When your pastor is accused
When a report of sexual misconduct by a trusted congregant, church worker or ordained minister becomes known, the pain and trauma ripples out far beyond the violation itself. A perpetrator’s actions against someone under their care, whom they are privileged to serve, creates lasting impact on family members, congregations, conferences and whole communities. All of these people are secondary victims to the perpetrator’s actions. The following helpful guidelines are adapted from the SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) website.
The natural human instinct is to recoil from alleged horror, and to immediately assume that the allegations are false. But the overwhelming majority of abuse disclosures prove to be true. In every case, the proper and Christian response is to remain open-minded.
Pray for all parties involve.
Every person involved deserves and needs prayerful support.
Let yourself feel whatever emotions arise.
You may feel angry, betrayed, confused, hurt, worried and sad. These are all natural, typical responses to an allegation of sexual abuse. None of these feelings are inappropriate or bad. Don’t be hard on yourself for feeling any of these emotions.
Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common. Yes, even in your church communities.
It’s far more widespread than any of us would like to believe. Research shows that 93% of convicted child molesters identify as religious.
Support the accused pastor PRIVATELY.
Calls, visits, letters, gifts, and prayers – all of these are appropriate ways to express your love and concern for the accused pastor. Public displays of support, however, are not. They only intimidate others into keeping silent. In fact, it is terribly hurtful to victims to see their fellow church members openly rallying behind an accused church leader. You may want to publicly defend a pastor, collect funds for the pastor’s defense, show up to support him in the courtroom, and take similar steps. Please don’t. Express your appreciation of the pastor or church worker in direct, quiet ways. Even if the pastor is innocent, somewhere in the congregation is a young girl being molested by a relative or a boy being abused by his coach or youth leader. If these children see adults they love and respect publicly rallying around accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report their own victimization to their parents, the police, or other authorities. They will be scared into remaining silent, and their horrific pain will continue.
Don’t try to guess or figure out who the accuser is. They deserve anonymity.
Abuse victims, like rape victims, need their privacy to recover from their trauma. Openly speculating about who is alleging abuse is essentially gossiping, and helps to create a hostile climate that will keep other victims (even those abused by non-church perpetrators) from coming forward. Many abuse survivors have never told anyone their secret and they are also listening in on conversations. If you do know the accuser(s), protect their confidentiality. There are many good reasons why abuse victims are unable to publicly come forward. Often, the person wants to keep their elderly parents or young children from suffering too. Don’t compound the pain by disclosing their identity to others.
Understand that abuse victims often have troubled backgrounds (i.e. drug or alcohol problems, criminal backgrounds, etc.) Instead of undermining the credibility of accusers, these difficulties actually enhance their credibility. When someone is physically hurt, there are almost always clear signs of harm; so too with sexual abuse. The harm is reflected largely in self-destructive behaviors. One might be skeptical of a person who claimed to have been run over by a truck but showed no bodily injury. Similarly, one might be skeptical of an alleged molestation victim who always acted like a model citizen and become successful in the world.
Don’t allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers.
Stress to your fellow congregants that there are many good reasons why abuse victims disclose their victimization years and decades after the crime. In most instances, victims come forward when they are emotionally able to do so, and feel capable of risking disbelief and rejection from precious loved ones, including family members, church leaders, other authorities, and fellow Anabaptist Mennonites. Sometimes, they are psychologically able to do so only after their perpetrator has died, moved or been accused by someone else. Sometimes, they have been assured that their perpetrator would never be around kids or in authority over vulnerable adults again, but have learned that this isn’t the case. In other cases, it takes years before victims are able to understand and/or acknowledge to themselves that they have been sexually violated. This is a common defense mechanism.
Ask your family members and friends if they were ever sexually harassed, assaulted or abused.
Many times, abuse victims will continue to keep the secret unless specifically invited to disclose their experience by someone they love and trust. Even raising this topic can be very uncomfortable. But it must be done. It may be very awkward and your family members may even act resentful at first. But soon they will remember that you really care about them, and will see your questions as a sign of that care.
Mention the accusation to former members of the congregation and church staff now living elsewhere.
