By: Carol Penner

How to tell a congregation about abuse

This is a complicated question that depends upon a lot of factors. If an adult shares a story of abuse from long ago with you, it is their story, and only they should decide whether to share it more widely or not. This can be tricky, since the person might be in crisis. If they are just starting to deal with abuse, they may be having flashbacks and may not be coping well with their life. You may feel tempted to tell others about why someone is having difficulty. But resist this temptation, because healing from abuse has a lot to do with regaining control over your life. If the pastor is untrustworthy, and breaks confidentiality, it can be a real betrayal. You can, of course, encourage the person to share with others, especially a counsellor or other trusted church members, but that is their decision.

  • If the abuse is currently happening, and it involves a minor, you have a duty to report to the authorities. If it involves sexual abuse of a minor, you will want to discuss this with your pastoral team or deacons who need to know this information, as you wait to see whether charges will be laid or whether someone will be removed from the home.
  • Generally, you should be guided by the victims of abuse and their concerns. This will include secondary victims, which includes other family members. However, sometimes victims are so traumatized they want everything to remain secret, and yet there could be safety issues for others involved. For example, a man is removed from his family for sexually abusing his step-daughter. The step-daughter has had various friends over to her house from the church; you might want to be in touch with the parents of those friends, so that they can talk to their children to see if anything abusive happened to them. Sometimes Family and Children Services will make these inquiries, and you should give them time to do this. But if it becomes apparent that nothing will be done, this may be something you want to do.
  • When a story of abuse breaks in a church, often it is spread through gossip. It’s much better, if possible, to let everyone know at once, so that everyone has the same amount of accurate information. For example, if someone in your church has been arrested, you may want to have a church meeting where this can be shared. Some pastors make a decision to share this publicly through an announcement in a worship service, but this can draw criticism, since children and visitors who don’t need to know are present. Include the victims in this process, let them know what information you will be sharing, why you are doing it, and if they have any concerns.

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.

  1. People feel betrayed because they trusted someone who is not trustworthy. They feel personally betrayed that someone they knew concealed this crime or abusive behaviour.
  2. People may feel terrible because a vulnerable person they know is hurting. They may feel powerless to help or terribly angry.
  3. People may feel guilty that they did not “see through” the lies of the person who abused, or see warning signs in the person who was being abused. They may feel they should have prevented something from happening.
  4. Some people may want to offer forgiveness immediately to the person who has offended, even before they have apologized. Others may be angry at those who want to forgive, because they feel it’s inappropriate.
  5. Some people may be re-traumatized because they have their own story of abuse and have not told anyone. Or, they still have unresolved pain around it.
  6. Some people may feel traumatized because they have abused someone before and no one knows about it yet. They may be wondering whether they should confess. How the abusive person is treated in the congregation will have a big bearing on how someone else will feel about confessing to abuse from long ago.
  7. Some people will likely be angry at you as the pastor because you are not fixing the problem quickly enough or are not handling it the way they think you should.
  8. Some people will be angry at God because they wonder where God was when this was happening.

All of these feelings will be swirling around at different times and people will come to you with them. People may feel one thing the first time you talk with them and, after some thought, feel very differently the next time you meet. This can be very exhausting for the pastor.

It is important to become knowledgeable about abuse.  You don’t need to invent the wheel here.  Learn best practices from people who have been through it before. Your denominational church office will likely have resources and they can put you in touch with pastors who have been through this.

When a leader has been accused of abuse

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 honors 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:

  1. 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.
  2. Discovery: Someone comes forward with a disclosure. Community members learn about the allegations and feel torn and confused.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Group processing

  • When the abuse seems to be a major crisis in the church and many people are upset, some congregations will have meetings where people can talk together about how they are feeling. This can be helpful as long as it is planned well and moderated carefully.
  • This is always best done by an outside facilitator. Along with church leadership, you can talk ahead of time about what your goals are for this meeting. For example, you may want such a meeting so that people can share feelings openly and plan ways to support the families involved.
  • The facilitator needs to be careful about ground rules so that people use “I statements” (no blaming others or speaking for others) and so that everyone gets a chance to speak. It is never appropriate to have the person who offended or the survivor present at meetings like this.
  • The survivor may feel overwhelmed by everyone else’s emotions. The person who offended will not be helped by hearing people’s anger. There may be people who will try to spontaneously offer forgiveness to the person who offended and that will make other people angry. This meeting is about the congregation, and listening to each other, and supporting each other in a hard time.

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).

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