First Steps When a Victim Discloses Abuse

Key Responses to Care Well for the Abused

Brad Hambrick

The first and most important thing you need to realize when someone discloses the experience of sexual abuse is that they are demonstrating an immense amount of courage. 

Caring for Survivors 

Maybe one of the least understood aspects of sexual abuse is the victim’s loss of voice. Abuse is usually followed by demands not to tell anyone and threats of what will happen if the victim does talk. Then, once a victim is alone, their own sense of shame makes them not want to tell anyone. Finally, there are the fears of what they will have to endure if they tell someone and are believed, not to mention the fears of telling someone and not being believed. 

By the time victims get to the point of talking to you as a ministry leader about their experience of sexual abuse, they are in the midst of navigating all of these fears. That is courage! 

By the end of the initial conversation with a victim, you should help them make decisions about what legal steps need to be taken and what self-care steps are wise. But if we fixate on the end of the conversation, we will turn delicate conversations of pastoral care into cold conversations of legal obligation. 

If a victim feels uncared for or unbelieved, they recoil and begin to think they’ve made a mistake in talking. Their statements begin to contradict one another and a moment of potential healing only reinforces pain. But this time, pain is multiplied by the fact that even their church (representing God) failed them. 

You may be thinking, “This feels complicated and messy. It feels like more than I’m trained to do.” It is messy. Welcome, again, to the life of someone who has been abused. It is not as complicated as it appears, but abuse (even hearing of someone else’s abuse) does cloud our thinking. You may not be trained to walk the full journey of restoration with someone, but as a ministry leader, it is part of our gospel calling to at least walk the first steps of this journey well. That is what this lesson is intended to train you to do. 

If you are talking with an adult who has been abused as a child, a question that needs to be raised during this initial conversation is, “Does your abuser have any access to children at this time?” If the answer is “yes,” then this constitutes “reasonable suspicion” of a child being abused and a CPS report needs to be made. 

However, there are instances of date rape, sexual assault, or sexual abuse in marriage where no children are known to be in harm’s way. This does not mean that no legal actions should be taken; it just means that prompt reporting to an agency like CPS is not mandated. 

In the case where no children are in harm’s way, victims can put their own well-being in the forefront of their decision-making regarding legal action. The victim can ask questions like: What would be the emotional cost of pressing charges? Am I ready for that? What would I need to do to be ready for that legal process? What are the emotional costs of not pressing charges? Am I okay with nothing being done? 

As a ministry leader, you don’t have to be the primary one helping the victim weigh all of those questions. In an initial conversation, that would be overwhelming. Your role in this early stage is to (a) assure the victim that these are good questions to ask, (b) assure them of support in whatever answer they choose, and (c) help connect them with someone experienced in working with abuse victims.

Finding a Good Counselor 

This means you have at least one more role in that initial conversation; after (a) hearing the victim’s story, (b) affirming their courage, and (c) validating their options, the last point of focus is this: (d) you need to help them find a good counselor. In any given community, the number and quality of options will vary. Your role is simply to help this individual to connect with the best of who is available in your community. In the follow up resource section of this lesson, we give you guidance on how to find quality counselors in your city and how to vet counselors that are a good fit for your members. 

When you recommend a counselor, be careful not to do a referral-as-handoff. Your shepherding presence as a ministry leader is still needed. Your follow up concern communicates that this person has value and helps assuage the fear that “someone knowing my experience would make me unlovable.” As you make a counseling recommendation, say something like: 

As much as you are willing, keep me informed of what you’re learning and deciding. What you’re facing is hard. I would like to learn alongside you so I can be a better pastor for others in similar situations. Again, as much as you are willing and as you are ready, I’d like to help identify people from our church who can walk alongside you on this journey. 

You don’t have to be an expert on anything—legal matters or traumatic sexual abuse counseling—to be a good pastor or ministry leader. You are free to be as helpful as you are currently equipped to be. Your church member will be grateful to have a pastor and church willing to care for them in this way. 

Key Points of This Lesson

Contributors include Brad Hambrick, Rachael Denhollander, Mika Edmondson, Samantha Kilpatrick, Diane Langberg, Chris Moles, Andrea Munford, Karla Siu, Darby Strickland, and Leslie Vernick.

This article is an excerpt taken from Lesson 5 of the Becoming a Church that Cares Well for the Abused curriculum (http://churchcares.com). This free, 12-lesson video curriculum and accompanying handbook is available at churchcares.com and was created to help churches be equipped to respond well in the initial stages of learning about instances of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse.

Brad serves as the Pastor of Counseling at The Summit Church in  Durham, North Carolina. He also serves as Instructor of Biblical Counseling at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, a council member of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, and has authored several books including Do Ask, Do Tell, Let’s Talk: Why and How Christians Should Have Gay Friends and God’s Attributes: Rest for Life’s Struggles.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24