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Secrets in the Family - Ministry to Survivors of Sexual Abuse

By Sue Clements-Jewery.

This article discusses aspects of ministry to adult survivors of sexual abuse. Signs of past abuse are listed along with ways in which pastors can support sufferers in a church setting where secrecy has been the norm. The complexity of the healing process is identified and the difficulty survivors encounter forgiving the perpetrator is acknowledged. Finally, the limits of pastoral care are explored.


Sexual abuse is an emotive and disturbing subject. Church culture on the whole struggles to deal sensitively and openly with issues of a sexual nature and understanding of the issues surrounding abuse is often very limited. ‘It couldn’t happen here’ is all too often the attitude.

We live in a society where child protection issues are rarely out of the news and rightly so. In the last ten years the various Christian denominations have begun to recognise the necessity of putting in place policies to ensure that all children involved in the life of the churches are safe from potential abuse1.

It is not my intention to focus on child victims of abuse here, though I welcome every attempt to make church safer for children. My main concern in this article is with adult survivors of child sexual abuse, who will be found in all congregations. The National Children’s Bureau2 stated in 1993 that:

In the UK, the publication of a study of a sample of 16 to 21 year olds, carried out by Kelly, Regan and Burton, indicated that 59% of young women and 27% of young men reported at least one ‘sexually intrusive experience’ before they were 18. Research evidence suggests that sexual abuse occurs across different classes, cultures and ethnic groups.

The effects of abuse are far reaching and long lasting.

Recognising the signs

First, we need to recognise that in pastoral work ministers will be caring for some who experienced abuse as children. This may have been disclosed and worked on in some way, or it may never have been admitted, but may manifest itself in attitudes and behaviours identified in research evidence as indicators of child sexual abuse. Cathy Matthews3 lists 30 indicators including lack of trust, low self worth (constant apologising), unreasonable guilt, excessive seeking of approval, constantly taking the blame, being overly sensitive and overreacting. You could be forgiven for thinking that everyone in your congregation has been a victim!

Broadly speaking, the long term effects displayed by adult survivors can be divided into two types:

1) the intra personal: mood disturbances (depression, guilt, low self esteem, anxiety). Self damaging behaviour (including addictive behaviour, self mutilation and eating problems);

2) the interpersonal: insecurity in relationships, struggles with intimacy, isolation, fear of rejection, sexual difficulties and problems with boundaries.

In addition, survivors often suffer post traumatic stress type reactions, with flash backs to the original incident(s) and may carry frozen grief and rage within them - hence the tendency to over react.

Creating a supportive climate for abuse survivors

The sensitive and aware pastor will, over time, identify patterns of behaviour and ranges of emotional expression in individuals which may indicate they were abused as children. How can such people best be supported? We must guard against the danger of putting a label on a bunch of symptoms and losing sight of the person who bears them. Making sense of signs of abuse may help the person giving care to have a fuller understanding of the issues, but an interpretation should never be offered unless the individual him/herself names the abuse. Despite positive moves to make child protection part of good practice in churches, it is still not easy for adult survivors to ‘come out’ and own their experience. Two factors operate here - the first is the culture of secrecy in which abuse takes place, as many victims are instructed by the abuser to keep ‘our little secret’. The second is that pressures within the church culture to get it right and keep things nice militate against opening up. There are still things Christians do not find it easy to talk about! We can be drawn into a conspiracy of silence which in effect gives the message that ‘if we don’t talk about it, it didn’t really happen’. We need to create a climate of greater openness in which it is safe to talk about difficult issues. This means finding ways to break the silence surrounding abuse.

Rebecca Howard4 suggests the following in her article Light in dark places:

One simple way in which awareness and openness can be encouraged at a congregational level is by having a leaflet in the church explaining what child abuse is, how the church views it and where to go for help; perhaps separate ones could be produced for adults and children. Another way to do this is by introducing the topic of child abuse in sermons, prayer meetings and home groups, so that adults are better informed and children know it is OK for them to talk; that they need to feel no shame. If this idea is uncomfortable, perhaps, in addition, some exploration of why people are so reluctant to talk about child abuse and its effect on victims and adult survivors may be necessary too; discomfort is no excuse for inaction.

These strategies do not solve the problem. What they do is serve to introduce the issue of child abuse into the public discourse of the church community. They are modes of conscientization which raise the consciousness of the community to the vital issues of abuse, and contribute to the continuing process of the liberation and healing of victims.

Survivors who acknowledge their abuse can find support through an organisation called ‘Christian Survivors of Sexual Abuse’5.

Towards healing the wounds

For the survivor abused as a child the road to recovery may be long and hard. Acknowledging the abuse and then re-experiencing the emotions associated with it can be overwhelming. Many survivors manage to contain the trauma for years, even decades, remaining completely cut off from feelings. Emotional events in adult life, such as the birth of a child, or the experience of conversion, often reactivate dormant memories and so raise unexpected issues for the sufferer. A minister I supervise told me recently of a young woman, a new Christian whom he was preparing for baptism. She disclosed (for the first time) her experience of abuse in childhood, struggling with her sense of low self esteem and shame as well as guilt at what had happened to her many years before her conversion. Much pastoral care was needed to enable her to feel ready for baptism. The healing process involves the need to grieve for what has been lost - childhood innocence, self worth, trust in safe adults. Many survivors feel betrayed by the adult (often a family member or friend) who abused them and also by the non abusing parent (often the mother) who failed to protect them.

