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By God’s grace, churches are changing the way they respond to victims of a church leader’s sexual abuse. After neglecting this subject for years, churches are beginning to understand how the effects upon victims can be devastating and long-lasting (see “Betrayal, Fear and Faith: The Victim’s Battle” in the May/June Baptist Bulletin). Churches are adjusting their response to better protect and assist victims (see “Betrayal, Fear, and Faith: The Church’s Response to Victims of Sexual Sin” in the July/August Baptist Bulletin). This third and final article in this series offers practical suggestions for providing victims with the long-term assistance they need.
Assessing a Victim’s Needs
Assign an advocate or team of advocates to help each victim. Ask questions gently and listen patiently to ascertain physical and spiritual needs. Take your time; remember this subject is very painful for the victim to talk about. Help the victim locate a Biblical counselor, and assist with writing a contingency plan (see sidebar) to address fear, depression, and anger and to avoid future offenses.
Meeting a victim’s material needs
Church. Assess material needs (see the May/June Baptist Bulletin for suggestions) and the extent your church family is able to provide for a victim’s physical needs. Who will organize these efforts? How will you assess whether needs are being met adequately and appropriately? Do not neglect the pastor’s wife and family as you address the victim’s needs. When your assessment is completed, make a list of resources that are available through the church. Your advocates should receive copies of this list so they know what they can offer the victims with whom they are working.
Community resources. Taking care to avoid gossip, contact sister churches and social services organizations for available community resources.
Meeting a victim’s spiritual needs
Prayer support teams. Select faithful believers to pray regularly for victims and their advocates, as well as for offenders. Train your teams how to pray together over passages such as 1 Peter 2:21–24, Hebrews 12:14 and 15, and the principles in 1 Corinthians 5 and 2 Corinthians 2.
Confidentiality (avoiding gossip or backbiting). Define gossip and warn your church—your leaders and advocates in particular—to avoid that sin. Gossip is relaying or receiving damaging information, whether true or not, about someone who is not present, when the information does not Biblically contribute to the solution of a problem for the glory of God (Proverbs 20:19; 26:20, 22; Romans 12:9–16; Ephesians 4:29).
Accept and include the victim in church events. Learn more about how to draw near and help the victim.
Provide Biblical counseling for the victim and family. If the church is unable to provide counseling from its own staff, or if the particular situation makes this unworkable for the victim, find a qualified counselor and offer to pay for the sessions.
Working with Victims
For expediency, I will refer to the offending woman or female victim here. However, I acknowledge that the pastor’s immorality may have been with a boy or a man.
Helping the victim
Depending upon whether the person approached by the pastor is an offender or a victim, godly advocates should carry out 1 Thessalonians 5:14 and 15 appropriately—patiently warning the unruly, comforting the downhearted, and supporting the weak.
When a leader’s sexual sin is discovered, the church will be outraged, embarrassed, fearful, and shocked. Too often the church expends all of its efforts in bringing the offender to justice. Or perhaps the church spends most of its time avoiding legal fallout. While careful investigation and justice are important, the church must not minimize the devastating effects of the offense on the victims. Church advocates should accept the charge to care for victims attentively, in the best possible ways.
Helping the unwilling victim
For the unwilling victim, broken trust with the offender is largely irreparable, even after the pastor/church leader is Biblically forgiven. The soul of a woman is deeply affected when she is victimized by someone she should be able to trust. I can’t cover this subject sufficiently here, but Biblical counseling will help her to think, act, and believe correctly. Beyond that, the church should attentively support her with ongoing prayer, patient encouragement and exhortation, frequent assurances of their love (and especially of God’s love), and gentle inclusion in church fellowship and activities.
Choose the right resources to help the unwilling victim. To appropriately seek to help the victim, her assigned advocate should gently explore the extent of the woman’s participation in the moral failure. Was she coerced, intimidated, or preyed upon (for example, as she sought pastoral counseling after rape or childhood abuse)? What is her maturity level or ability to understand cognitively what has happened? In what ways does she need protection and teaching, both spiritually and physically? What lasting effects may she and her husband be experiencing? How has her family been affected? To what extent would one-on-one Biblical counseling help her to think, act, and believe correctly?
