Abuse can skew more than just a survivor’s relationship with the church.
Papers, crayons, vanilla wafers, and juice. Toys, toys, and more toys. Brightly-colored flannel-graph Adam and Eve figures hiding behind bushes. Banners hanging on the walls which read: “Scars of love: He bore your pain” and “Jesus loves the little children.” Musical crescendos, quiet prayers, stirring sermons, bread and wine, kneeling, reciting Scripture, raising hands.
These religious images and experiences convey comforting considerations for some, but for others they are haunting reminders of being sexually violated by individuals who represent God (Schultz & Estabrook, 2012).
As mental health clinicians, we have collectively listened to thousands of stories of sexual violence in the lives of women, men, adolescents, and children we have counseled. These violations include a wide array of nonconsensual sexual acts such as rape, child sexual abuse, incest, intimate partner sexual violence, sexual harassment, sexual innuendos, unwanted sexual contact, and trafficking.
Moreover, many of these egregious forms of trauma have been carried out by every imaginable kind of trusted individual from inside and outside the church.
Journeying with individuals as they share these stories is a sacred privilege. Over the years, we have gleaned much wisdom from brave individuals who have dared to share their anguish with us.
First and foremost, we have witnessed that no two survivors of sexual violence are impacted in the same way, or to the same extent. Nor can individuals be reduced to the violations and evils that have been done to them.
Survivors of sexual violence have taught us that they have encountered wounds and express strength. They have suffered from posttraumatic stress and recount experiences of posttraumatic growth.
And they have taught us that disclosing and healing from sexual violations can take a very long time.
We have bore witness to the number of survivors who have previously never been asked about being sexually violated, or at least not in such a way that allowed them to openly disclose.
We have been awed by how many of these individuals—living under the weight of isolating and debilitating private pain—are ready and willing to share, when the invitation and conditions are supportive.
At the same time, we have heard countless stories of survivors who somehow garnered their strength to share their abuses, only to experience innuendos or outright accusations of having directly, or indirectly, caused the abuse, while others were ignored following the disclosure.
For some, their experiences were reframed as “moral indiscretions”, “misunderstandings”, “mixed signals”, or “sexual incidents” rather than being acknowledged as the dehumanizing violations, and often crimes, that they were. Far from being inconsequential, this minimizing verbiage served to hurl additional harrowing hurt.
Some who shared their secrets with members of the faith community found their stories swept under the proverbial carpet. Their lives, as Diane Langberg (2015, p. 215) stated, were “sacrificed on the altar of secrecy” in order to preserve the “work” of the church.
Still other survivors felt they had to conceal their sad stories in order to insulate those who they suspected would be disrupted and devastated by such revelations. In all these ways we have witnessed how the minimization, inaction, and the sin of silence by those who heard the stories of survivors served to aid and abet sexual violence and exacerbate the devastating aftermath of abuse.
As individuals share their freight of anguish, many have voiced the desire that caregivers would refrain from theological treatises explaining why the abuse occurred. And even when survivors cry out, “Why did/how could God allow this to happen?” there are sometimes deeper questions lying just below the surface like, “God, do I matter to you?” and “God, do you care how much this hurt me?”
Like countless individuals in Scripture who have cried out “How long, oh God?” and “Where are you God?”, survivors have taught us that they need space to lament over the sin done to them. When God’s people listen, believe, suffer with, and advocate on behalf of survivors, these responses can potentially provide the impetus for growth and become part of an overall narrative of healing.
Survivors have taught us that when sexual violence is perpetrated by someone who represents God or proclaims to love God (i.e., pastor, elder, youth pastor, professed Christian), these violations add an extra layer of psychological, social, and spiritual anguish.
In Our Fathers, a true account is told about a man who shared pieces of his story at a men’s support group (France, 2005). He recalled vividly the longing that burned brightly in his 12-year-old soul as he gazed out the window, eyes fixed on a cross, while his priest’s hands fondled his young body.
He yearned for Jesus to be like a strong fireman who would rescue him before he was scorched by the flames. And when no deliverance occurred, third-degree burns in the form of spiritual betrayal branded his very being. Tragically, violations by individuals who represent the living God, frequently, prompt revulsion towards all spiritual leaders and the Lord.
Survivors who have never left or those who dare to enter places of worship again, have taught us that they long for trustworthy spiritual leaders to be steadfast in their efforts to hold perpetrators wielding power and influence accountable. They hunger for humble spiritual leaders who invite congregations to wrestle with the numerous tales of trauma scattered throughout Scripture that are included for good reasons by our good God—stories such as the violation and mistreatment of Hagar, and Tamar, the daughter of King David who was raped by her half-brother. Narratives about women in distressed hues who experienced immense suffering perpetrated by members of the faith community.
These stories have much to teach us about women who revealed their need, and our need, for the resurrected Savior.
Survivors yearn for:
- Churches where the rivers of solace, comfort, justice, accountability, and truth-telling flow freely
- Churches that are dedicated to repairing the institutional cultures that enabled violations to initially occur
- Churches who will promptly report suspicions and allegations of abuse to proper authorities
- Churches who will not shrink back and will face the crushing pain of sexual violations both in and outside the church
- Churches, where survivors can be whole individuals, not having to hide parts of themselves and their experiences for fear of invalidation and exacerbation of shame
- Churches who can bear the sad stories of survivors and celebrate their steps towards healing, absent of demands and impatience to move on quickly
- Churches, the sheepfold, the family of God, who will embrace our mandate by God to care for the violated.
Dr. Tammy Schultz is the Clinical Mental Health Counseling Training Coordinator and a Professor of Counseling at the School of Psychology at Wheaton College. She does research on participants in an alternative court program for women who have been charged with solicitation or prostitution.
Dr. Sally Schwer Canning is a Professor of Psychology at the School of Psychology at Wheaton College. Her work supports the healthcare and educational objectives of faith-based community organizations serving poor neighborhoods.
France, D. (2005). Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal. New York, NY: Random House.
Langberg, D. (2015). Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores. Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press.
Schultz, T., & Estabrook, H. (2012). Beyond Desolate: Hope Versus Hate in the Rubble of
Sexual Abuse. Winona Lake, IN: BMH Books.