Pastors who re-victimize survivors of abuse

11sadGot this letter in. If you’re a Christian pastor who ever counsels women who have been abused, please read it. If you’re the kind of pastor this survivor writes about—the kind who, one way or another, blames the victim—either change, please, or do the world a favor and find yourself another vocation.

Hi John,

I really liked what you had to say in your post To a Gay Anti-Christian Who Suddenly Converted. This especially struck a chord with me:

Becoming a Christian doesn’t solve all your psychological problems. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean the angst of life just suddenly evaporates from your life. Christianity does grant you a comprehensive context for understanding the whole of the human experience. And that’s hardly nothin’. But it’s not everything. God gives you the big picture; but a lot of the little picture is still yours to paint. You still have to deal with whatever it is in your life that’s causing you whatever pain or trouble it might be. If you had a crappy childhood, for instance, then becoming a Christian doesn’t instantly resolve whatever psychological legacy with which that may have left you burdened. (I wish it did!) Everyone, Christian or not, ultimately has to take out their own garbage.

I volunteer for an organization that helps survivors of sexual violence. It’s my way of giving back the infinite amount of support I received from them as a survivor of incest, domestic violence and rape. I’d go so far as to say the group for which I now volunteer saved my life by helping me see that there was a life beyond the horror of PTSD, beyond the loss I experienced after cutting off contact with my birth family.

I have gained a lot of experience, and learned so much by reading how others have had their lives impacted spiritually because of rape, incest, and sexual abuse. In fact I came across your blog when I found the articles you wrote about defending a survivor’s right to not forgive those who have sexually abused them. [I believe she’s referring to my posts Six Things to Know About Sexual Abuse and Forgiveness, Sexual Abuse and the Luck of the Draw, and As a Christian, Must She Forgive the Brother Who Raped Her?] The two things about this issue that strike me the most are:

1. Spiritual damage and spiritual abuse, in conjunction with other types of violence/abuse, are probably some of the most misunderstood and unaddressed areas where people need help when seeking healing.

2. A lot of churches—Catholic, Protestant, fundamentalist, etc.—have painted a false picture of God’s role in the healing process. You are so right: we must take out our own garbage. But so many pastors pull that “Hallelujah, the LAWD will HEAL ya!” crap. And so many vulnerable victims and survivors want to believe it’s true: that Christ will almost quite literally come straight down from Heaven and with his bare hands take their pain away.

Then, gradually, they discover the truth, which is that God doesn’t send them a lightning bolt of miraculous healing. Then they start asking themselves questions like, Why isn’t God healing me? Shouldn’t I be over it now? It’s been two months, six months, a year already. Why do I still hurt? Why am I still angry at my rapist/abuser? Why did God even allow this to happen to me at all?

Sometimes survivors are able to reconcile such gnawing questions with their own answers, and in so doing redefine their relationships with God. Other times they abandon their faith altogether. And that’s usually due to the insensitivity of a pastor or minister. Such “men of God” often pressure victims of sexual violence to forgive their abusers; they invalidate victims’ memories, negate their feelings, or give them canned, pat responses instead of something deeper and more real. And all the while these Christian leaders keep insisting on the myth that God will provide for them a direct pipeline for some sort of miracle that will instantly and completely take away their pain.

And such church leaders are often supported by a chorus of their congregants who are ever ready to let the victim of sexual violence know that it’s her fault that she’s not receiving the miracle of healing. They imply or outright tell the survivor that they would get the miracle they’re praying for if only they prayed harder, if only they admitted their sin in the whole matter, if only they’d quit childishly clinging to their pain. This leaves the poor person with tremendous shame and feelings of spiritual and emotional inadequacy. For those who are victims of childhood sexual abuse, who are already carrying so much shame projected onto them by their perpetrators and those who protect their abusers, hearing that from their trusted pastor and/or their church family can be too much for them to bear. When I see someone walk away from their faith after such invalidations, it’s impossible to blame them.

