What to do and say when a young person discloses sexual abuse

Practices for a compassionate response

Photo by:  Vorsen Furniture

*with contributions from an anonymous abuse survivor.

One of your students discloses sexual harassment, assault, or ongoing abuse. What do you do next? 

When we speak with people about these topics as therapists, the emotion we often sense is anxiety. Ministry leaders in particular may be unsure of their responsibilities, overwhelmed by their own emotions or the emotions of their congregants, and worried about how to proceed when students or families request secrecy of the disclosure. Not to mention the complications of responding to stories shared openly in youth group.

As the nation’s dialogue grapples with story after story of sexual harassment and assault in public and private sectors, survivors are listening; assessing when and where it’s safe to share their stories. They have been hurt before; they don’t want to be hurt again.
 

One in four women

You are likely aware of the #MeToo movement, but do you know how it all began? 

A 13-year-old girl who had been sexually abused by her mother’s boyfriend shared her story with a trusted adult: Tarana Burke. “I didn’t have a response or a way to help her in that moment, and I couldn’t even say ‘me too,’” Ms. Burke reflected to The New York Times. That vulnerable conversation eventually fueled Burke’s work in creating a nonprofit which provided people of color who were survivors of sexual abuse with resources and education. 

Burke’s nonprofit had been tirelessly serving marginalized survivors of sexual violence for over a decade before the Me Too movement received substantial attention (thanks to a celebrity tweet). The point is, sexual harassment is not a new problem. Nonetheless, the #MeToo movement has successfully given some survivors a platform by encouraging them to share their stories, believing that it’s essential for them to understand that they are not alone.

One of the most frequent misconceptions we hear about sexual abuse is that it is a rare tragedy. Because these painful stories often are not shared publicly, it is easy to assume that sexual abuse isn’t an issue for members of our own congregation. The truth is likely more stark than these assumptions. “If 1 in 4 women and 1 in 6 men have been sexually abused, 20% of our church communities are abuse survivors,” writes Basyle Tchividjian, founder of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). In fact, if teens aren’t talking about sexual abuse or harassment with pastors, one might consider whether the church is creating an environment in which those vulnerable stories can be shared.
 

Inviting survivors out of the darkness

How can you help survivors know that they are welcome in your church? 

Invite them to share their storiesThe clearest way to demonstrate to silent survivors of sexual violence that they are welcome and accepted in church is to welcome and accept vocal survivors in church. Those who have experienced sexual harassment often feel isolated, alone, and ashamed. Nothing cuts through shame like a respected adult saying, “Me, too.”

Survivor Reflection: After escaping an abusive relationship, I stumbled into my brother’s church, seeking spiritual shelter and a place to nurse my emotional wounds safely. I was hurting so deeply and felt incredibly broken. I isolated myself socially but still wanted to connect desperately. 

By God’s grace, I went on their women’s retreat and heard a speaker share her own story of brokenness. I attentively watched the women share and minister to one another in a healthy way, observing every detail. I was deeply moved and humbled when opportunity arose for me to share “my story” during a time dedicated to hearing testimonies. I felt the Holy Spirit stir in me powerfully and I stood up and spoke about a portion of the abuse. 

That was such a powerful action and one of my first steps towards shining light on the darkness of the abuse. Seeing the reaction of the women in my church still moves me to tears to this day. They wept with me, laughed with me, and nodded in agreement of God’s incredible power over it all. I can look back on this tangible experience and see how I was starting to allow the Holy Spirit to transform my brokenness. My church providing the opportunity to share led to thriving growth in my life, and I am eternally grateful.


Releasing the weight of shame

In our experience working with survivors of sexual abuse as therapists, these individuals often believe that on some level the abuse was their fault. The judgment that they often harbor towards themselves acts as a powerful deterrent to outwardly voicing their experience. Fear of further judgment stifles the need to release their secret, and many suffer in silence. Shame often deters victims of sexual violence from promptly reporting abuse, and most never report it at all. Best estimates indicate that only 5% of sexual abuse is reported to law enforcement

So how can ministry leaders de-stigmatize disclosure of sexual abuse? One powerful step is to refer to survivors of abuse with care and compassion, in such a way that silent survivors of abuse are assured that they, too, are beloved, believed, and accepted just as they are.

Survivor Reflection: Shame tells survivors not to share the truth of what happened. Shame tells them that their voice does not matter, that their brokenness is too much, that no one will understand or accept them—let alone seek to love them unconditionally. 

Fight shame by embracing the survivor in the church community. Literally, look them in their eyes when you’re talking to them. Seek them out and simply engage them in friendly conversation. Show the survivors that you want to do life with them, however tangled that is. Encourage an environment that fosters space for survivors to process what has happened and grieve the depth of despair that sexual abuse digs.


Understanding the complex dynamics of abuse

Be a church that is educated in the complexities of abuse. Healthy relationships are those which have built trust and reliability, ensuring that when they give in the relationship, they will also receive. 

The sharing economy revealed in the book of Acts is a beautiful reflection of trustworthy relationship. Acts 4:34-35 says, “For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales, lay them at the apostles’ feet; and they would be distributed to each as any had need” (NASB). 

Abusive relationships, in contrast, are often built on entitlement, idolatry of power, and secrecy. Abusers are often adept at justifying their abusive behavior. They often don’t view their behavior as wrong. Abusers also tend to hold power in their relationships (whether they are in a position of authority or have self-assigned that position), and thus the victim often questions their own perspective. Because of this manipulation, it is not uncommon for a survivor to be unaware that they were abused.

