It was a meal together after a funeral. I was sitting at a table with a couple of my great-uncles, and the conversation turned to dealing with sexual abusers. As we talked, it became clear that their first priority was how to deal with the abuser and help him to be able to get back to a more-or-less normal life. For some reason, they didn’t have much to say about helping the victim(s) to find healing from their trauma.
Since then, I have observed this same phenomenon with others. They will talk about the dreadful effects that sexual abuse had in the life of the abuser, when they face the punishment for their acts, but fail to give equal thought to the effects on the victims. Why?
There are three reasons that I see:
In the case of child sexual abuse, there is a good chance that the abuser is a grown man–or woman, for that matter. (Actually, there is also an excellent chance that the abuser is a teenager, but we will leave that age group for right now.) If the abuser is a church member, all the adults in the church are peers. The abuser may even be a leader of some sort in the church and well-respected. Contrary to what you might think, an abuser is often not someone who you would suspect as an abuser. They might be friendly, outgoing, respectable people–who do terrible things.
So when the well-respected peer is convicted of sexual abuse, the people around them are naturally going to think of their friend first. They may feel that he/she was unjustly accused or given too harsh of a sentence. They want the abuser to be able to come clean and return to normal life.
The child victim, on the other hand, may be someone they don’t even know. At the very least, they probably don’t know the child as well as the abuser, even if it is the abuser’s son or daughter. If they’ve never met the victim, but know the abuser well (or at least respect him/her), they can easily forget about the needs of the faceless victim.
Especially if they have…
Many people are unaware of the effects of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. This includes many victims.
The trauma of abuse causes many effects on the victim, especially when it is repeated and comes from someone they trust, such as a family member. The victim may “shut down” emotionally or develop certain coping habits or thought patterns. They may blame themselves for the abuse. And they may “act out” in ways that appear rebellious, irresponsible, careless, or sinful. Those who don’t realize what is happening will react improperly and condemn the victim for their behavior, further traumatizing and alienating them.
The potential effects and results of sexual abuse include:
- Loss of trust
- Poor school performance
- “Spacing out” and daydreaming to disassociate from the abuse
- Eating disorders
- Withdrawal and isolation
- Running away
- “Acting out”–rebellion, crime, cruelty to animals, sexual promiscuity, drug use/abuse, physical aggression to others
- Self-destructive behaviors–cutting themselves, slitting wrists, burning themselves, suicide
- Confusion about what is healthy sexuality
- Substance abuse
- Shame/shaming others
- Over-responsibility and perfectionism
- Promiscuous behavior
(Taken from Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by Lynn Heitritter and Jeanette Vought)
It is important that we understand the true effects of abuse on its victims so that we are able to empathize with them, understand why they do what they do, and help them to find healing. They need safe people to talk to, people who will care about them, listen to them without condemnation, blaming, or shaming, and respect the privacy of the victim by not sharing the information with others. They need people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and can help them to find true healing through the power of Christ.
Some people, though, will still not care enough to help, because of a…
Lack of Christ-likeness
Jesus defined His ministry early on by reading in the synagogue of Nazareth:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
The Scriptures foretold:
“[Jesus] will not strive, nor shout; neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoking flax, until he leads justice to victory. In his name, the nations will hope.” (Matthew 12:19-21)
Jesus has a great heart of compassion for those who are hurting. He came to earth and gave His life for us because He cared so much for us.
Jesus also expects us to have the same heart for those around us. He tells us that in the judgment, He will separate those who serve others from those who don’t.
“Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’
“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)
Notice that this is not about preaching a gospel of good works. The righteous were not doing these things because they were trying to earn their salvation. They didn’t even realize that they were helping Jesus. It was just part of who they were as God’s children. They had compassion on their brothers in Christ (“the least of these My brothers“) and ministered to them.
Jesus wants us to reach out and help the hurting, especially those within the church. If we lack this desire and compassion within our hearts, could it be that we lack the love of God?
But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does God’s love remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:17-18)
But Don’t Throw the Abusers Under the Bus
From what I’ve read, 40-50% of sexual abusers have been abused themselves. Their actions can be part of their “acting out” and trying to cope with their abuse.
This does not excuse their abusive actions, but it does bring something to the forefront: the abusers need help too!
Christians have something to offer that no one else has: the power of the Holy Spirit to enable people to lead holy, righteous lives, free from abuse and other sins. While the world can only offer prison and therapy, Christ has the power to actually change people from the inside out. He has the power to heal the hurts, the wounds, the pain, and to take away an abuser’s desire to abuse others.
However, there is one catch: it only works if the person actually wants to be helped. It only works if they are willing to repent and accept the working of Christ. Jesus does not force anyone to accept His forgiveness and cleansing.
As long as an abuser is unwilling to fully repent, be cleansed by Christ, take full responsibility for his/her actions, and pay any necessary criminal penalties, he or she will never find true freedom from their sin. There are many people, unfortunately, who will never experience true freedom in Christ because they are unwilling to do one or more of these things I just mentioned.
Before I wrap this up, one more important point: sexual abuse is a crime. It doesn’t matter whether it was full-blown rape or “just” some inappropriate touching. Both are traumatic to the victim, and both are criminal. Some people, such as pastors and counselors, are required by law to report sexual abuse to the authorities. If they do not, they themselves will be held accountable by the state.
We want people to find repentance and cleansing through the power of Christ. But the law has been broken, and the penalty must be paid. The church is not capable of handling abuse “in-house”. It must be dealt with in a court of law.
And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall not do any more wickedness like this among you. (Deuteronomy 13:11)
Jesus is the God of justice,
And He wants us all to be made free.
Let us follow in His footsteps,
Bring the world His liberty!
— Bind Up the Wounds