I have to wonder how many survivors would be able to reframe their perspective on faith, if, instead of the lightning bolt bullshit, their pastors were as real with them as God wants us to be real with Him. Yes, at first it’s daunting to hear that you have to take out your own garbage—that that’s not something God is going to do for you—because you want the pain to go away now. But at least the pain actually would go away if a pastor or priest would only start or help that process not by issuing useless “Christian” platitudes, but instead being real, and saying, “Look, God can’t do it for you. However, He has provided for you wonderful tools on this earth, by way of support groups, psychologists, medication if that’s needed—not to mention our own powers of reflection and discernment, our own unstoppable will to be whole. And He expects us to use those tools, so that we can achieve healing and recovery to a degree that our shame is vanquished and no longer a stumbling block, where we have proven ourselves stronger than our oppressors, where can move into a stronger relationship with God, because hand-in-hand with God, we have become someone who can help others trust remain in relationship with God while they work through the same kinds of pain in their lives that we worked through in ours.”

Over the long term that approach would provide so much more hope and healing to those who feel helpless and trapped by their traumatic memories. It’s one of those things where, yes, the truth hurts—but only because there is no healthy way to mask or ignore the pain that’s necessary to address before real healing can begin. We can win over that which haunts and hurts us. But first we need in our corner nothing so much as honesty.

I am hoping that someday the Christian community at large will realize that it’s not shiny advertising and empty promises that draws people to Christ and makes them stay. It’s the humanity, the genuineness, the Carpenter who is covered in grime, sweat, and ultimately blood and tears. That is the Christ whom I think deep down we crave. That is the Christ that I hope will overturn the ignorance of pastors, ministers and priests, so that, when it comes to victims of sexual violence, they can become more like the Samaritan who aided the wounded man on the road when those of high and lofty stature failed to do so—so that they can, in other words, become more like the One they purport to follow.

See also: Pastor to rape victim: “He should have killed you. At least you’d have died a virgin.”

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  • Elizabeth

    “[I]t’s not shiny advertising and empty promises that draws people to Christ and makes them stay. It’s the humanity, the genuineness, the Carpenter who is covered in grime, sweat, and ultimately blood and tears.” Thank you, John. I needed this today. I’ll share it at 4 PM EDT.

  • Elizabeth

    Although I think ‘draws’ should be ‘draw’. Subject-verb agreement.

  • revsharkie

    This letter is correct that “you have to forgive” just heaps more guilt and shame on a survivor. I prefer to tell people that they’ll forgive if/when they get to the point in their healing that they are able to forgive. If it’s important to the survivor to get there, they can pray about it, they can work on that in therapy, whatever; but it is NOT the place of someone outside of the situation to tell a survivor when they have to forgive.

  • Matt

    This letter could not have been more timely. Thank you very much to the letter writer.

  • Heather

    I’m a survivor of rape, but more importantly, I’m a survivor of the catacomb of silence I was forced to dwell in in the aftermath of the assault. I grew up in a church going family, but not a religious one.( My father was raised Catholic; my mother, Southern Baptist; we attended a Methodist church, and a year after the assault, I was baptized Mormon at the age of 16. Although I left the LDS in my late teens, I was grateful for their love.) I learned (quickly) to keep quiet about what happened to me, and what was happening TO me in the aftermath of the assault. I never gave a religious leader an opportunity to address my situation. For nearly 17 years, I searched for God, for truth, relinquishment from pain, for the “key” to the shackles of shame. But it had to come in my own way… In my own time. Forgiving my perpetrator was easy by comparison to forgiving those who spread the glue across my lips. For many years I prayed to God to help me, to give me worth, to make me valuable. But one night, two years ago actually, in the midst of paralyzing fear & panic, I found the strength to lash out at God. I crumbled & cried & confronted him. I asked the question that for almost two decades, I was terrified to hear his answer to: “Is it me, am I here to take shame? Am I here to be used & not of use?” And I finally got an answer. It came so calmly into my spirit. My heart stopped pounding, the world stopped turning (although that moment was likely undetectable to anyone else in the world but me). In my heart I heard, “You’re mine. What has been DONE to you is not a reflection OF you. There’s nothing that can be done to you that will make you less than I made you to be. BE ALL OF YOU. Leave the rest to me. You are loved. You are mine.” In stunned & numb silence, I made my way home. And every day thereafter has been a marathon of distance between me & the burden I carried for so long. There is so much peace on the other side of trauma. Being allowed to travel the road it takes for us to get there, without misdirection from religious leaders or artful MISleaders is essential. This is just my story. The journey is different for everyone. We should just be given the spiritual space to travel our paths. Or at least, that’s my feeling on it.

  • Elizabeth

    My family was church-going but not religious, too. It was kind of status quo to be deacons in a small Midwestern town. I was never sexually abused. I did… a lot of stuff with older men who should have known better. I made my way through the shame and healing of the last time. It took three years. Blessings on your journey.

