Lifting the Cover on Sexual Abuse

“Will I need to stand in front of the church and confess that I was hospitalized in a mental health facility?” At first I thought she was joking. She was not joking. She was dead serious. And when she asked that—I knew our church had failed. We had failed her terribly.

The church adds to the trauma of sexual abuse when men and women are afraid to come forward, afraid to share their story, and afraid to confess that they no longer want to live. That’s when it is obvious that we, as a church, have failed the broken and hurting.

The church is actually adding to the problem.

You see, a survivor of abuse doesn’t see themselves as a valuable individual—they see themselves as damaged goods and something that should be discarded. They fear that the desire to die, the attempts at suicide, might be reason enough for church discipline. They know that their reaction to their horrific trauma, and desire to die, might be considered by others as sinful.

What if they are just so very exhausted by all that they’ve experienced, that they see death as the only escape from the past that continues to ravage them?

What if they don’t share how they vomit when past memories come crashing in because they fear you will think it demonstrates a lack of faith. Or the fact that they don’t share that they still struggle with debilitating fear combined with self-mutilation because they believe that if it were known, it would be seen as a blight on the church. Who in their right mind would want to talk about their story with all that judgment and disapproval staring them in the face? Of all places, all places, the church should be a safe place. Not only a safe place, but on the offensive when it comes to this issue.

The church should be on the advance—be leading the way in protecting the broken and abused, rather than bringing additional harm.

I’m ashamed today. I’m ashamed of what has been uncovered. But I’m thankful it has been uncovered. I’m thankful that sin has been exposed and forced into the light. But I’m ashamed of the church at large. How could we? How could so many perpetrators of evil, so many predators and evil seducers be allowed to remain hidden? And how did the church not see the hurting and come to their aid? Why has the Lord’s instructions not been followed to protect these? Why have civil authorities not been contacted?

Why has it taken so long for judgment to fall on the church?

I’m not answering these questions in this small blog post. I’m just appealing to you to look around, to pray for those who are hurting. To be a safe place for the men and women in your church who may be throwing up (or running to a mental health facility) as they relive the horror of being preyed upon by someone in church leadership—as these revelations continue to pour out.

And I’m asking you to intentionally cultivate an environment in your church that is safe.

You may not know what I’m talking about, but if you’re on social media at all, you’ve probably caught a glimpse of something referring to the Houston Chronicle articles (a three-part series) addressing the horrific proliferation of sexual abuse within Southern Baptist churches. It is a serious investigative report and one that all churches should be aware of—whether you’re a member of a SBC church or a different denomination.

You may want to run from the graphic horror of what is being revealed. But don’t. You may want to argue the need to reveal this. But as believers who carry the gospel before a watching world—we can’t.

As hard as it is for us to look in the mirror and see ourselves, we need to look. We need to see what we’ve missed or what we’ve hidden. We need to wake up to the fact that the church is easily invaded by predators—and many times those predators stand behind a pulpit or sit in the Sunday School teacher’s seat. We need to operate in humility and grace—not in reckless accusation or paranoia—but we need to be watchful over our little ones, over the vulnerable, over our teens (male and female), and over those who’ve already been ravaged by this evil.

What can we do?

  • If you know someone who has suffered from this type of abuse, meet with them and gently ask how you might come alongside them, and ask for suggestions in how the church can improve in helping the abused.
  • Be aware that if you ask how you can help—the victimized may not be able to give you an answer. As one told me: “You don’t expect a drowning person to manage their own rescue.” Be sensitive to that. Don’t demean them if they can’t give you an answer. They are drowning.
  • Be prepared for, and committed to, the long haul. This will not be a “quick fix.” This will not be easy. Walking with a survivor of abuse requires time and patience. And much grace. They will probably need good counseling from a Christian health professional that is trained and experienced in helping trauma victims. Be willing to go with them to those sessions if that will be helpful for them.
  • Realize that your abused friend will have a skewed perspective of God, and in all likelihood will be angry with God. This is where you can be the most help. Don’t preach to her, but in creative ways introduce her to the wonder and goodness of God. Love her as He loves her. His heart is for the broken and oppressed.
  • Invite your abused friend to experience “normal” with you. Fun outings with no pressure of heavy conversation. A quiet meal with meaningful and affirming conversation. If she’s the mother of young ones—offer to relieve her of care-giving duties for a few hours, that alone is a huge help.
  • Demonstrate respect and compassion to the victimized—not debilitating pity that demeans them further.
  • Do not ever use them for your own means—as a “victory mission project.” They’ve been used and should never be used again—especially in Christ’s name.
  • Be careful to walk the fine line of assisting them in their recovery without encouraging an unhealthy dependence on you. Be on guard that you do not function as a little “savior” rather than continually pointing them to the source where they will truly find their needs met—in Christ Jesus alone.
  • Cultivate an environment within your church that communicates to those who are hiding, that it is safe to come out in the open and share, that the church will not shame you.  
  • Don’t be entertained by sexual abuse. As believers, when we gorge on movies or other forms of entertainment that presents graphic images of the victimization of others, it desensitizes the church to the horror. It further dehumanizes the abused. Eating popcorn while watching rape is barbaric behavior.  
  • Watch for symptoms of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) within your church family. The rate of PTSD in sexual assault survivors is second only to war veterans.
  • Be public about your willingness to serve those who’ve been sexually assaulted, abused, or are aware of abuse that is going unreported.
  • If you’re aware of ongoing abuse that hasn’t been reported to authorities. Report it. Now. And get the abused to a safe location. Today.

Join me in praying for the church? How I grieve for those who’ve been harmed by wolves who hold positions where they are supposed to represent our holy Lord Jesus. How angry I am for that misrepresentation and for the horrors and atrocities these predators have brought. Let us move ahead in wisdom and watchfulness. Watching out for those in need. Caring for the broken and injured.

Let us be true representatives of our kind Shepherd.

Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:28 –29)

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