Sexual violence does not occur in a vacuum. Most abuse occurs in the complex context of close relationships: within romantic relationships, family relationships, and with close members of one’s local community. Abuse narratives are complicated by the multiple roles abusers play in the lives of their victims, and an empathic response to abuse must understand the tension in survivors who hold varied feelings about their abusers. It is not uncommon for us to speak to abuse survivors who wish to protect their abusers because of emotional attachment or concerns about how the disclosure of abuse would impact support networks or systems in which they are connected. 

A further complication of abusive relationships is that reporting abuse may place victims at risk of retaliation by their abuser. Survivors sometimes request secrecy in abuse disclosures not out of concern for their abuser, but rather fear for themselves or their loved ones. A thorough plan for addressing abuse must consider how to provide survivors with a plan for their own safety. These dynamics make it critical for ministry leaders to reach out promptly to professional caregivers when abuse is disclosed, for the safety of the victims.

Listening well

“When we listen, we communicate that the one speaking is valued and loved,” writes Tchividjian. Trying to make someone feel better is different from listening; attempting to reassure a survivor sometimes has more to do with our own needs to protect ourselves from distressing information. Conversely, this projection of needing to “fix” the pain can sometimes cause survivors to feel more alone.

Survivors of sexual abuse are suffering, and often the most loving act is to join them in that suffering. The Apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, “If one member of the body suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26). Emotional validation is often received through active listening: a nonjudgmental, raw, and literal reflection of what’s being shared. 

Active listening is deceptively simple. After inviting a person in pain to share their experience, the listener simply restates what they heard. Typical responses after sharing could be, “It sounds like you feel…”, or, “It sounds like you experienced…” with insertions of the precise feelings and experiences that the speaker just disclosed. 

It is important to reinforce dignity and empathy when listening to a survivor of sexual abuse. In practical terms, this could mean inviting the speaker to share more, asking questions, and matching the tone, pace, and volume of the speaker. Provide reassurance that you will help them find further safety and support. 
 

Practicing emotional regulation techniques

Hearing a student share about sexual violence, harassment, and abuse is distressing. It is natural for pastoral leaders to experience a range of emotions in response to these disclosures, yet it is also important for attention and focus to remain with the survivor. 

Fear, despair, hopelessness, helplessness, and anger are just a few of the common reactions. It is important for leaders to quickly identify their emotions, and address their tendencies or temptations to engage in destructive coping mechanisms, so as not to reactively project their emotional reaction onto the individual sharing their experience. From there, pastors can remind themselves of grounding truth: by acknowledging and grounding themselves in their own emotions during abuse disclosures, they can remain present and engaged with the emotions of the student.

This process of emotional regulation, based on Terry Hargrave’s model of Restoration Therapy, might look like this: “I am feeling helpless as I hear this student’s devastating experience. I am tempted to withdraw as a coping mechanism. The truth is, I am not helpless; I have skills and resources that can be utilized in this situation. So I will choose to compassionately listen and link this student to professionals who can serve this student in their pain.”

When pastors practice emotional awareness and work towards their own emotional regulation during abuse disclosures, the survivor’s emotional and safety needs can finally be prioritized. This important process provides clarity for sound decision-making in times of emotional crisis. 
 

Reporting abuse

Another source of anxiety that pastoral leaders face is that of bearing the burden to determine the facts. It is important for pastors, youth pastors and ministry leaders to determine if they are legally mandated reporters. In many states, this is the case, but this means mandated reporters hold a responsibility to report allegations of child abuse—not to investigate claims of child abuse. This releases leaders from the responsibility to determine whether they find a disclosure credible; they simply must report the allegation. If Child Protective Services deems that the disclosure is credible, they will open a case and proceed with an investigation. 

It is essential that sexual abuse be immediately reported to authorities according to state law. Sexual abuse of minors must be reported to Child Protective Services; pastors can find each state’s Child Protective Services hotline here.

Often victims of abuse will ask for their abuse to be kept secret due to the risks of disclosure (e.g., they may be protective of their abuser, concerned about repercussions or retaliation, or burdened by shame or embarrassment). MinistrySafe’s training on sexual abuse provides guidance in how to respond to this common request, which reflects to abused individuals that there are certain secrets which cannot be kept. For those receiving information about sexual abuse, establishing the safety of vulnerable individuals is more important than maintaining rapport with either the alleged victim or the alleged perpetrator. 

Survivor’s Reflection: If the church wants to seek to love their communities and embrace their suffering, they need to be educated and equipped to love survivors and come alongside them. Churches need to become fiercely acquainted with the realities of abuse and love our brothers and sisters who have survived. 


Linking leaders and students to resources

Churches can create protocols for preventing and responding to sexual abuse, harassment, and violence by utilizing the services of the following organizations:

GRACE: Prevention training, consultation, and independent investigations for churches and Christian organizations. 

MinistrySafe: Awareness training, screening, guidance in policies and procedures, background checks, legal consultation, and independent investigations for churches and schools.

The National Sex Offender Registry: A search tool to identify sex offenders. 

The National Sexual Assault Hotline: Confidential linkage to local resources and referrals. 

The Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth: Tools and training for rebuilding youth ministry after trauma.

Finally, create contact lists of local mental health professionals including licensed therapists and social workers who can be contacted for immediate and long-term support when survivors step forward. Contact information for local therapists may be provided by the National Sexual Assault Hotline as well as found on mental health directory websites such as PsychologyToday.com, GoodTherapy.org, and Theravive.com