What to do when you have been abused by a pastor?


I am writing you anonymously for good reason.  Please call me "Karen" and use the P.O. Box I have supplied.  I have been sexually abused by a pastor.  I don't want to get into the details of him doing this to me right now.  I'm probably to blame too.  But I feel so cheap, so used, and so depressed.  I don't think I can keep living with this without doing something about it.  I don't know where to turn -- if and when I do get up the courage.  Can you help?  If so, please share with me all the ins and outs of what I should do.  I want to know what I might be getting into.

This question is from a real-life situation to which Dr. Henry DeMoor has responded to based on his extensive knowledge of the Christian Reformed Church Order. The first answer given has been taken from the Christian Reformed Church Order Commentary written by Dr. DeMoor.

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Dear “Karen”: I’m so sorry to hear this story from you. You are not alone. Unfortunately, there are many others with a similar story. Like you, those people do not know what to do either or where to turn. I’ll do my best to describe the “ins and outs” as you requested. First of all, my response depends on your age. I cannot tell from your letter whether you are an adult, so I am going to describe a response to a minor and then a response to an adult. If you are a minor (under age eighteen in most states and provinces), you should know that sexual abuse of a minor by an adult is a crime whether or not the abuser is a pastor. If the abuser is a pastor, the abuse is also a serious form of church leader misconduct, a violation of professional ethics, a betrayal of your trust, and a sin. Although it might be very difficult for you, you should tell a parent or a stepparent what has happened. If you cannot tell your parent or stepparent or if they do not believe you, then tell your story to an adult—perhaps an elder of your church, a youth leader, or a school teacher—it doesn’t really matter who, as long as it is an adult that you trust. If you live in Canada, all adults are legally responsible to report the allegation. If you live in the United States, some adults must report an allegation of abuse because of their professional responsibilities while other adults do not have to report. Then two things should happen to prevent the sexual abuse from happening again. First, the adult you confide in should report your allegation to the local police. By law, the adult should report the allegation within twenty-four hours of hearing about it. Second, that same adult or the police should inform the church’s executive or leadership group of your allegation. You didn’t say whether he’s your pastor or the pastor of another church. But that doesn’t matter. The church needs to be told. The police will interview you and the pastor separately, and they will interview others as well. It takes some time to conduct a thorough investigation. After all the interviews are done, it is possible that criminal charges will be filed. There could be a trial, especially if the pastor claims he is innocent. If he is found guilty of abusing you or if he pleads guilty to abusing you, he will likely be punished. I can’t say what the punishment might be, but you should understand that any punishment is the result of his abuse and not because you reported the abuse. The church’s leaders should take action too. The church should at least suspend him for a period of time, or they should remove him from the pulpit and prevent him from being a minister again in that church or another church. Throughout this experience, you will find it helpful to have a counselor to talk to. Your friends will be very supportive to you, but you may not want to share all the details with them. Besides being a good listener, a counselor can also help sort through all the feelings you’ll have through the investigation and trial. All this may sound scary and overwhelming to you. I am not trying to frighten you. There really isn’t another way to prevent you from being hurt again by the pastor, or to prevent him from hurting someone else. I hope you find the courage to tell someone, and that the abuse stops. This is my advice if you are a minor. If you are an adult, I am just as saddened and disturbed by your story as if you were a child. My advice, however, is a bit different. First of all, I hope you’ll make an appointment with a counselor or therapist as soon as possible. Please don’t delay. Depression is a very natural reaction to the sexual violation and the betrayal you have experienced. But depression, anger, and sadness can also be overwhelming at times, so you should not face these emotions alone. As an adult, you have different choices than does a child. One of your choices is to go to the police with your story. If the events took place a long time ago, the police may or may not be able to investigate your story. The laws in your community may also affect whether or not charges can be filed. Another choice is to approach the Christian Reformed Church. The churches in the denomination have been challenged to understand the gravity of your situation, and the classes in the denomination are providing Safe Church Teams so that you have a safe place to go with your story. The conduct you describe might be sexual misconduct. Sexual