By: Carol Penner
Providing long-term support and accountability for people who have abused
People who have been abused will often find it impossible to worship in the same space as the person who abused them. Even after the person who abused them comes back from jail, they may feel unsafe. There are resources to help congregations think about including people who have committed crimes (see the resource section).
Sometimes there are people in our congregations who do terrible things. As a church community, it’s important to listen to survivors and believe them. False accusations are very rare.
We may be tempted to disbelieve a survivor because we like the person who is accused. They have never hurt us, and so we think that it’s unlikely they ever hurt anyone else. People who abuse cover their tracks really well. They may be a “super achiever” in other areas of their life, including church life. Sometimes it’s the best volunteer in church, the biggest giver, or the kindest person who beats their partner, or sexually abuses their child. Just because someone is wonderful to everyone else doesn’t mean that they are not abusive. It is a sad reality that very good people can do very bad things.
It is extremely important for the church to name sexual and physical abuse as a crime and to report it to the authorities. It is very common for people who sexually abuse children or abuse their partners to deny that they’ve done it. Or they may minimize what they’ve done. That is why it is important for the courts to determine what has happened, and for professionals to do an investigation.
People who abuse are hurting inside. In order for them to address the deep sin in their lives, they need to be held accountable. This will be a long road, and they need people who will walk that road with them. Walking with a person who has abused does not mean that you will believe everything they say. Since you know that they are very good at lying, you will need to be careful not to be manipulated by them. They may try to get you on “their side.” They may try to paint themselves as the biggest victim in the story. They often have little or no insight into the harm they have caused but will understand only after intensive therapy and hard personal work.
What you can do is be a friend. Tell them you care. Visit them in prison. Encourage them to take responsibility and to go for therapy. Walking with someone does not mean being an intermediary. They may try to use you to advocate for them in the congregation or to convey messages to the person they’ve hurt. For a long time they will be trying to control the process, and they may want to over-rule what is being said about them by the person they’ve hurt.
Pray for them and with them. Hopefully God can bring them to a place of repentance and empathy. Educate yourself about abuse and people who abuse. There are excellent resources to help you be a better support person.
Being a safe place
Survivors rarely are able to worship in a place where the person who abused them is present. This is true even when the person who abused has “paid their debt to society,” and returned from jail. See the resource section about guidelines around including people who have committed violent crimes.
Survivors who have been shaped by trauma may feel that they are refugees entering a new country. Your congregation can be a home for the survivor in practical ways. You can offer financial help to cover the cost of counselling or offer childcare, prepare meals or do laundry. It can mean accompanying a survivor to court, or being available by phone when anxiety strikes. It can involve making sure services in the church are critical of patriarchal biases. It can mean acknowledging that the nuclear family with the mother, father and children is not the only acceptable Christian model.
A church can also help by including prayers for survivors in their worship services. A minister can receive training on survivor issues. Bible study can focus on texts that talk about violence against women. If the congregation presents itself as a place where abuse is recognized, and not tolerated, survivors may feel more willing to identify themselves.
Creating a home for survivors is hard work. It’s relational. It’s open to failure. It’s not always a straightforward process. Even in “successful” congregations there is still anger, misunderstandings and hurt feelings. Churches create a home not by being perfect, but by their level of commitment to trying to create that space together.
When you support a survivor, you start to look at your church and your society differently. You wonder how abuse can be tolerated. You wonder why more is not done to help survivors or prevent abuse. Most people do not realize at the beginning of the journey how long healing takes or how the journey would change them so profoundly.
Helping survivors is not something we do for “them.” When a community opens up and helps a survivor of abuse, they are themselves transformed. Working to end abuse is a task to which the church is called. Doing that in community, through supportive congregations, makes sense.
At the same time, congregations need to think about how to be supportive to people who have been abusive. If we demonize and cast out people who abuse, we are sending a strong message that they are beyond God’s love. Instead, people who have abused need to be cared for and included in ways that are safe for the community. Remember, there are always people in your congregation who have abused or are abusing others, but we don’t know who they are. They are watching your actions. You want to act in ways that encourage people to come forward and take responsibility for the harm they’ve done. They are more likely to do this if the congregation shows love and concern for everyone.
In a similar way, there are many survivors of abuse in the congregation who have never told their story. They are watching how survivors are treated, and this may determine whether they reach out for help.
Sex Offenders in the Pews: Jimmy Hinton article
A Careful Grace: Accountability for Sex Offenders in the Church: Simon Bass article
Ministering to Adult Sex Offenders: Victor Vieth