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How churches can avoid shaming survivors

Caring well for those who have experienced abuse

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September 3, 2020

She wanted to serve her church. She had a strong teaching ministry in a parachurch organization, and when the call for Sunday School volunteers came, she was eager to help. But a question on the volunteer application stopped her cold: “Have you experienced physical or sexual abuse as a child? If yes, please explain.”

Yes. One in four women and one in six men in America have experienced this type of abuse before the age of 18. But why are they asking that question?

For many reasons, this lady had chosen not to speak publicly about this abuse. She approached an elder who knew her story for advice. He counseled, “In the current environment, I would not recommend you submit the application.” He explained that staff were careless with confidentiality, so anonymity would disappear, and, in the end, she wouldn’t be permitted to serve anyway.

And by “she,” I mean “me.”

The new scarlet letter? 

Is this the new scarlet letter: “A” for abused? Was I too damaged to serve or too dangerous for the lawyers? My church thought I was broken beyond repair. And, momentarily, once again, I wondered if I was. I felt powerless, shamed, and isolated—this time at the hands of my church. 

Churches of every stripe are beginning to recognize the abuse in their midst, abuse that is alarming in its frequency and impact—it is heartbreaking, horrifying, repulsive. Churches are understandably frightened, and so are their insurance companies.

The question I was asked on my volunteer application is thankfully not a common question for many churches. Some churches do ask it, and it’s damaging, so let me explain why this is a bad policy. Think about how it affects the survivor filling out the application. I had done nothing wrong. I was a child who was abused decades ago. I have had good counseling, and I would never want another child to experience the trauma I did. But here I was, ostracized for another’s sin. I have worked throughout my life to minimize the abuser’s influence on my thoughts and actions. And yet my church was unwilling to consider that healing was possible. Isn’t our faith predicated on grace and new hearts and resurrection? Was this policy a loving, caring response to the survivor?

The vast majority of child abuse victims do not grow up to be offenders. Indeed, because of our history, we may be the last person to commit such an offense and may be the best qualified in recognizing signs of abuse and reporting concerning behaviors. Although trauma can influence the direction of our lives, this complexity is not something a church, much less an insurance company or law firm, would be qualified to determine.         

How effective is that question in screening church volunteers? Will it actually reduce abuse? A predator looking for a new target in the church is probably going to be wary of any question which may raise the alarm. No predator is going to honestly answer the questions which might raise a red flag. Screening questions are important, but this question isn’t the answer and does more harm than good.

Thinking through how to care for survivors

Churches must be more careful in the way they respond to survivors. This scarlet letter is not loving, factual, or preventative. Here are a few things churches should consider when thinking through these issues:   

  1. Know that your church is filled with survivors, both male and female. Many people are bearing burdens you would never guess.
  2. Recognize the signs of an abuser. Kind over-attention and regular physical affection may be of concern. Sometimes there are no signs—just a family friend who has temptation and access. 
  3. Recognize the signs of abuse, and train your staff to be aware. Is a normally gregarious child withdrawn? Is there reluctance to talk or trust? Is there a sexual knowledge or action beyond a child’s years?  
  4. Have a clear understanding of reporting laws and preventative measures. Report what should be reported, even if it is uncomfortable and embarrassing. And make sure that your staff does the same.1To learn more about reporting, see Lesson 2, 7, and Appendix A of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.
  5. Don’t promise to keep secrets or not tell, but do demonstrate loving care with the confidences of survivors.2To learn more, see Lesson 3 of Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused.
  6. Be present in the lives of those who have been abused. Being there and ready to talk (or not) is one of the strongest ways that followers of Jesus can extend the character of our omnipresent God to his family around us.  
  7. Trust the grace of God in all as you act to care and protect. You might be wrong at some point. You might raise concerns about a potential abuse situation when all is well. Or, you might not be able to identify a predator before trauma occurs. You are not omniscient or omnipotent, but your God is. And he is just. He can be trusted to execute his wrath on all evil.

*Due to privacy, the author has chosen to remain anonymous.

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