What if IT Happens in Your Church?

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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.

Good News

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.

See comments (14)

Comments

Thanks.

Thanks for speaking up - for daring to discipline a brother and, indeed, the entire Church. It can be one of the most difficult acts of love to carry out. May God grant you peace in the years to come.

We pastors are not God. If the Church is not willing or able to hold us accountable, it is not only cruel to our parishoners, not only damaging to the integrity of the Gospel and the Church, it is cruel and unloving to the pastor.

Yes, we must protect against false accusations, and I would even say that not everything labeled "abuse" by the world today is really so. The author is right - the synodically approved process is good, not least because it does include protections against such false claims. But abuse - real abuse - really happens. Sin is not just in our imaginations.

The Lord disciplines those he loves, and a Church must also be prepared to discipline those loved by the Lord. It is, according to the Belgic Confession, one of the marks of the true church.

I walked alongside an abuse victim for many years. She used the panel process to see her abuser stripped of his credentials and also filed charges in criminal court. It cost her a lot. But not as much as keeping silent would have. She is one of the bravest people I know and I am privileged to have walked with her through a journey that was painful but has also brought healing. The panel process as laid out by Safe Church Ministry does work. Every classis needs trained panel members and every congregation needs a safe church team.

It happened to me too. In many ways I felt more violated by the reaction of my church than I did by the actual abuse. You are very brave. Thank you for sharing your story.

Please help us in Pella Iowa. Google "covenant reformed church Patrick Edouard abuse" and you will know what we are going through. Please Help!!!

Thank you so much for having the courage to write this article and thank you to the Banner for publishing it. I am a victim of clergy sexual abuse. As is often the case with this kind of abuse, I am only one of several women who were abused. Three others have recently come forward in our congregation and we are pressing criminal charges. The abuse was heinous on every level but the worst part of what I experienced was a complete sabotage of my soul by the very man who was supposed to be acting as my shepherd. The abuse continues by the elders of my church who have not done anything to minister to the victims other than accept the resignation of the abuser.

All that being said, God truly does work all things together for our good. My Redeemer restored me to Himself, restored my marriage and continues to restore me each and every day. Every day is a struggle but there is true healing and true power in the Word and through Prayer. This trial has proved my faith genuine and I now know with complete certainty that NOTHING can ever separate me from the love of Christ.

To the Woman who wrote this article...Thank you!! To the Banner for publishing this article...Thank-you!!
I know this is far fetched but I would like to talk to the author of this article in person. We have been so hurt and traumatized by the Pastoral abuse that has happened in our church that it is destroying peoples lives.

Thank-you again for this article!!!! I hope this wakes people up about the damage to the heart, body and soul when this happens to victims. Truly terrifying.

Thank you Banner!!! This is an epidemic of gigantic proportions that is sweeping through ALL denominations across the country!! Keep up the good work

to the Pella IOwa writer

- one of your council members was given my book: Breaking the Silence within the Church: Responding to Abuse Allegations. It's online Barnes and Nobles. IN the fall a second book I wrote will be out: Forgiving the Church.

I can help victims and your church. I am a trained advocate. I am very aware of reports about your pastor via a friend of mine who lives in Pella and onlne reports.

About Safe Church Teams: I can't recommend them to my victims - until they prove they know better what to do and how to do it.

I've done this work for 15 yrs. in the CRC.

Re: the previous comment, that is one person's opinion. I have walked with people who have been abused and can highly recommend the Safe Church office of the CRC and the abuse response panels.

Sadly, that's not true - it's not one person's opinion. Victims have been harmed by the process because of Safe church people. Wanting to protect our system and say that Safe church people have not harmed is more denial about what really can go on in abuse response processes.

Our people should never investigate our own people. Way too much subjectivity, breaching confidentiality, and gossip.

Let me add my thanks to the Banner for publishing this article that sheds light on abuse, a problem that thrives in silence and secrecy. THANK YOU!

Let me also add my thanks to the author who courageously shared her story; I know she is not alone and speaks for others as well as herself. THANK YOU!

