident is referred to as an “affair.” However, this is sexual abuse due to the multi-faceted ways he is abusing his power as a minister and using it to coerce someone under his care. When we call this an affair, it puts blame on the victim rather than holding the abuser accountable.
(*Note: For the sake of brevity, I use “he” to refer to the abuser since men are statistically more likely to abuse, while also recognizing that women also can and are abusers; I also use “he” for pastor while recognizing that women are also pastors.)
Abuse is antithetical to the gospel.
The heart of the gospel is God’s one-way love toward wayward sinners who are disgraced, powerless, and unable to rescue themselves.
As Paul writes in Philippians 2:6-8,
“[Jesus] who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage…made himself nothing, by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
God himself in Christ put aside his power in order to rescue and redeem us. When a person abuses another person, he uses his power not to love and serve his neighbor and to glorify God, but rather to use his neighbor for his own selfish means and self-gratification. This abuse can cause immense emotional, mental, relational, physical, and spiritual damage.
Sexual abuse is not only a sin but a crime and, therefore, should be reported to the appropriate authorities.
As people committed to truth, we should also be willing to allow independent investigations into abuse, so as to be above reproach and mitigate further harm to the abused. While congregations and pastors should offer support and care to the survivor, they need not and should not try to “figure out if it’s true” before alerting the authorities, since this can cause more harm and retraumatize the survivor. Rather, congregations should allow those who are professionally trained to handle and investigate abuse to do their jobs without hindrance.
If someone trusts you enough to share that they are being abused, or if their behavior seems to indicate abuse (a child having explicit sexual knowledge that is not appropriate for her age, for example), then report it to DHR/CPS. If you’re a clergyperson, depending on your state, you may be legally mandated to do so.
Sexual abuse is not just a problem “out there” but is something the church must recognize and address.
Christ calls us to care for the vulnerable and to seek justice for the oppressed. When we ignore abuse, we ignore the darkness within which Christ has called us to be a light.
Instead, the Church should be known as a safehaven and place of healing. Rather than covering up abuses or sacrificing the abused to the idol of our ministry’s “image,” the Church should advocate for victims and allow Christ to purify her. As St. Augustine writes in his sermon on Psalm 31:
“Pray, who is without sin? Who shall boast that he has a pure heart? Who shall boast that he is clear of sin? He had sins then, but in his perversity he forgot where he was standing; he was so to speak, in the doctor’s consulting room for treatment—and he exhibited his sound members but hid his wounds! Let God, not yourself, cover your sores. For if you insist on hiding them for shame, the physician will not cure them. Let the physician cover them and cure them; for he will cover them with a dressing. Under the physician’s covering the wound heals; under the patient’s covering it is merely hidden. From whom are you hiding it? From One who knows all things.”
Even when the accused is a trusted clergyperson or lay leader, we, as those committed to Christ, must seek out the truth. This may cause pain for the community in the short-term, but not as much pain as ignoring the abuse or abandoning the abused. It is much better to address the wound caused by abuse immediately rather than to attempt to cover it ourselves and allow it to continue to fester.
Furthermore, it is important for Christians to understand the role of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration in the healing process. Unfortunately, many times, Christians place further burdens on the abused. The abused hear, “Why can’t you forgive him or her so we can move on?” rather than see the perpetrator held accountable for his sin. Repentance looks like a turning from sin and accepting the temporal consequence of one’s sin. For abuse, that means being willing to submit oneself to the law and to allow the victim to determine how the relationship will proceed, which may include ending contact permanently.
Forgiveness is an ongoing process and does not always result in reconciliation (being able to have a relationship again) or restoration (returning the relationship to the same level of intimacy as before;— for example, a couple remaining married and restoring intimacy in their relationship after an affair). For those who have experienced abuse, reconciliation or restoration this side of heaven can actually be inadvisable or unwise. Just because a survivor does not want to speak to their abuser does not mean they are not moving toward forgiveness or have already forgiven their abuser.
Suggested action steps
Hopefully, many may ask, “How can I help?” or “What can I do?” If you’d like to learn more about how your church can proactively address the issue of sexual abuse, here are some suggestions.
- Pray! Ask the Lord to show you your own sin and misconceptions about sexual assault and abuse and how he may be leading you and your church to care for survivors.
- Connect with organizations like Child Advocacy Centers or Rape Crisis Centers, which can offer training on how to recognize and respond to abuse and see what ways your church may also be a resource or partner for them.
- Reach out to organizations like GRACE, which can offer resources including a safeguarding certification, independent investigations, and organizational assessments.
- Read and listen to the stories of survivors. For example, What Is a Girl Worth? by Rachael Denhollander.
- Be willing to listen with a humble heart. Rather than offering solutions or trying to “fix” what happened, ask what it is the survivor needs from you and follow through with it.
- Talk with survivors and consider how your sermons and teachings may be sensitive to their specific needs and experiences.
- Consider the practical needs that survivors have, including trauma-informed therapy and assistance with childcare, meals, transportation, etc. during legal proceedings. Identify ways to assist with these things through the church.
Rebecca Henderson is a Licensed Master Social Worker and ordained deacon in ADOTS. She lives in Birmingham, AL and works as a sexual assault counselor. Rebecca serves on the ADOTS Sexual Misconduct Advisory Committee, which works to review policies and procedures surrounding sexual abuse and harassment. Rebecca is married to James, whom she met while pursuing her Master of Arts in Theological Studies at Beeson Divinity School.