Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Responding well to victims of abuse

 A new document Responding Well  which gives guideline on how to deal pastorally with victims of abuse, both within and outside the Church has been issued by the House of Bishops today. It builds on the Time for Action resource published by Churches Together in Britain and Ireland in 2002, which encouraged church denominations to devise  policies and guidance on sexual abuse. The new document advises churches on how to respond as positively and constructively as possible to people who have suffered abuse.
 I have not yet read the guidelines yet, but I strongly feel that such a resource is much needed and I shall be giving it some close attention. Many churches do not deal well with abuse. I suspect this is part and parcel of the fact that many churches do not deal well with sexual matters generally (this is a personal view, please feel free to disagree!) One of the great stumbling blocks to the recovery of many abuse survivors is the emphasis of Christian teaching upon forgiveness. While this is all well and good, and undoubtedly an important part of the Christian message, it is vital for those ministering to the abused to recognise that a part of recovery is to be allowed to express anger and blame. Children who are abused often feel that the abuse is their fault, that they are in some way culpable. To come to terms with abuse, you often have to "blame" the abuser. This does not mean, of course, that the survivor may not develop a more nuanced response at  a later stage, they may, or they may not. In the meantime it is important that churches do not coerce an "appropriate" response, or dictate an agenda, because this too is often a further form of abuse. Churches should be aware that those who have been abused have suffered trauma, and have had their sense of self quite deeply damaged. Recovery from abuse is a journey, it takes time and you cannot set a timetable for "forgiveness".

The following are some unhelpful things which have actually been reported as being said to survivors of abuse. I hope you can spot what is wrong with them! (The word "her" could be substituted for "him" - women do abuse!)
- Did you encourage him in any way?
- You have to think about how you may have sinned in this situation.
-If you don't forgive him then you are worse than he is.
-If you don't forgive, you are rejecting God's forgiveness to you.
- You were brought up in a Christian household, why didn't you say no to such immoral behaviour?
- When he had sex with you, you inherited all the spiritual problems of his previous sexual partners.
-When he had sex with you it opened you up to demon possession.
- His main crime was theft because he stole the gift of your virginity from your future husband.

I am very biased, but I would advise anyone who has been abused to opt for a secular rather than a Christian counsellor. It is also best to go to a properly qualified and accredited counsellor or therapist, not someone set up as a self appointed expert in the name of religion. None of the above is invented - I have either heard them or been told by others that they were said to them, and I have met with the kind of thinking about abuse that lies behind them. I would also say that, even in churches governed by good sense where none of the above would ever be mooted, a vicar or pastor can lack the kind of knowlege, information or experience to be truly helpful as a sole counsellor or advisor.
I hope this guidance is good, it is very much needed - meanwhile I do apologise for another depressing blog post!


  1. Depressing, perhaps, Sue, but important and needing to be said. In my days as a parish priest I would never have presumed to counsel people in the technical sense and cringe at the thought that clergy or laypeople could be capable of saying the things you quote.

  2. Some of the comments go back a fair way (20years or so ago, some of them), many are from fairly extreme evangelical and "deliverance" contexts. You hope that attitudes and understanding would be more enlightened now.
    I think it is very wise for parish priest not to assume they have the expertise to offer formal counselling, especially in complex areas.

  3. There was a report in last weeks Church Times: here - it may be behind the firewall for another couple of days, but it suggested that the report was a good thing!

    One thing it talked about which was also said on a course I attended was that if someone talks to you about their abuse then they have chosen to talk to you - don't fob them off - even if you are not an expert.

  4. I read the report last night, Alan, it is excellent! I'm quoting here what it says about forgiveness (which is spot on.)

    "Often, within a church context, those who have disclosed that they have been
    sexually abused have been urged to forgive unconditionally as if this is the
    righteous thing to do. Worse still, some Christian leaders have even explicitly
    or implicitly suggested serious shortcoming when a victim of abuse, deprived
    of justice, has not been able to forgive his/her abuser. Such bad practice reflects
    poor theology, and is yet another form of abuse."

    BUT, of course, if someone opens up about potentially "scary" areas - abuse, sexuality, mental health - one of the worst things anyone can do is fob them off or "close down" communication. For a start this suggests the problem is too big or too taboo to cope with and can lead to shame in the discloser (or anger, or resentment that they feel the priest considers their disclosure shameful or taboo.)

  5. Thanks very much for this post - I hadn't heard of this report, but have now read it. I have seen several other basically pretty good policies about safeguarding, the aftermath of abuse and so on emerging from the CofE the last few years. Now to actually get the practical action mostly right most of the time in the individual parishes... I haven't heard any horrible comments along the lines above lately, mercifully. In a Lent group a couple of years ago someone opined that victims of violence or abuse couldn't help doing it to others when they grew up - we did all right when I pointed out she was sitting next to "one of them". There is often a total lack of awareness of why we have to do all these "inconvenient" new safeguarding things, though.

  6. Hi Joan,
    There is much more awareness nowadays, but also still the kind of ignorance you describe above!