misconduct occurs when a minister does not observe appropriate relationship or physical boundaries. Sexual misconduct usually includes exploiting a person for the power and control that it gives the other person. While it may look as if the relationship between the two people is “consensual,” in fact it is not because the minister is in a position of power and authority over a parishioner and has violated the sacred trust of his office by his conduct. The minister is always responsible to safeguard the relationship with the parishioner. When boundary violations occur, the minister should be held accountable. This is a very serious matter. And I hope my indication of the road to take now, even if it is a difficult one for you, is the right one for you and for the church. If this person is guilty of sexual misconduct, he must not be allowed to continue in office. Despite your own pain, we hope you will help us prevent further hurt and humiliation to even one more person. Unfortunately, once ministers cross these boundaries, more incidents usually follow. The Christian Reformed Church has a network of Safe Church Teams that are convened to hear stories like yours. If a team is not located near you, your expenses to travel to that team’s location will be provided for you. In addition, Safe Church Teams offer claimant advocates to assist those who have allegations of sexual misconduct committed by a minister. To get started and bring your story forward, you may contact a claimant advocate, a Safe Church Team chairperson, or the chairman of the church council to whom this pastor is accountable. If the offender is your minister, you may feel more comfortable calling a claimant advocate or team chairperson, but you certainly may approach someone on your council that you can trust. If the offender is a minister of another congregation, you can call either the claimant advocate, team chairperson, or a person on that church’s council. Usually the claimant advocate makes the call, but you could choose to make the call. If all of this begins to sound too difficult or impossible in some way, please know that the claimant advocates and Safe Church Teams are made up of professionals who are knowledgeable in sexual misconduct dynamics. You do not have to worry about confronting the minister alone or at all. The Safe Church Team will form a panel that will meet with you, accompanied by the claimant advocate, and then they will meet separately with the accused minister. When both parties have been fully heard, the panel will consider whether your allegations are more probable than not. You and the minister will be notified of the panel’s findings; the panel also notifies the executive committee of council. The council will then meet to decide on what should be done. Once again, the claimant and the minister do not meet face to face, but they will both be notified of the council’s decision. If the council judges that the allegations are more likely than not to have occurred, the council should initiate steps of discipline. It is likely that the minister will then first be suspended. If he claims to be innocent, a formal hearing will be held. If he pleads guilty or it is determined that he is, in fact, guilty of an offense, it is likely that he will then be deposed. If, on the other hand, the council judges that the charges you have brought are not likely to have occurred, then the matter could end. However, the chairperson of the advisory panel and the claimant advocate might challenge the decision of council. They could submit a copy of the panel’s report and of the council’s action to the Interim Committee of the classis. This committee presents a report to the next meeting of that classis. This is done to make sure that there is no partiality in the way that your allegations have been responded to in a “more local” setting. When this difficult road of appeal has been followed, and still no action is being taken against the minister for whatever reason, you and your claimant advocate still have the right of appeal from what the classis has decided in the matter. That appeal may be addressed to the synod of the Christian Reformed Church. It meets once a year and has a special committee that can hear the case in confidence. It will then provide the following synod with well-formulated recommendations. So you have representatives from the entire denomination at your disposal to address this serious matter. “Karen,” I’ve just given you a lot of stuff to digest. If you have any further questions, please know that you may contact me at the telephone number listed below my signature. I will keep our conversations confidential and not reveal them to anyone. Or you may write back. Either way is fine. I also encourage you to contact the denominational Safe Church Ministry at 616-224-0735. The ministry has a website with information on how to contact a claimant advocate or a Safe Church Team chairperson. I wish you much strength in all of this. I understand that this minister has hurt you. I hope you will experience a church that wants to end that hurt. The church does not want to bury its head in the sand. It wants and needs the opportunity to help you now. Just getting the word out to others will be difficult but, in the end, I am confident it will lighten your load and lead you on new roads to joy. Grace and peace to you.