September 25 is Abuse Awareness Sunday, resources are available, including a bulletin insert entitled, "is it abuse?" More resources can be found on our recently updated website www.crcna.org/safechurch.

Thanks again.

Dear brethren and sisters,

The Lord is my Pastor (Psalm 23:1), chief pastor above all others. The nearer to the end of the world, the more corrupt are the people of God, and more wrongs among Christians).

Because iniquities shall increase, the love of many shall grow cold. Matthew 24:12

Many Christians' love towards God shall grow cold, because they will see wrongs done by Christians against other Christians.

But he who endures till the end, the same shall be saved. Matthew 24:13

The first sin transformed the best angel into Satan. It was not sexual sin, but desire to exalt above people. Satan no longer wanted to admire God but for others to admire (or fear) him. He wanted to be the center of the universe and despise others. This is the most common temptation to people. It is averted by praying often to remind yourself of God's existence,(John 3:30). Perhaps 5 minutes of prayer each hour.

There are Christians, including pastors, who misquote the Bible for oppression and self-exaltation. That's the first action of Satan in the Word of God (Genesis 3), to misquote the Word for evil use. Christians must not merely listen to the surface words (the sheepskin), but also pray to God to discern if it's a ravenous wolf, in the heart.

A pastor is not superior to a Christian. He merely has additional responsibilities of caring for God's people. You can respect pastors, but don't base your life on them, because these days some of them err. Remember that each Christian directly has God above him/her as Pastor.

If someone molest people in church, they need to get removed as pastors.
There is no shortage of Christians made into pastors: when people memorize most of the New Testament, and pray several hours a day, they are ready to care for God's people.

In the New Testament, there were episkopos (bishops, overseers) who supervised several congregations' pastors. This should happen. If there is trouble, you can complain to them (and then to the entire congregation), to remove the pastor. In each congregation, there should be several in-training pastors, ready to replace the main pastor.

Also, for prevention, the congregation should include the pastor in their prayers. Each Christians should daily pray for their pastor(s) to have spiritual regeneration in the Holy Spirit.

All Christians (pure in love, sound in doctrine) are your brethren and sisters. So each Christian should have at least two congregations. This makes sure that all the people you know aren't from the same church, in case there is abuse. Make acquaintances outside of church, so that half of the people you know aren't from church. This helps you make God known, also helps you if there is abuse.

Remember the New Testament.
Please live as the Bereans, they took people's words (including pastors) and compared with the Word of God. They trusted in God first, not in people (you can trust people to some extent, but your main trust must be in God, so that you aren't shocked if people turn against you to harm you, as sometimes happen in this world, and you can not only distance from such people, but also protect others). Put your emotions upon God, and not upon another person.

Peace be with those who sincerely love God.
Remember the sufferings of Christ, and God's denouncing of ungodly pastors in Jeremiah, Amos, Malachi.

Please make sure to have a sturdy foundation in your heart, by memorizing Christ into it, the Word of God.

I want to thank the author for her courage. We hear about sexual abuse in many sectors and should not be surprised that it can occur in the church also. Our children and young people (all people for that matter) are the life and future of our churches. To sweep something this damaging under the rug is a great a sin as the abuse itself.

This article makes me wonder if we have such a policy or set of guidelines in the denomination I am apart of. We all have to take this problem seriously if we wish to be a part of restoring the shalom of God's Kingdom.

When it happened to me (the abuser was not the pastor, but he was a major donor), the response from the older church member I reported it to was: "he's important, you're not."

Looking at a church as an earthly institution, that was true: if I left the church my departure would not be noticed; but if he left, the church would go thru major disruption.

Protesting in public means ostracism. Self-protectively staying away means self-ostracism. Staying in place means many will hate you and whisper about you for being a troublemaker. It will not again be your church, not in a long time if ever.

You have to report it, to protect others, to verify to your own soul "what happened to me was wrong." And then you have to leave that church. I tried to stay but I got "accidentally" taken off the email list, when my name was turned in for the prayer list it somehow didn't appear, the class I wanted to join was suddenly declared "full."

You can't thrive in an environment that wants you gone. What's important to know is, you will find new friends elsewhere. Leave, go find new friends, there is life ahead.

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