If you know someone who has experienced clergy sexual misconduct.
- Believe: When an individual comes forward and discloses an experience of abuse, it is essential that they are taken seriously. Responses that insinuate disbelief or skepticism will further harm the victim and compound their trauma. Many people do not speak about their experiences of abuse precisely because they fear being blamed or not being believed. The most compassionate response is to listen nonjudgmentally
- Validate: Show empathy and affirm that whatever happened to them is NOT their fault. Most people who have been victimized or violated blame themselves. You hear this in comments such as, “I shouldn’t have gone to his house,” “I didn’t do anything to resist it, I should have said something” “It’s my fault because I let it happen.” There is only one person at fault and responsible for abusive behavior and that is person who abuses their power and takes advantage of someone’s vulnerability. It is so important for victim-survivors of any kind of abuse to hear that the abuse or violation is NOT their fault, and that there is nothing they did to deserve it.
- Assess Safety: The safety and wellbeing of those we care about should be our utmost priority. If the abuse happened recently or is ongoing it is imperative to explore any safety concerns the individual may have and ways to mitigate risks.
- Empower: Abuse is the ultimate form of taking away power and control from an individual. When someone comes forward and discloses abuse, we need to trust that they are the expert of their experience and respect how they would like to proceed. Present options, but refrain from discouraging or encouraging certain actions. The person who has been harmed needs to be included in the process proceeding a disclosure.
- Refer: Connect the individual to resources or organizations that can assist them and help them explore their options. If you are a pastor it is appropriate to offer spiritual support and coordinate practical assistance for the individual. However, any type of post-trauma counselling needs to be offered by a trained professional. There are many faith-based counselors trained to provide therapy to victim-survivors of abuse. It is essential that you make a referral if the individual wishes to receive counselling.
- Know limitations of confidentiality: when it’s disclosed that a pastor or church-leader has been abusive it cannot be kept a secret. The decision to report abuse or sexual violence to the police is always up to the victim. However, in situations where minors are involved or the person suspected of abuse is in a position of trust (churchleader) and is continuing to interact with other vulnerable persons, it needs to be reported to the denominational body. When a minor is involved, it must be reported to child welfare authorities. This can be scary for a victim, which is why having a support person or advocate is essential. It is best to support the victim in making this report and including them in the process. Reporting in this instances is about ensuring that other vulnerable people are not being harmed and that there can be accountability.
- Follow up – Offer to check in with the individual periodically to see how they are doing. You can ask about coping, support, and safety.
- Healing from abuse is a journey that takes time, self-compassion, and dedication. Victim-survivors may experience a host of emotions that ebb and flow over time. You can help to normalize and assure the friend or loved one that their thoughts, feelings, and reactions are normal.
- Reflect back their inner strength and acknowledge the courage it took to simply entrust their experience to you.
- Seek support for yourself—if you know the pastor it can be difficult to believe that they would act abusively. These thoughts and feelings, while normal, should not be expressed with the one you are supporting. You may want to call a confidential sexual assault crisis line or a counsellor who can help you process your own reactions.
- If the person you are supporting is struggling with depression, anxiety, or PTSD because of their experience, know that it is a normal part of sexual assault trauma. The person may need support and resources to cope well and get help. Major depression, anxiety, or PTSD should not go untreated. Seeking help through a therapist or doctor may play an important part in healing.
Understanding sexual abuse by a church leader or caregiver – MCC publication
For resources on how leaders can best respond to clergy sexual misconduct cases in a community see