By Terri Fullerton, who is a contributing writer, founder of The Q and A: Interviews with Authors We Love. She is currently working on her first book.
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When people disclose to you, a church pastor or leader in ministry, they have been sexually abused or assaulted, what do you think they need? What do you think motivates them to share such a personal, deeply painful, soul-shattering event?
It’s not because they want to make you uncomfortable.
It’s not because they need attention. They have spent years hiding, keeping secrets, and disappearing through all kinds of coping mechanisms.
It’s not an agenda or collusion.
They risk telling someone who is a Christian because they want to know things like:
Does the evil that a perpetrator inflicted on me matter?
Does it matter to the church?
Will you believe me?
Does my pain matter?
Do you think it matters to God?
Do I matter to God?
Because the pain and message from the violation and abuse, is that they didn’t matter.
He or she will not be able to verbalize it like this unless they have had lots of counseling and time to look back on how God has brought restoration and healing to their most broken places.
In my experience and observation, those that speak up are often shamed, silenced, asked to leave, and accused of trying to ruin reputations. There is no collusion from those speaking up. These reactions are not godly and should be seen as a red flag.
How you respond is crucial. You can be part of the healing or add to the weight of shame they already carry.
Let me tell you what it’s like to disclose sexual abuse. Imagine an earthquake just demolished most of Haiti. You head down there with a crew. You meet a woman who can barely look you in the eye. She is grief-stricken, hungry, and thirsty. She tells you she lost a child, her home is in ruins, and a stream of sewage runs through the small area where she once had a home. She can’t get back what she once had.
Do you say:
Well, what were you expecting? You live on a fault line.
We need to rebuild your house.
We need to clear the roads of all the debris.
God will use this for good, those that love the Lord.
Haiti is on a fault line. She does need a home. The roads do need to be cleared and rebuilt. God can bring healing and restore her in a way she can’t imagine right now.
But it would not be helpful, kind, or compassionate to say these things. Such comments would add to her grief, invalidate her loss, and close to a door to the desire to talk with other Christians.
Most likely, you would listen and your words would be slow, working their way up from your heart `as you feel the gravity of her pain.
You would ask her to come sit with you and others and give her food and water. You would listen to her story. Perhaps a couple on your team lost a child 15 years ago and you invite them over. They can sit in the sacred hallow space with Christ-like tears and tenderness. Their empathy breathes life into the word hope for her.
Like the responses to the woman in Haiti, there are reactions and responses that are helpful or hurtful for victims of sexual abuse and assault.
Unless they bring it up, please refrain from jumping into the need to forgive and the story of Joseph. It is a crucial part of their healing journey but it takes time. It was twenty-two years between the time Joseph was put in a pit and abandoned by his brothers and when he saw them next at the age of thirty-nine.
God calls us to forgive and He leads all of us in His timing.
Avoid cliches and verses, like God will use this for good, Everything happens for a reason, and It’s water under the bridge. Don’t try to explain the suffering of others. Just sit with them.
It takes an enormous amount of courage to admit the painful wound that evil inflicted and sliced in his or her soul. Multiply this by 100,000 if it’s someone from your church community.
Tell them they matter,
Their pain matters to your church.
Talk about the hard topic on Sunday. I highly recommend listening to the sermon by Rick Warren, Kay Warren, and Beth Moore on Saddleback Podcast on Jan 27, 2018, Helping People Heal From Sexual Abuse.
Ask good questions.
How was it handled in your family? Your church?
Where are you in your journey? Maybe they she hasn’t started counseling. Maybe he has received so much counseling he feels he should have an honorary degree.
Where are you with God?
Know the counselors in your area who specialize in trauma and abuse. Ask if he or she would like to talk to a mentor or someone to walk with them who has been through the same thing but has come out of their own Egypt and moved out of this particular wilderness.
Pray for those who risk what feels like everything to talk to you.
Know the law.
Invite a trusted police officer to talk to your staff and the youth group on the law pertaining sexual abuse and assault. You could even open this up to the community on a Saturday.
Share the policy you have for how the leadership will handle disclosure of someone perpetrating crimes on your youth.
Let the church know the policy you have when the crime is disclosed. It will send a powerful message that you are going to protect the innocent and not protect the wolves dressed as sheep, prowling around for someone to devour.
Every 98 seconds, an American is sexually assaulted. Every 8 minutes, that victim is a child. rain.org
During a 32-minute sermon, 4 more children have been sexually abused. This is based on reported cases in America alone.
Of those reported to law enforcement, 93% are known to the victim.
“Sexual assault of a child occurs when a person who is older or bigger than the child…uses their power or authority over the child and takes advantage of the child’s trust to involve them in sexual activity.” (definitions.uslegal.com)