    PS: Lash out at God all you want. Call Him dirty words. He can take it.

  • Heather

    He took it like a champ & never flinched! I understand journey as well. Those are hard waters to navigate, and any stigmas attached to those circumstances were never yours to begin with. Even though the societal perception tells us otherwise. Peaceful travels, friend.

  • what a beautiful story. Thanks so much for sharing, for your bravery and your honesty.

  • Heather

    Thank you so much for your kind words.

  • Robin

    In 1973, when I was in the Air Force I was abducted by a stranger and taken to three places and raped in each location being told he would kill me if I didn’t comply. Luckily, he left me at the last place and drove away. My husband at the time blamed it on me. When this happened to me I was a Mormon. I went to my bishop and tried to get some help dealing with it and he very unsympathetically told me I should have fought until I died. Three years ago I was offered free counseling for this at the VA Medical Center near where I live. I received Prolonged Exposure Therapy and I can not express what a difference it made to me. I finally felt like a decent person again but it took 47 years to get the right care. I don’t think church leaders are educated to help sexual assault victims. Especially the ones in the LDS church.

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Robin. This is the most horrible story I’ve read in a day when I cried two times (and I’m a tough cookie. I don’t cry easy.) You can’t fight past a certain point; you surely know that. The VA saved the lives of some of my friends; I’m glad it saved yours. Getting the right care… takes time with our current system.

    Church leaders are usually unequipped. I was lucky. When I was desperate, I went to the canon of my local cathedral, and she gave me money for antidepressants out of her discretionary charity fund. That’s the exception, not the rule. Unfortunately. Thank you for sharing your story. xo

  • Heather

    I’m so sorry that happened to you! All of it. For some reason, I still manage to be appalled and shocked by people’s responses to victims of sexual violence. Those attitudes kept me quiet for a long time…

    However, I’m so glad that you were able to receive a therapeutic treatment that worked so well for you. But I wholeheartedly agree (from what I’ve heard from others as well) that LDS leaders are especially ill equipped to offer any sort of “care” to victims.

  • Robin

    Thank you Heather. You know who the worst person of all was? My mother. I told my mother what happened to me. Later one of my cousins asked me about it. After talking with her I found out that my mother had embellished my experience to something even worse. I confronted her and her reply was “Well, you have to admit, my version was a lot juicier.” My own mother, who I had not given permission to tell anyone else, said that to me. Can you imagine? I always felt like I never did anything good enough for her and now my rape was not “good” enough for her either. It doesn’t bother me anymore. I have forgiven her.

  • Heather

    The idea that ANYONE could view what happened to you as being in need of embellishment, makes me want to slam my head in a door. It’s less painful that trying to figure out what makes some people tick. My own mother was the person in my life who inflicted some of the most long term damage. But like you, I’ve forgiven her. In all honesty, I never focused much on animosity. When I allowed myself to think about it, I would be angry. For most of my life however, I just focused on finding a cure for what felt like an invisible, emotional illness; One that came with a buttload of symptoms!

    Thank God for wellness, regardless of when it came. And thank you for sharing part of your story. It’s encouraging to hear how you’ve overcome so much.

  • Wow. Worst mom EVER.

  • Amanda Longmoore


  • Kristi Outler Byrd

    John, do you know what you have that makes your work resonate with people? Fearless compassion. And, believe me, compassion does more to bring people to Jesus (or in my own case, keep me clinging to my frayed rope of faith) than a million sermons.

    Thank you and carry on.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    Most sexual abuse is incestuous in nature, yet I have never heard it addressed from the pulpit. I’ve never heard a minister or a priest use this fact as sermon material. Why is that?

  • Why do you think that might be?

  • That’s very kind of you, Kristi. Thank you.

  • Jill

    Kristi, that’s exactly it. And it not only resonates, but it inspires by example.

  • Valerie


  • Leslie

    I’m not sure I was actually ready to read it this morning, but I did. :/ Sexual abuse is such a destructive act on the human soul. Add in subsequent spiritual abuse from (possibly) well-meaning but poorly-equipped pastors, and it’s almost impossible to recover from.

    I remember thinking I was such a horrible person because I was still depressed after praying so hard for months. I hadn’t been told specifically that God alone would heal me if I prayed hard enough, but I got the message anyway. Eventually I learned otherwise, for which I’m thankful.