The advocate must be careful not to accuse or judge the victim as questions are posed. For example, the following questions sound judgmental: “Why did you let him lead you into the office alone?” “Why didn’t you tell someone?” or “What kind of clothing were you wearing?” Often a victim will shut down when confronted with this type of questioning. Instead, ask questions with a nonjudgmental tone, such as, “How often did you find yourself in compromising situations with the pastor?” “Tell me about the circumstances that led up to this experience.” “How do you feel about talking to me about this right now?”
Helping the family of an unwilling victim
Advocates should give attention to the victim’s husband, an additional victim who probably struggles with doubts and questions concerning his role and God’s character. Ideally, an advocate should contact him to explore his approach to marriage and his thoughts and feelings about the pastor’s victimization of his wife. Help the husband sort out godly anger (anger at how God’s character has been offended and his children’s reputations compromised) from ungodly anger (desire for vengeance and sinful reactions to being hurt; see Ephesians 4:30–32). Ungodly anger can lead to physical harm of the offender, the victim, the family, and even the angry husband, which will complicate the situation. Assign an advocate who can help the husband see his role and exercise faith appropriately. Carefully assess whether a Biblical counselor should be involved in victim care.
A church leader’s moral failure can be devastating to a marriage, especially a weak one. The husband may have doubts about his wife’s faithfulness, even when she is truly a victim. He may withdraw from his role as a husband and father, even if he does not seek divorce. A husband may be so caught up in his own anger, sorrow, or doubt that he fails to recognize the devastating effects of victimization that his wife is suffering. Help the husband take his sinful anger to God. Lead him to see his wife’s struggle, and seek to bring them together to work on their marriage in a unified way.
Helping an offending woman
Here we refer to the woman who responded willingly to the pastor’s sexual advances. The offender will have to be admonished per Matthew 18:15–17 for the purpose of spiritual restoration to God and the church. Forgiveness and careful restoration should be sought between her and her family through Biblical counseling and discipleship. Refrain from hurrying the restoration process so that the sincerity of her repentance may be proven. (See 2 Corinthians 7:9–11.)
Helping the family of an offending woman
The husband of the offending woman will experience many of the same reactions as the husband of a victim, with one important distinction: his wife has willingly betrayed him. Explore his responses as a husband and their marital history to see ways that he may change to better reflect Christlikeness as he faces his current challenges.
Lead him to communicate responsibly to his wife and children. What should he tell the children about their mother? How may he respond well to the pastor’s wife and family? What should he do if he sees the church leader? How might he be part of the solution rather than contribute to the problem?
Go over the steps of church discipline from Matthew 18:15–17. Clarify his role and exhort him to remain wise and patient even when he feels overwhelmed.
Teach him what it means to forgive a repentant wife. Teach him how to respond if she does not repent. Help him through the financial difficulties that may arise from his wife’s unfaithfulness. Often an unfaithful spouse will run up credit card bills. How may he protect himself and her? Walk through his options in the marriage: What can he do if his wife leaves him? How might he seek to win her back? Biblically, may he divorce his wife if she remains unrepentant? If so, should he pursue divorce? When and how?
Helping the pastor’s family
Because the church is a Christian family with a deeply wounded sister, the church should come alongside as much as possible with prayer and physical support, remembering that the pastor’s family members have been uprooted through no fault of their own. Meaningful, practical assistance when the pastor leaves his office might include babysitting or helping with daily tasks.
Extend kindness. Offer wisdom by talking to the wife and children, including them in activities, and answering their fears with faith. Wisely addressing the pastor’s sin will restore trust, security, and stability for the family.
The church should especially work to restore their fallen leader spiritually and in his life roles as husband, father, and provider for his family. Restoration of the husband and father is of high value to everyone, even if he is disqualified from serving again as a pastor. Marriage counseling is probably in order as well, and should be sought from a Biblical source.
