Learning how to care well for abuse survivors

One of the most disturbing revelations from the #MeToo movement was the realization that these horrific events weren’t only happening in Hollywood but also under steeples and in churches. The Houston Chronicle conducted an investigation within Southern Baptist congregations, in paritcular, and exposed horrific information about sexual abuse in America’s largest Protestant denomination. The terror was two-fold in churches across America. For one thing, sexual abuse was happening inside churches by staff members. And second, it was being reported to leaders, and no action was being taken. 

Mary DeMuth is painfully aware of this reality as a sexual abuse survivor. She uses her story in her new book, We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, to address how churches can respond to the evil of sexual abuse and assault. One poignant section of DeMuth’s story captures the essence of the book:

On the last day of the conference, Malcolm, who hailed from Johannesburg, beckoned me . . . “Mary,” he said, his South African accent lilting. “I need to tell you something.” I knew then that something significant stretched out before me. It’s one of those times I sensed the Lord say, You need to listen. Be in this moment. Take it all in. Malcom struggled to keep his composure. “I apologize,” he said. “I am sorry on behalf of all men for all the awful things that have ever happened to you. I’m desperately sorry.” . . . “Will you forgive me? Will you forgive us?” I wept a yes his way. He stood. We hugged. And I walked away changed (Demuth, 28). 

DeMuth is one of many Christians who are rising up to do everything they can to educate and inform Christians on how to care for victims, report abuse, and protect church members in the future. The power of DeMuth’s story and the testimony of others, We Too offers a vision for the church as a place of healing and hope. 

The book is broken into three sections: understanding the roots, interpreting the present, and shaping what’s next.

“Understanding the roots”

In this section, DeMuth uses the Bible and history to show early examples of abuse. Instances in the Bible where sexual abuse or harassment are present include the horrific accounts of the concubine in Judges 19 and Tamar in 2 Samuel. Even our great faith figures like David and Abraham dealt with sad issues of sexual abuse. Thankfully, we read how God brought them near and led them to repentance. Most importantly, part one prioritizes Jesus as our model for both victim and healer. 

A short but informative chapter on abuse and the Church concludes this section, calling local churches to learn what to do and what not to do in abuse cases. Overall, Demuth defines terms well and demonstrates that the Bible tells us to care well for sexual abuse survivors.

“Interpreting the Present”

Part two tackles many of the problems that the Church has unknowingly adopted and have been evident in the mishandling of so many sexual abuse cases. DeMuth shows that bad theology is at the root of the cover ups of these cases, which in turn, has led to a culture of secrecy. DeMuth points out that it’s bad practice of theology that has enabled abusers to go unseen and in turn shift the blame onto the victim. 

Alongside bad theology and forcing victims to keep secrets and hide their trauma, many other factors play a role in abusers and lead to abuse, pornography specifically. DeMuth points out that pornography addictions and predators have for too long been hiding in our churches behind facades and are often flying under the radar in church contexts.

This leads to the disheartening, main chapter of the second part on the passivity of churches. In most cases, DeMuth says, churches has been passive in its care for victims, its handling of fallen leaders, and its duty to report. Victims have been taught to keep silent to avoid threats and disruption. Furthermore, reputation has become a priority in churches more so than care and true gospel ministry. Frightening statistics and stories saturate this section, pulling the reader into a deep and empathetic connection with the victims.

“Shaping what’s next”

The third and final section of this book is a challenge for the Church to do better. Demuth makes sure to show how this book was never intended to be a “how-to” piece, for those have not helped nearly enough in the past. Instead, it’s not “how-to” but “We-too” that comforts victims. Demuth stresses to victims that they’re not alone, and they are heard. The main goal of the book is to listen to and hear victims of sexual abuse. Hearing is not in vain, because it calls us to act. Getting authorities involved and also trusting investigations is not easy, but it shows the Church’s priority in abuse cases is the victim, not reputation.

We Too is an important book for church leaders to consider. Filled with extra resources at the end, the final call to action should lead the reader  to several other ministries and writings dealing with sexual abuse. American evangelicalism needs resources like Demuth’s book so that individuals are safe from abuse and another list of church names avoids the national headlines. We Too will lead Christians and churches to start thinking more about caring for the sexually abused, getting justice for victims, and leading members and congregations to healing.