Reactions and Responses
The congregations or institutions in which abuse takes places are deeply affected. They become secondary victims, with members feelings betrayed by their trust in this leader. Other feelings include: shock, disbelief, confusion, doubt, fear, and a sense of vulnerability.
It is common for there to be denial or a minimization of the problem and division in the congregation as members take sides with the victim or the leader. Most congregations find it very difficult to accept a victim’s experience as truth. Congregants often find themselves unsure of who to believe; the abusive leader or the victim, who usually have two very different narratives.
From the outset it is essential that the congregation seek guidance and support from their denominational leadership and well as from a consultant experienced in responding to sexual abuse by church leaders. Often irreversible harm is done when a church board or council attempts to handle an abuse case internally without outside help. Shame and fear often prevents churches from reaching out. However, the most courageous, compassionate, and God-honouring action in the face of an abuse disclosure is to recognize that help is needed. A way forward that honours justice and healing requires honesty, humility, and the recognition that severe harm has been done.
Healing for the congregation
As secondary victims, individual congregants will have a host of various emotions, reactions, and opinions that will arise in the aftermath of a disclosure. Congregants will have unique needs in terms of processing and healing from the betrayal. While it is absolutely imperative that spaces are created for congregations to process their experience, sensitivity must be employed to ensure that the congregational impact does not overshadow the experiences of the primary victim(s). Ensuring that the victim is receiving support, care, and safety must not be neglected at the expense of caring for the community’s needs. It’s also important to remember that the victim did not “cause” the crisis that the church is facing by disclosing their experience.
As individuals and as a collective, congregants will move through various stages of emotions and meaning-making in the wake of a disclosure. The grief model by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is one framework to help individuals make sense of the various stages in which they find themselves. Larry Graham offers another description of a church’s journey towards transformation. The stages include:
- Secrecy: The abuse is occurring, but no one knows except the perpetrator, victim, and those whom the victim may have told. Any rumours of inappropriate behaviour are ignored, disbelieved, or discredited.
- Discovery: Someone comes forward with a disclosure. Community members learn about the allegations and feel torn and confused.
- Polarization: The situation becomes public and the accused may give out information to control the damage. People choose sides, either in favour of the leader or the victim.
- Recovery: The hard work of healing begins as the congregation re-examines its beliefs, structures and policies that enabled the abuse to occur. Relationships in the congregation begin to be restored. The congregation will need lots of support during this process.
- Transformation: The church makes changes in its structures and policies in order to prevent further abuse.
Here is more detailed resource that further explains these stages as well as polarities that can emerge in congregational life.
Remember that these phases are fluid and the process is not always linear. Church members move through them at their own pace, in their own way. People move back and forth between stages, and may even appear to be in more than one stage.
Resources and Guides
Healing in Congregations After Clergy Sexual Abuse: Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
Congregational Steps to Health Following Trauma
Restoring the Soul of a Church: Congregations wounded by clergy sexual misconduct (1995).