A godly mentor can do much good by allowing the children to voice their feelings, and then answering them with Scripture that presents a Biblical view of God in trials. Children also need help to think through how this sin reflects upon their self-image and their role with their parents, and to respond Biblically. How are children to honor their parents when the parents sin?
A mentor (or team) can also give the children regular reassurance that they are not to blame for Dad’s problem, carefully asking about other concerns in the home, demonstrating compassion as a representative of the Christian church family, and helping the parents by caring for the children in as many ways as possible until the matter is settled.
Helping the offending woman who is outside the church
The situation is somewhat simpler and less painful when the offending woman is outside the church, because the church is not obligated to treat her as a member of the family. But remember that she is a person created by God in His image. Regardless whether her conscience accuses her or whether she has seared it, she will give an account someday.
The church should be mindful of the offender’s precarious position before God. Therefore, the church should pray for her repentance (and for her salvation if she is an unbeliever), and should be concerned because the name of Jesus Christ and His church have been impugned in her eyes. Depending upon the situation, the advocacy committee members may choose to contact her to share the gospel and to let her know that the church is praying for her soul. If she is a member of a sister church, that church should be exhorted to exercise Matthew 18:15–17 with her. Consult your attorney for the best way to go about this step.
When the Victim Is a Child
If a child is sexually abused by a pastor or church leader, the church must immediately report the potential sexual abuse to local law enforcement officials. In addition to fulfilling a legal responsibility, the church has a moral duty to protect the victim and potential future victims.
Perhaps well-meaning church members will wonder if the particular incident really happened. Perhaps they will wonder if a teen victim still meets the statutory definition of a child. Some may even advocate a quiet internal investigation to avoid a public scandal. All of these fears can be addressed ahead of time by establishing a unequivocal policy: Our church will always report suspected child sexual abuse immediately and directly to local law enforcement officials.
In turn, the law enforcement officials may conduct a full investigation, or may engage the local social service agency. The church should cooperate in every way with the formal investigation (see the July/August Baptist Bulletin for details).
A thorough treatment of this subject is beyond the scope of a magazine article, but here are a few suggestions for helping the abused child:
- Care for the child’s physical protection (Matthew 18:6; 25:35–45).
- Offer to arrange and pay for a physical exam.
- Get good information (Proverbs 18:13).
- Assure the child of God’s love and His anger at this offense (Psalm 146:5–9).
- Assure the child that he or she is not at fault for the offense.
- Teach the child to forgive (Luke 17:3, 4).
- Teach the child to return good for evil (Romans 12:21).
- Help the child to deal Biblically with fear, anger, and guilt; for example, concerning more abuse, fear of death, separation from family, anger from family, reactions of others (especially in the church), physical injury, what will happen to the offender (Isaiah 41:10).
- Help the child let this situation demonstrate the depth of his or her love for God (1 Corinthians 13:4–8).
- Prepare the child for the judicial process.
Homosexual offenses can be especially confusing to a child who does not have the maturity or mental capacity to correctly assess what has happened. Boys often believe that such an offense is offered only to other homosexual males; therefore, because they were approached, they believe they must be homosexual. Biblical counseling by a qualified counselor and discipleship or mentoring by a godly man will be helpful in discerning and correcting wrong thinking, overcoming fear, developing wise precautions, and recognizing that God remains trustworthy.
By God’s grace, healthy churches and healthy spiritual leaders will never experience the tragedy of a trusted leader’s sexual abuse. But we must avoid an attitude of “it can never happen here.”
I hope this series of articles will help churches understand how the effects upon victims can be devastating and long-lasting. I pray that our churches will adjust their responses to better protect victims. And I pray that our churches will begin to offer victims the long-term assistance they need.
Sue Nicewander (MA, Central Baptist Theological Seminary) is executive director of Biblical Counseling Ministries, Inc., based at Calvary Baptist Church, Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., and a member of Berea Baptist Church, Stevens Point, Wis. She is the author of Building a Church Counseling Ministry without Killing the Pastor; Help! I Feel Ashamed; and online resources at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.