  • Leslie

    You’re absolutely right, Kristi. John’s words helped me in so many ways years ago when I first heard of him. I’d go further than saying he has compassion. I’d call it fearless compassion.

  • Leslie

    Robin, you survived. That tells me you fought just the right amount. I’m glad you were able to get some effective help and didn’t just listen to your bishop. Blessings to you.

  • Don Rappe

    Oh Elizabeth, you know this is part of a quote. I wonder if attention to grammar draws our minds away from the pain.

  • Don Rappe

    Useful Biblical material for this topic is vanishingly scarce. I recall a recent Sunday scripture lesson (about a healing miracle of Elisha) which was instigated by a recommendation from a slave girl who had been captured as a child by a foreign military raid. The woman was not part of the moral of the story, but I could not help but notice how unremarkable her status appeared to be. The world from which these stories come was a far different place than the western world of today. The incest taboo is prevalent, but not so strong as we might hope.

  • Dana

    This is so incomprehensible for a respected adult to do to a ravaged, hurting child. How dare he! This makes me so angry. People wield their “righteousness” around without any thought of the consequences. God loves you and you can rely on the fact that Jesus has swept you up into his arms to comfort you and let you know how special and loved you are. There’s nothing worse than hearing words like that from someone who is supposed to be a representative of God. Shame on him, but love to you.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    Because it threatens social and family hierarchy. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network ( a reliable source), 93% of juvenile sexual assault victims know their attacker. When incest is revealed, the emphasis, even among therapists, is typically to keep the family together, as the perpetrator is often the breadwinner. When this doesn’t occur, the child is often removed from the home, as if she or he was the problem. Yet another reason to have women in the pulpit.

  • spinning2heads

    Because it’s a really really hard topic. And because generally it’s one that adults are hesitant to talk about with children around. And because it’s hard to find anything in the bible that speaks to it directly. But mostly because it’s really, really hard to even think about ,let alone preach thoughtfully and compassionately about.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    That’s why it’s imperative that we do. Using the lack of Biblical teaching on the subject is just an excuse. Fact is, statistically, there is at least one family sitting among you every Sunday in which incest is occurring. Until churches start truly addressing human misery, there will be no compelling reason for people to join.

  • Elizabeth

    Yikes. True, but hello reality check.

  • Matt

    Yes, thank you Diane. It has affected my family for generations. I get sick of people turning away just because they can’t stomach it.

    It sucks to talk about it. But some of us actually have to live it.

  • Diane D’Angelo

    I understand, Matt, and I’m sorry. I don’t think looking other way because a subject is “yucky” is in the Bible either. I’ve learned over the years that men especially have such shame about sexuality that they don’t tall about this stuff, either in therapy or from the pulpit. This must change.

  • Marthina

    Perfect timing on this post. I was raped exactly 4 years ago on the 30th of October. And this time of the year is very difficult for me. Even thought I thought it would get easier after 4 years but it doesn’t. The anger, hate and pain just seems to get worse. Thank you for this letter.

  • Oh, gosh, Marthina, that is so awful. Just … unthinkable. I’m so sorry this happened to you. Unbelievable.

  • Marthina

    Someone gets raped every 4 minutes in my country. And its just not “that big deal” here in South Africa. If you rape someone, you can get bail for R1000 ($80) Its scary!

    I have an amazing partner that supports me through this. Which is a big help. Talking to her about it is my therapy.

  • Elizabeth

    Actually, I didn’t notice it was from the quote until afterward. Otherwise: entirely valid.

  • Elizabeth

    Hi Don. Please mentally insert my comment up top here. My phone and its mysterious ways.

  • DR

    Oh my god, that is perverted and so sick. I’m speechless, you must be so extraordinary that you’ve survived both the attack and your mother.

  • Liz

    I really resonate with what one commenter wrote about how “you must forgive” is a real burden. I’m currently going through some issues with my husband, whose mental health problems are basically destroying our family. I’ve been told by church leaders I must forgive, I must let go of my anger. And because he’s in therapy I must stand by him, not separate or divorce, even though he’s hit my son a couple of times, is critical and belittling, and we’re walking on eggshells around him. My heart’s pounding as I’m typing this in case he walks in from work and sees me “getting ideas” from “those ridiculous blogs” again (his words). I’m not “supposed” to lose hope, but keep trusting that God will bring us through. My own view is that it’s hard to get to a point where you’re ready to forgive, if you never get a break from being afraid and dreading the moment he walks in the door.