To Church: Protect your abuse victims—don’t abuse them a second time

Christian Post [Washington DC]

November 3, 2023

By Sarah McDugal, Op-ed contributor

A pernicious phenomenon happens to abuse victims in the Church when additional abuse is added, sometimes unwittingly, to the harm they have already endured. It’s what I and others refer to as “double abuse” and it’s long past time for church leaders to understand what it is and how it works.

Double abuse occurs when a victim’s family, church, or community fails to recognize the original harm and diminish, deny, dismiss or disregard that primary instance of abuse, instead of believing, supporting, and protecting.

Double abuse can also happen when a victim seeks safety but instead of receiving trauma-sensitive help, they receive biased, harmful, uneducated advice that makes their situation worse

Often, survivors in the faith community will approach clergy for help. But if your pastor is not educated in the dynamics of abuse, it’s very possible for them to mean well yet do significant harm. 

An example of this is an abused spouse who goes to a therapist who minimizes the abuse, breaks confidentiality, isn’t adequately trained in trauma, or otherwise violates the trust of a victim. Another scenario is a child who discloses sexual abuse to an authority figure who downplays the report, blames the child for not saying things right, or simply assumes the allegation is impossible because the accused party is too nice. Or consider how a battered wife might talk to her pastor who promptly calls the allegedly abusive husband to hear “his side of the story” alerting him to her pleas for help, and then gives advice such as “go home and pray more,” “submit more silently,” ”be more sexually available,” or “forgive more.”

In each case, those bearing responsibility become complicit in the abuse instead of healing.  When clergy refuse to admit that they are in over their heads and insist on handling the situation internally instead of calling law enforcement and referring to qualified professionals, they add layers of catastrophic harm to the victim. 

Jesus makes it clear that the responsibility of the shepherd is to protect the sheep, not to befriend the wolves. I don’t believe most clergy intend to cause harm. Yet regardless of intent, double abuse typically leaves a stronger impact than initial abuse. Double abuse teaches victims that people of Godwill not stand up for you

An abuse victim may be able to reconcile the fact that one evil person caused harm, but when they seek help and are ignored, the pain sinks in much deeper. When those who could make the harm stop choose to disbelieve and disregard, they actively misrepresent the loving character of God.

This phenomenon is more common than you might think. I recently polled 1,007 Christian female survivors of abuse in one of my online support groups asking, “If you sought help from your church leader(s) for safety from abuse, where did your pastor(s) place the weight of their influence?”

  • 25.4% felt they were believed and supported by their church leaders.
  • 25.1% had their church leaders refuse to get involved or “take sides.”
  • Nearly half (49.5%) suffered as their church leaders actively supported and protected their abuser.

Additionally, many women reported that their pastors responded to requests for help by praising the abuser based on his charming public behavior. They were often told to “go home and submit more,” to “remember happier times,” and to “be proud to suffer for the cause of Jesus Christ.” Their private suffering was dismissed with comments about how they were “lucky to be married to someone so involved in the Church” followed by referrals to unqualified couple’s counseling.

If you are a leader-in-training, your future congregation will be filled with people who need healing. If you’ve been in ministry for years, rightnow is the time to expand your understanding of how to protect hurting people.

A vital part of expanding that understanding is to ask this question: Which of the following scenarios harms God’s reputation more? For the world to find out a sinful person at church did something evil, and the church dealt with it promptly and thoroughly? Or, for the world to find out that a sinful person at church did something evil, and the church surrounded that person, silenced the victims, and kept everything a secret? 

Handling abuse openly and transparently does not equal “airing dirty laundry” but rather that we actually do the laundry! Let God protect His own reputation. YOU protect the vulnerable. Tell the world that when a predator seeks to do harm, your church doesn’t hide and hope nobody finds out or takes steps to make it go away.

When we fail to address abuse head-on or give dangerous advice to those suffering harm, we misrepresent the heart of God. In fact, we flagrantly take God’s name in vain, breaking the Third Commandment when we enable abusers, whether through malice, ignorance, or apathy.

Some leaders loudly claim that “dealing with abuse is just a social justice distraction” and “we need to stay focused on evangelism!” But might I suggest that abuse response is not just about social justice? What if responding to abuse well isindeed an evangelistic imperative?

A 2019 Lifeway study reported that 1 in 10 Protestants under the age of 35 have left a church because they feel sexual misconduct was mishandled. Refusing to handle abuse with integrity is a shockingly effective way to drive people out the front door. What’s more, when we shelter the wolves instead of defending the sheep, we also compound future legal risk because offenders remain free to access new victims with impunity. 

The best way to avoid future legal fallout is to decisively remove abusers from access and influence the first time abusive behavior comes to light. Yes, clergy can find it challenging to know which party is telling the truth. But figuring out who is at fault is not your job. Keeping potential victims safe … that’s your job.

Statistically, if someone reports abuse it is more than 90% likely that they are telling the truth. False reporting for sexual assault and domestic violence hovers at the same rate as other crimes — around 2%-10%. At the same time, at least 63% of sexual assaults are never reported at all, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Church leaders must realize their need to maintain a healthy sense of self-doubt. Clergy, and most lay members, lack trauma-specific training in the dynamics of coercive control and the dynamics of abusive systems. That means you can make things worse while genuinely trying to help, without even meaning to do so.

How do we discern the truth without causing double abuse? 

The short answer is that we do what Jesus did. When someone claims to be experiencing abuse, we listen. We empathize and support.

At the same time, promptly report allegations to law enforcement. Cooperate with investigations, whether civil or criminal. Recognize that fact-finding is essential to the process and is best done by trained investigators. Most of all, focus on the safety of the person who is at risk. Do not rush to reconciliation, pressure for prompt restoration, or shelter or enable the perpetrator. 

God has given every spiritual leader a moral mandate to use their power to protect the most vulnerable. It is long past time has come to end the culture of shaming and silencing abuse victims in the faith community while protecting the abusers who are living in deceptive exploitation. 

Resources to help you handle abuse wisely:

Sarah McDugal is an author, speaker, abuse recovery coach, and co-founder of Wilderness to WILD & the TraumaMAMAs mobile app. She creates courses, community, and coaching for women recovering from deceptive sexual trauma, coercive control, and intimate terrorism.