Focus especially on those who left unexpectedly and without clear cause. They may have information that could prove the guilt or innocence of the minister facing allegations. This is especially important because sometimes abuse victims or their families stop attending church or move away after experiencing abuse.
Contact the police or prosecutors in the jurisdiction where the offense occurred.
It’s your duty as a citizen to call the proper civil authorities if you have any information (even if it’s second hand or vague) that might help prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. It’s your duty as a Christian to help seek justice and protect others from harm. Remember: abuse thrives in secrecy. Exposing a physical wound to fresh air, clean water and sunlight can be healing. Exposing sexual crimes is also ultimately healing even though it can also hurt. And remember that police and prosecutors are unbiased professionals with the skills and experience needed to ascertain whether an allegation is true or false.
Don’t allow other members of the congregation to make disparaging comments about those making the allegation.
Remember, the sexual abuse of children and adults has terribly damaging effects. As a Christian, you want to help prevent such life altering tragedies. And you want anyone who is in pain to get help as soon as possible. Critical comments about those who make allegations only discourage others who may have been hurt but never told anyone. Such remarks prevent those who need help from reaching out and getting it. Show your compassion for abuse victims. Their identity is often hidden. Tell your fellow church members that hurtful comments are inappropriate. Remind them that they can defend their minister without attacking his accuser.
Educate yourself and your family about sexual abuse.
There are many excellent books and resources on the subject. SNAP recommends Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation, Frank Bruni & Elinor Burkett’s Gospel of Shame, and the Boston Globe’s Betrayal. We recommend Dr. Anna Salter’s Predator, Dr. Peter Rutter’s Sex in the Forbidden Zone, and Marilyn R. Peterson’s At Personal Risk. Check out websites for SNAP, Stop It Now, National Sexual Violence Resource Center, Darkness 2 Light, 1 in 6, and Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
Don’t be blinded by the pain you can see.
The trauma of the accused pastor, and those who care about him, is obvious. You can usually see it in his face, his posture, and his actions. But please try to keep in mind the trauma of the accuser too. Because you rarely see their pain directly, it’s important to try and imagine it. This helps you keep a balanced perspective.
Try to put yourself in the shoes of the alleged victim.
It’s easy to identify with the pastor. Most Anabaptist Mennonites have met dozens of pastors and know them as warm and wonderful individuals. On the other hand, few Anabaptist Mennonites have come forward as abuse survivors. In the gospels, Jesus calls us to identify with the hurting, the vulnerable, and the innocent. Try, as best you can, to imagine the shame, self-blame, confusion and fear that afflict those who have been groomed and tricked into becoming sexually involved with trusted religious authority figures who have far greater power as “God’s representative.”
Use this painful time as an opportunity to protect your own family.
Talk with your children about safe touch, the private parts of their bodies, who is allowed to touch those parts, what to do if someone else tries, and who to tell. Urge your children to have similar conversations with your grandchildren.
Turn your pain into helpful action.
In times of stress and trauma, doing something constructive can be very beneficial. Volunteer your time or donate your funds to organizations that help survivors and work to stop abuse.
Keep in mind the fundamental choice you face.
On the one hand, at stake are the feelings of a grown up. On the other hand, at stake is the physical, emotional, psychological, spiritual and sexual safety of potentially many children and vulnerable adults. If one has to err in either direction, the prudent and moral choice is to always err on the side of protecting those who can’t protect themselves: children; or adults who easily get caught up in sexual abuses of power by a charismatic leader. Remember too that it’s easier for an adult in a position of power to repair his reputation than for a child, a young adult or a person of lower status and position to repair their psyche and life following abuse. Another way to look at this: Being falsely accused of abuse is horrific. But actually being abused, then being attacked or disbelieved is far worse.
Ask your pastor to bring in outside, independent experts who can lead a balanced discussion about sexual abuse.
Specially trained therapists, sex crime law enforcement officers, social workers and rape crisis center staff understand and can answer the questions you and your fellow congregants are facing, and help you deal with the emotional impact of this trauma too.
Urge others to read and follow these guidelines.
Circulate this list to your conference minister, pastor, Sunday School superintendent and other church and conference employees and encourage them to follow these guidelines too and to circulate them through their own available channels for further discussion.