While all churches should have policies on how to receive a disclosure of clergy sexual misconduct, child abuse, or interpersonal harassment/assault within the church, policies don’t necessarily gives us the tools or language for how to respond in a practical and compassionate way. For those in pastoral ministry hearing about experiences of abuse is common. We know that 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men experience sexual abuse in their lifetime. Thus, knowing how to respond when someone shares this type of trauma is important knowledge for all of us, but especially those in pastoral or leadership roles.
- Take it seriously
- Refrain from probing or interrogating; it’s not your job to figure out if it’s true or not.
“I believe you”
- Recognize the courage it took to say something
- Be an active listener and non-judgmental. Asking “why” questions often feels judgmental. “ Why didn’t you say something sooner?” “Why didn’t you tell him to stop?”
- Normalize their emotional reactions whatever they might be.
- Remember: It does not matter what the victim-survivor did or did not do before, during, or after the incident – it is never their fault.
“What happened is not your fault”
- Are there immediate or ongoing safety concerns for the individual who has disclosed?
- Are there minors or other vulnerable people who could be at risk?
- Explore how to re-establish a sense of safety. What accommodations might be helpful?
“When do you find yourself feeling the most uptight and unsafe?” “Do you have any worries or anxieties being at home, at school, at church, at work, etc?”
- Refer to someone who can help the individual explore their options. Let the person decide what they need from these options (medical, legal, therapeutic).
- Let them know who they can turn to for support and guidance. If the person would rather talk to someone else, don’t be offended.
- The victim-survivor should be fully aware of what is being done, who is being contacted, etc. at all times. Always include the victim in any recourse process and check-in.
- Creatively explore ways for the individual to have agency and gain a sense of control, while balancing the need to firm about safety concerns.
- As we mentioned, you have a role to play to help re-establish safety. If there aren’t safety concerns, it’s the victim’s prerogative to decide how to proceed.
“What would you like to see happen?” “What do you feel you need to move forward?”
Understand duty to report and limitations of confidentiality.
- If you have reason to believe that a minor is experiencing abuse or is in need of protection YOU MUST report it.
- When an adult discloses abuse it is their choice whether to report, however, if the person who acted abusively is in a position of leadership within the church it needs be reported to Denominational leadership. When a church leader is meeting with vulnerable people, we cannot assume that the abuse isn’t occurring elsewhere. The victim also has the right to report to law enforcement.
“Since what happened involves a leader, I need to report this because other people could be at risk. Would you like to report this together? What concerns do you have about this being reported?”
After-care and support
- Ask if you can check-in periodically, or if they would like to be contacted by others who are informed.
- Ensure they are receiving support: Would they like to receive counselling? Can the church pay for this? Is there a group of individuals in the church who can confidentially offer practical, emotional, spiritual support? Would the person appreciate having an advocate? (especially if the situation is going to be reported)
- Couples counselling is not advised in situations of domestic violence.
- Patience; the journey of healing is a long road.
“What would you find most helpful right now?”
See Mennonite Church USA Prevention and Response: Sexual Abuse and Non-Credentialed Individuals for further guidelines and suggestions for responding to disclosures in a church setting.
Responding to those who abuse
By: Carol Penner
Hopefully the person accused of abuse is confronted by law enforcement authorities, but sometimes this is not the case. Perhaps a victim comes to you and is adamant that they won’t call the police but they want you to talk to their partner. Sometimes people involve their pastor in a crisis. How do you prepare for this conversation?
- You want to encourage them to call the police. A crime has been committed. You have to tell them the violence has to stop. You have to explain to them what abuse is, and that it is a crime.
- When people who abuse are confronted about their behaviour, the majority of them lie about what happened or is happening. People who abuse have all sorts of rationalizations. They blame everyone but themselves for their own behaviour. It is not uncommon for them to try to turn the tables and say that it is their partner who is abusing them.
- Don’t be surprised if you wonder whether abuse is really happening after you talk with them. They will probably be very good at manipulating you, casting doubts in your mind. They will have covered their tracks very well. This puts you as a pastor in an awkward position, because you have to disbelieve your church member. As pastors, we usually trust people when they tell us their story. You probably think that you are good at detecting liars, but you likely don’t have enough expertise to see through people who abuse.
- Get help. Consult with professionals who can offer you guidance and assistance. When accusations are made, pastoral care for the accused can mean listening, but it cannot mean offering assurances, even though the pastor may be pressured by the accused to answer, “Do you believe me?”
- One of the things abusers often do is paint themselves as the victim. They will try to convince everyone that no one is suffering as much as them. They might say that they are being falsely accused or that everyone is out to get them. They will say this so often, and so convincingly, that they may sway church members to believe them. This may divide the congregation. The pastor needs to model care and concern for everyone, while prioritizing safety for people who have laid abuse complaints.
- The pastor’s number one priority is for the most vulnerable. People who use abuse may need multiple forms of support and assistance: law enforcement officers, social workers, psychologists, parole officers, psychiatrists. The pastor, by being aware of the dynamics of people who abuse, must withhold judgement.
- Remorse is only a first step. Remorse merely shows that the person is sorry about what happened. Leaders in the church may see remorse, and jump immediately to the idea of mediation. Many churches believe that the best model of healing broken relationships is mediation, where the two people get together with another person present in order to talk out their differences. This model, based on Matthew 18, may work in cases where the people in dispute have equal amounts of power. In relationships that are abusive, there is a power imbalance, and the person who has been abused can NEVER “just” come and talk. There will always be fear involved. Remorse does not mean the relationship is ready to be repaired. The healing journey is only just beginning.
Remorse is not enough
- Remorse is a positive step in the right direction, but repentance is an important next step. Repentance means “to turn around,” to change one’s actions, and to start a new way of living in the world. Most people who abuse cannot reach repentance by themselves. They need professional help to explore why they were abusive, and help them to understand empathetically what it is they have done.
- When they have truly realized the depth of their violence, they may be ready to repent. Repentance may happen in the court process, when they hear a judge tell them they have committed a crime. Repentance may come in the long months or years of a prison sentence. Or repentance may come when friends stay the course and love them, while still holding them accountable for what they’ve done.
- True repentance is accompanied by a desire to make restitution. Justice-making isn’t something that just happens with words. Restitution is the positive, concrete ways that the offending person shows that they want to right what they have done wrong. This may mean paying for counselling for the survivor or replacing items they have damaged. It may mean giving the abused person space because that is what she needs. In the healing journey, the person who has been victimized is in control. The person who abused is not in control, and that can be very hard for them to accept.
- Forgiveness is a very complicated topic with people who have offended. They may quickly want to be forgiven, long before they have come to terms with what they’ve done, and long before they have repented, or said they were sorry. A quick “Sorry” to someone who has been violated is more hurtful than anything else. Remember, the victim may have heard a lot of private “Sorries,” so it likely is meaningless to them. People who abuse hope that “Sorry” is a “Get out of jail free card.”
- As a pastor, you can acknowledge the desire for forgiveness, while saying that there is a right time to pursue that, but that time is not now. Only after there has been ample time for repentance, for acknowledgement of the crime, and for restitution, forgiveness discussions can start to happen. Of course, God can forgive us long before human beings can do this; you can always pray for God’s forgiveness. God knows the human heart, and our true state of mind.