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.