There can be no good strategy for abuse prevention and no just response to abuse if there is not first a basic awareness of what abuse is. What are the dynamics? What are the impacts? Are there signs that can help us recognize it? My predecessor, Beth Swagman, used to include in her presentations something she called, The Short Course on Abuse. What’s adapted from that below is even shorter, but it’s a place to start:
- Expect denial from everyone, including you! We have to understand that our very strong tendency is to deny that it’s true. None of us wants to believe that abuse really happens. It challenges our beliefs about the world we live in. It shocks us, especially when we know the person who perpetrated abuse and could never imagine that he or she could do such a thing. We have to be aware of our tendency to deny and overcome it. Then we can be more willing to hear the stories of those who have experienced abuse. No problem has ever been solved by denial. And no healing can begin until abuse has been acknowledged. It’s up to us to listen and believe.
- A good question to ask is, “Who has the power?” All abuse, whether it’s sexual, physical, emotional, or spiritual is about misuse of power. In abuse, power is used for selfish gain, to control, manipulate, or harm. (It’s the opposite of the way Jesus uses power) Abuse involves the experience of powerlessness, which can be very deep and can lead to a loss of sense of self. The person with the greatest power in a relationship is the one responsible to maintain healthy relational boundaries. Pastors and ministry leaders have a great deal of power due to the sacred trust inherent in their position. It is ALWAYS the ministry leader’s responsibility to maintain healthy boundaries. Using language of “an affair” to describe clergy sexual abuse is a completely false characterization. No problem is solved by false identification. No healing can begin until those who are culpable take responsibility for their actions.
- What you know is probably only the “tip of the iceberg.” Abuse remains a hidden issue. In the movie “Spotlight,” the news team began with what they thought was a story about one priest. They were shocked and dismayed as the number of those victimized grew, and the number of those involved in the cover up also grew. The same thing happens in our congregations. We must never assume that we understand the full extent of the problem, or the full extent of our efforts to keep it hidden. Sadly, the cost of keeping it hidden is paid by those who have suffered the abuse. We can be confident however that the Lord hears their cries. No problem is ever solved by hiding it. No healing can begin until we stop hiding.
We can be thankful that most abuse doesn’t happen in churches, nor does most abuse involve church leaders. Yet abuse is rampant in our culture. Understanding abuse will not only keep our congregations safer, but will also be a valuable asset in our ministry with the communities we are called to serve.
The fourth Sunday in September has been designated Abuse Awareness Sunday. Find resources for your congregation here.