Sexual abuse in the Church
By Dr Wendel Abel
I write this article in response to the extensive concerns regarding sexual abuse in the Church and the wider society.
It is important to discuss abuse within the Church for the following reasons:
1. Church leaders have been accused of sexual abuse.
2. Abuse takes place in families that are very active within the Church and, when it does, the Church should take appropriate steps to deal with the matter.
3. Many churches do not handle sexual abuse issues very well. They force the victim into silence and press for forgiveness without allowing the victim the opportunity for therapy and healing.
4. Most persons who have been sexually abused never recover, and they turn to the Church for solace and healing.
How should the church deal with abuse?
1. Accept that abuse does exist within the Christian Church and, therefore, become more actively involved in discussing these issues.
2. Don't silence the victim. For many persons when the matter of their abuse is brought to church officials, attempts are made to silence them out of fear that it could ruin a family or cause embarrassment to the church.
"Go pray about it," one young lady was told. Abuse should be dealt with. Victims are too often silenced by shame, guilt, denial and fear. The victim should not be silenced and forced to forgive.
3. Provide opportunity for healing. Sexual violence is a terrifying experience. It is usually experienced with profound horror and pain, and it is more traumatic when it is a repeated experience. The Church preaches a doctrine of forgiveness but people should not be forced into forgiveness without an opportunity to deal with their pain and the terrible emotions associated with abuse.
4. Help victims rebuild trust. Sexual abuse is not only a violation of a human being, it is also a betrayal of trust. Many victims grow up not trusting family, friends, the Church and the community. Many individuals even question their faith and God. One young lady who was repeatedly abused asked, "How could God have allowed this to happen to me?" Provide support for the victim.
5. Help victims deal with their 'damaged self'. Abuse leaves many persons feeling violated, invaded, defiled and dishonoured. For many, especially women, this is how their virginity was taken. The victim often feels guilty and very often blame themselves. This blame is also reinforced by persons within the Church who will blame them for the way they dress and how they conduct themselves.
Victims will also be blamed for wanting to destroy their family, for breaking up a marriage or even bringing disgrace on the church. The church community should come together to ensure the person's safety and help him or her build trust and a positive sense of self.
6. Acknowledge the pain. The response of the church community is critical to the healing process. It is important that the church community recognises and acknowledges that the individual was violated, harmed and betrayed. The blame should be correctly placed on the abuser. It is the abuser who did something wrong. It is the abuser who violated another person.
The church community should also take responsibility for not addressing the matter and for any inappropriate action, such as blaming the victim when the matter was reported. It is important for the Church to deal with the emotions of its members, some of whom are hurting, embarrassed and in deep pain.
7. Provide opportunity for therapy. Victims of sexual abuse develop complex mental health problems and are often mistreated. Good therapy is important to help persons with the healing process. Acknowledge the fact that victims will have strong negative emotions, such as anger, which may be directed at everyone including God.
The therapist should be non-judgemental and one who will validate the victim's experience. It is very important that those providing therapy for abused persons be properly trained. A 'bad' therapist will cause more harm.
Dr Wendel Abel is a consultant psychiatrist and head, Section of Psychiatry, Department of Community Health and Psychiatry, University of the West Indies; email: firstname.lastname@example.org.