In effect they have been robbed of elements of their childhood. It is quite usual for the survivor to have bursts of anger as s/he moves from blaming her/himself for what happened to blaming the abuser. The reason for depression in survivors may be that they have turned anger towards the abuser against themselves.

Recognising the pain of survivors in a worship environment can be very affirming. Kennedy6 provides a useful section on worship suggestions to include survivors, remember their experiences and allows space for their feelings. A difficulty she highlights is that of calling God ‘father’ for those abused by their fathers. Some survivors will inevitably feel distanced from the ‘Father in heaven’ who failed to protect them when they were children.

Janet Fife7 comments that:

When trust and love have been so abused and affection has become associated with pain and shame, the capacity for intimacy is permanently damaged. Close relationships become difficult, as can relations with authority figures. Christians are expected to have a loving relationship with the ultimate authority figure, God; but emotionally and psychologically it can be difficult to distinguish God from the abuser. This is especially true where the abuser has been a parent or associated with the Church in some way.

Sensitive choice of language is vital to prevent opening of the wound created by an abusive father.

The issue of forgiveness

Abuse survivors within the Christian community often struggle to forgive the abuser and may end up feeling very guilty if this is too difficult for them. Unfortunately well meaning leaders lacking adequate understanding of the complexity of the issues may inadvertently increase the pressure to forgive.

For many survivors it seems that their inability to forgive becomes an even greater sin than the sexual violation, no matter what the extent of the violation!8

The message was that if you forgive, you are instantly healed, you are called by God to forgive.9

Kennedy goes on to comment that many people in Christian communities want survivors to forgive in order that the subject may be closed.

Forgiveness should be understood as possibly the last stage on the journey towards healing, not the first. In another article I hope to look at what should be required of the abuser in the process of forgiveness. But for now it is enough to emphasise that survivors who find themselves unable to forgive need to be accepted where they are and supported in their journey towards forgiveness.

Acknowledging the limits of pastoral care

Supporting abuse survivors can be a draining experience. Many are emotionally very needy and readily attach themselves to the ministering person often in extremely demanding ways. A child whose personal boundaries were invaded by an abusing adult may grow into an adult with little sense of ‘normal’ boundaries. Ministers may face the hard task of setting limits to the amount of care they can give. Victims survive often by learning to manipulate those around them. It can be very seductive to be told ‘You’re the only person I can really talk to’. It is all too easy to acquiesce or resist involving other people for support. Helping an abused person work through the feelings of loss, grief, shame and rage which often surface once a survivor feels safe enough to connect to the past is very skilled and specialised work. More than once I have been telephoned by an enthusiastic, caring, but over ambitious minister who has got out of his/her depth with an abuse survivor and panicked. Rebecca Newman10 in an account of her own slow and painful recovery from abuse writes:

Many clergy I have spoken to say that they were not prepared in any way by their training for the problems relating to abuse. This is something they have had to learn as they went along, and one can hardly blame them for some of the mistakes made en route. I feel, however, that a word of reservation is needed here. I have been counselled quite extensively by two pastors and this seemed at the time to be part of God’s provision for me, and it was just that. None the less, although they did their best and gave so sacrificially of themselves, I have to acknowledge that I might have been helped more quickly and with less pain by people who know more about the subject.

Leaders must learn at what level they are able to help, and at what stage they should refer the person on to someone else. A minister who is doing a job of caring for the whole church will not have the time, the training, or the emotional strength to cope with the long term demands of helping someone to be healed from the effects of sexual abuse. They are qualified and experienced ministers, and although they can do some counselling, they are not counsellors either in profession or training. Professional counsellors must be supervised, but they can offer a detachment that is helpful and healing and they are able to be far more single-minded in the help that they give.'

She goes on to describe how complicated relationships are in a church setting where the minister becomes the abuse survivor’s counsellor as this role will affect all other aspects of the relationship. In my own counselling practice I have found it to be very beneficial for the client when the minister stays in a supportive role and refers her to a specialist like myself. Any attempt to refer on may be interpreted as a rejection by the sufferer, of course, so careful work is needed to prepare for moving on to another form of help.

Those in pastoral charge who choose to offer counselling to abuse survivors need to ensure either that they are accompanied by another person or that, at least, someone else knows whom they are visiting. Supervision for ministers provides a safeguard for good practice and the opportunity to stand back and reflect on what is being achieved through the pastoral relationship and how the work impacts on other relationships within the church. Unaware and unsupported ministers may find themselves caught up in the dynamics of the triangle of victim--> rescuer --> persecutor11. The ministering person usually starts off as the rescuer, but can easily end up feeling pursued by a needy person and become the victim. Over zealous attempts to help may be interpreted as persecution!

Ministers able to care for themselves who have good boundaries will ultimately be more helpful to survivors than those who take on total responsibility for their care.

Sue Clements-Jewery

UKCP registered sexual and relationship psychotherapist in private practice in Huddersfield. A former Director of WHCM Bridge Counselling, she is a consultant to the Churches' Ministerial Counselling

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You are reading Secrets in the Family - Ministry to Survivors of Sexual Abuse by Sue Clements-Jewery, part of Issue 24 of Ministry Today, published in February 2002.

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