For the Sexually Exploited, the Church Should be the Safest Place

Here are four ways the church can become a place of healing for the sexually exploited.

By Mary DeMuth Published on September 15, 2016

The church should be the safest and most justice-laden place on earth, but for sexual abuse victims, it has often been an unsafe, unjust institution. As representatives of Jesus Christ, who often aligned Himself with the victim, how can churches intelligently and strategically ensure that their response to sexual abuse is redemptive and ultimately helpful and just?

Sexual abuse has captured the headlines lately, with the release of Brock Turner (the swimmer who served 3 months of a 6 month sentence for sexually assaulting a girl), and a slew of other instances of sexual abuse in the church (see here, here, here, here, here and here).

In light of such disturbing news, how can the church become a place of healing for the sexually exploited, and how can it ensure that abuse is not tolerated within its walls? Four ways.

1. Listen to the Victims

I had the privilege of talking to an investigator who uncovered a pervasively poor institutional response to a series of rapes. She’d been tasked with helping the institution understand what went wrong and how to fix their response to victims. Unfortunately, they didn’t change the way they did things.

But later she said that even though the Christian institution refused to change the way they dealt with sexual abuse, there was a silver lining. Victims left the investigation heard and changed. The investigators dignified the victims by simply listening, then asking more questions, and listening some more. So few victims report being heard by authorities that this simple act brought a significant amount of healing.

When I shared my past sexual abuse at the hands of teenage boys (I was five at the time; they were in high school) with my Young Life leaders, they responded with compassion. They prayed for me, cautiously asked me questions, and dignified my story by empathizing. I healed more from other people’s genuine responses and inquiries than I did by any other means. Telling my story to trusted Christ followers truly changed my life. The church has a similar opportunity to be great listeners and empathizers, opening up a door to the healing embrace of Jesus. 

2. Report (But Don’t Investigate)

Church leaders are included in mandatory reporting laws, but they don’t always report abuse. Some leaders feel they need more information, and then investigate on their own before they report. Unfortunately, this makes things worse for victims. Investigations are best done by proper law enforcement and child protective services. A church or religious institution could unravel an investigation or jeopardize a later conviction of a sexual offender by conducting an investigation.

Each state handles these cases differently, so it’s up to the church to comply with state guidelines in terms of mandatory reporting. Here’s a quick resource. Churches must take time to train staff (paid and volunteer), offering guidelines about when and how to report abuse. These policies should be in writing and reviewed every year.

3. Tell the Truth About the Situation in the Aftermath

The number one reason churches in the U.S. are sued (from 2011-2015) is this: sexual abuse of a minor. Unfortunately, some churches have chosen to spin the story or cover it up in the aftermath, hoping against negative publicity. Popular movies like Spotlight highlighted the Catholic Church’s bent toward concealment and cover up, but it’s also a problem in the Protestant church too, as mainstream news outlets have recently revealed.

Victims long for justice and truth. So when a church prefers its reputation over the safety and security of its weakest members, it re-marginalizes those victims. It shouts the message that the institution is more important than the individual.

But when a church dares to tell the truth about what happened, takes positive steps toward prevention, and grieves alongside the victim, it becomes a redemptive place.

Sadly, though, the opposite reaction is the norm. Boz Tchividjian, founder of GRACE and a former prosecutor of sexual abuse cases asserts, “I was encountering survivors who were absolutely eviscerated as a result of disclosing abuse in the Protestant church and the long-term damage is sometimes more from how the church responded, or failed to respond, than the abuse itself.”

4. Look Again at Preventive Measures

Eight years ago Kanakuk Camps implemented massive changes to its prevention systems after allegations of sexual abuse rocked its reputation. Theirs is a study in how to better respond to the epidemic of sexual abuse. Instead of covering up, it went on the offensive, establishing new and extensive guidelines to prevent further abuse. Sexual abuse prevention should be grafted into the DNA of every church or ministry culture — not simply because insurance companies require it, but because it is the right thing to do.

Change is Coming

Soon GRACE will roll out a certification process for churches and ministries, focusing on sexual abuse prevention and best practices. The Courage Conference, held this upcoming October 28th, endeavors to “educate pastors and church leaders on how to prevent abuse, and how to respond when it happens.”

With the onset of social media, victims are tentatively stepping out, sharing their stories not only with the public, but with other victims, finding community and a new voice. This era of honesty, though sometimes painful, is helping people realize they’re not alone.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if the church became that safe place for victims to process their pain and find referral resources to deal with trauma? May it be that the church listens, reports, tells the truth, and actively prevents sexual abuse!

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A Life Worthy of the Holy Calling
Marissa Hays
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