What if abuse happens in your church?
Your friend tells you the pastor touches her breast when he hugs her. That would never happen here,” you insist. “I’m sure it’s unintentional. Our pastor is a good man.”
Yes, Christian Reformed churches are full of faithful people who treat others with respect and love. I hope “it” will never happen in your church. But what if it does? What if it’s happening right now? Are you prepared? What would the victim hear from you and other church members?
It Happened to Me
I never dreamed sexual abuse would happen in the CRC, much less in my congregation. I knew we all loved the Lord and others. But not only did it happen in my church, it happened to me.
When my pastor first touched me sexually, I trusted him as a representative of God. I believed he was a kind and wise pastor whose passion was to serve the Lord, the church, and especially the poor in the community. What my pastor didmust be OK, I thought. He explained his actions in biblical terms, insisting that God would approve. I was young and did what I had been always taught to do: believe and follow my pastor, an ordained Calvin Theological Seminary graduate with many years of experience.
What Would Help?
What would you do? Do you wonder what would be helpful to someone who has experienced sexual abuse in the church? Here’s what would help me:
Make it clear in your congregation that you want victims to break their silence. German Catholic Church Bishop Stephan Ackermann said recently, "We have to convey that we will not look the other way but face the bitter truth.” Let everyone know that safe, caring, wise people are available to listen to anyone who has an abuse story to tell. Don’t let victims bear this burden alone. Put posters up in the church restroomswith names and phone numbers to call. Promise and enforce strict confidentiality.”
What’s at stake is the integrity of the church.
When I first disclosed what happened to me, I was told it would be taken care of and I should be quiet. The abusive pastor was given a private slap on the wrist, and he remained in his position. I felt so alone, even after I found out I was not the only person he abused. I suffered shame and guilt over the years that damaged my marriage, my parenting, and my walk with God. Imagine what it’s like to listen to a pastor preach and know that in private he touches young women sexually.
The issue of abuse in the church is twofold. First is the horror of the original abuse, which we all denounce. Second is the way in which the church responds to the original abuse. If I had any indication that the church would respond to my disclosure with care and justice, I would have come forward much earlier. The damage in my life would have healed sooner, and the man who abused me would have had fewer opportunities to continue abusing.
Make sure that those safe people have extensive training in abuse issues and how to process them in the congregation, classis, and denomination. The CRC’s Safe Church Ministry offers excellent training for classical panels as well as for advocates who can walk alongside victims through the process of disclosure. When we prepare in advance, we communicate that we care deeply for the people in our church.
I finally came to a point in mid-life when I recognized what happened as abuse and dared to speak up again. I was relieved to find that there was a church process, approved by synod (the CRC’s annual leadership meeting), with guidelines for how allegations of abuse by church leaders should be handled. I began that process but soon discovered that many churches and classes don’t follow it.
Why? I know it’s not a perfect process, but it is much better than untrained people responding to a situation for which they are unprepared. It helped me.
In my case several church leaders tried to silence me and thwart the process. I was tempted to go underground again and keep bearing my burden alone. But the advice and care of my two wise and tenacious advocates, trained by Safe Church Ministry, gave me the courage and strength to continue.
Establish a committee in your congregation to reach out to survivors of abuse. Also, make sure your classis has a Safe Church Team. (Only 18 of the CRC’s 47 classes—regional groups of churches—do, despite synod’s “strong encouragement” to establish them [Acts of Synod 2010, p. 885] and to make them a priority [Acts of Synod 2007, p. 582]). Expect some resistance from church members or maybe even from your own heart.
Spending time and resources on the possibility that something bad might happen may seem like a low priority. But what’s at stake is the integrity of the church. Maintaining that integrity should be a high priority.
It is profoundly uncomfortable to hear that a trusted leader has abused. That bitter truth shatters the assumptions on which we base our congregational life. But silence and secrecy do much more damage to our integrity as a community. God hears the cries of the brokenhearted, and I believe God gives us the power to deal with evil openly and justly.
Not long ago someone on the CRC’s online forum The Network asked the Safe Church Ministry if there were any stories of success where healing has come through the work of abuse prevention. My story isn’t a finished “success story”—the fallout of what happened to me continues to ripple out pain in my life, in the life of the pastor who abused me, and in the church. But there is good news in my story. I was heard by the CRC. My story was taken seriously. I went through the process for dealing with abuse, as laid out by synod.
My request was simple: that the ministerial credentials of the person who abused me be removed. Along the way many people opposed my request, but many more supported me, followed the synodically approved process, and worked to make sure justice was done. The minister finally was held accountable. The church made it clear to me that what happened was wrong and that perpetrators of abuse should not be tolerated in the CRC. That is good news.
What if it happens in your church? Be prepared. Take advantage of the many quality resources available to you from the Safe Church Ministry. Be a part of preventing abuse, and when it does happen, be a part of bringing justice and healing to a devastating situation. You can help make the CRC a church that responds justly and effectively to abuse, encourages healing, and restores integrity.
For abuse-response help or training resources, please contact the Safe Church Ministry of the Christian Reformed Church at 616.224.0735 or crcna.org/safechurch.
Why not print my name?
I asked for my identity to be withheld for two reasons: First, I fear condemnation. There are those who hear my story and blame me for what happened. They don’t see it as a pastor abusing his office and the sacred trust he holds. Second, I could be in any church in the CRC. During my process of disclosure I talked with people from congregations in many states and provinces. I found that abuse is not confined to the Roman Catholic Church or to certain congregations in the CRC. It is an evil that can invade any church in which there are people who misuse their spiritual power.