|"Confessional" by emilio labrador is licensed under CC BY 2.0|
Edited and Updated 2/08/2021
The first confidence that a person of faith gives to their pastor of abuse suffered in the Church is often a scary, intimidating step for them to take, whether the abuse happened recently or several years ago. A pastor's initial reaction to their story is often vitally important to their healing and to whether or not they continue to participate in the life of the Church.
These stories are often difficult to hear and respond to. Remember that it's usually an extremely vulnerable thing to disclose this. It's usually far more difficult for them to tell you then it is for you to hear it, even if you're not the first person they've told.
I'm a Catholic author, and my experience of abuse took place in the Catholic Church, so I addressed this post primarily to Catholic clergy and ministers. It is my hope, however, that this article may also be of use to Protestant or Orthodox pastors. Sexual abuse is a widespread scourge in the Christian community as a whole, and the Christian community as a whole needs to be ready to face it.
Please also note that this piece is mainly geared towards initial responses to allegations of abuse: not the investigative process undertaken by dioceses or church tribunals or councils to ascertain their validity. Such investigations lie mainly outside the scope of this piece.
A quick disclaimer: though I did my best to research this before writing it, please keep in mind that I am not a mental health professional. What I write, I draw from my own experience, the experience of others with similar life experiences, and whatever sources I can find on the subject.
Based on my own experience, and that of other victims I've spoken to, here's some do's and don'ts I think every pastor should know:
- DO tell the person you're sorry that this happened to them and that you believe them, or at least that you're taking their allegation seriously.
- DO realize that a victim's greatest fear in coming forward is that they will not be believed. It is a very difficult thing to confide abuse to someone, and expressing support and belief, or at least sympathy and an appreciation of how hard it is to come forward, in that initial encounter is very important.
-DO say, if the abuse is ongoing, that this sort of thing isn't OK, and that you'll do what you can to support them and help them get away from their abuser. (Then follow through).
- DO make sure you are familiar with the mandated reporter laws in your area.
- If you are a mandated reporter in the situation (this will almost certainly be the case if the abuse is ongoing or recent and the person approaching you is a minor), DO go to the police before you go to the diocese (if the situation is such that you are a mandated reporter, you need to let the person who comes to you know that this is the case. Do not promise to keep it a secret). If you are not a mandated reporter in this situation, let the victim know you will support and help them if they choose to come forward with their story, and even report it to the diocese for them (or help them approach the police), but you need to follow their lead on this and let them make that decision.
-DO maintain your own healthy boundaries. This is actually one of the best things you can do for both your parishioners and yourself even in normal circumstances, because it helps prevent situations that enable abuse or accusations of abuse. In this situation, it provides a framework that helps support proper healing for the person coming to you. Be pastoral, but maintain proper balance. (If you struggle with this, this book is a fantastic resource).
-DO research grooming behaviors, so that you can learn to spot problematic situations before abuse happens, and so you're educated on the dynamics of abuse. (This article and this article are good places to start).
- DON'T ask what the victim was doing, wearing, or said before the assault happened. The victim will receive these questions as disbelief or as a statement that they were somehow primarily to blame for what happened to them - both of these impressions can be emotionally devastating. (If the victim is sharing something from their past they're trying to work through, as opposed to an active or recent situation that needs to be addressed, let them take the lead on what details they want to share. Sharing certain details can sometimes trigger a PTSD response, and only the victim knows which ones he/she needs to avoid for their own mental health).
Leave the investigating to the diocese and to law enforcement, or if the situation is such that you must investigate, leave it until after that initial confidence, and do so with the initial assumption that they are telling the truth (better yet, bring in a third party to do the investigation, especially if it's someone you know personally). Take it seriously, and show them that you are taking it seriously.
- DON'T express disbelief to the victim that their abuser would be capable of such a thing. These abusers are usually very talented, charismatic individuals that no one would suspect. It can be hard for you to process, especially if it's someone that you look up to or know personally, and that's ok. If you need to talk it out with someone, do so. Just NOT with the victim, and NOT in a way that betrays their identity or confidence (do not confide in someone else in your parish or that would know the victim. In the confessional, to a therapist, or in spiritual direction would all be good places to go).
- DON'T accuse the victim of lying or of seeking to damage the Church or community by coming forward. Remain professional and treat them with respect.
Hopefully this one goes without saying, but there are horror stories out there of a victim scraping up the courage to come forward and seek help only to be reacted to with horror, disbelief, or shaming for daring to say something so horrible out loud.
-DON'T inform the victim that this could ruin their abuser's career, reputation, worthy ministry, etc. They most likely know. They know how talented and gifted he is. It probably was part of what made it really hard to come forward in the first place, both because they assumed people wouldn't believe them because of it, and because they struggle themselves to see how someone capable of so much good could do something so evil, even though they experienced it.
- DON'T wait a long time to respond if it's by email or phone message. Doing so can be easily perceived as rejection or apathy, and is very painful for the victim. It's better to give a generic sympathetic response, "I received your message. I'm very sorry that this happened to you, I believe you, and I want to support you. " (or "we're taking your allegation very seriously and investigating it. Thank you for your courage in coming forward, I realize how difficult this was for you" if you feel that's more appropriate) than to leave it for a few days or weeks while you try to come up with a better response.
-DON'T talk about the reactions or probable reactions of other clergy if the victim were to confide in them, or take the opportunity to favorably compare yourself and your response to the supposed response of other clergy. One survivor I talked to when researching this piece told me that a priest she confided in told her that most other priests wouldn't care or do anything because they're desensitized to the constant stream of abuse cases in the news.
That's not helpful. All it does is stroke your ego, it doesn't minister to the person in front of you at all. All it does is alienate them.
A Few Notes for Protestant Pastors
-If you're a Protestant pastor, and the allegation is against one of your employees or volunteers, say that you are very sorry, that you are taking their allegation seriously, and thank them for having the courage to come forward (and then back that up with action and how you treat them). Even though you may be in a position where you need to be more impartial, you still need to convey sympathy. This person is still your parishioner.
- Look into hiring or bringing in a third party to do the actual investigation of abuse, especially if the allegation involves someone you know personally. NetGrace is a good organization that does this.
- It's important for you to have a plan in place ahead of time for how to deal with and investigate allegations of abuse, and make it known that this plan exists to your church staff. This way, when allegations come up, you're not blindsided.
-Safe environment policies (such as no less than two adult volunteers being in a room with children, rules against inappropriate displays of affection, etc) and education programs for your parishioners are a good idea because it makes it easier to spot the type of behaviors that lead to and groom for abuse. (Circle of Grace is a good curriculum for this).
-Having a mandatory background check for anyone working with children or vulnerable adults as part of your church's policy is invaluable. Churches are often "hunting grounds" for certain repeat offenders; it's often much easier to gain access to children, teenagers, or vulnerable adults in a church setting than a school or professional setting.
- If you're an associate pastor or church staff member, and someone comes to you with an allegation against the senior or lead pastor, you need to go to the police immediately. You are not exempt from mandatory reporting if the allegation is against your boss.
I sincerely hope that this proves a valuable resource. Many victims and survivors of sexual assault in the Church say that one of the most difficult parts of the whole ordeal is dealing with an incompassionate or apathetic response to their story by their pastors or their Churches. It is my hope that the Church can improve and become a place where more of these difficult stories are treated with the respect that their survivors deserve.