I first became aware of the realities of sexual abuse in the church at the tender age of five. I happened to look at the television screen and witnessed police officers escorting my hand-cuffed youth minister in front of a crowd of reporters screaming questions. The words “YOUTH PASTOR ABUSED CHILDREN” flashed across the television screen.
I was confused and scared. My family comforted and assured me that the pastor had only “hurt” teenage boys and that I was safe. The church hired a new minister and, on the surface, life seemed to resume to normal for our congregation. But as a child I had no idea of the effects of the abuse and its aftermath had on the survivors, their families, and our church community. Many families soon experienced disintegrating marriages, friendships were broken, and faith was lost. One survivor’s family had their home repeatedly vandalized and were forced to move hundreds of miles from our town to escape fellow believers who grew angry with them for filing a lawsuit against the perpetrator.
Church leaders shunned media attention and feared “airing dirty laundry” in public, encouraging members to keep the experience a secret for the sake of the boys and church. As a child, and then a teenager, growing up in an otherwise loving, connected church, I never remember hearing church leaders address this aspect of our shared history in the open. To some of the survivors and the broken-hearted, the silence on this topic was welcome; to others it was deafening. While secrecy was the rule, the legacy of the abuse was real and active in the community. Rather than being cared for with dignity and love, the survivors and their families felt that they were a shameful secret to be whispered about and hidden. I learned as an adult that I was intimately connected with some of the survivors but never knew about their silent pain. I had no idea that I was a participant in a culture of silence and shame that often surrounds sexual abuse and is especially pronounced when boys are abused by men in the church.
In both personal and professional capacities, I have been aware of and affiliated with many churches and Christian organizations that have struggled with how to respond to acts of abuse committed by staff or community members. Church leaders struggle to balance private and public information, church rules and governmental policies and laws, and personal beliefs and facts. We live in a culture in which myths of abuse abound. As a mental health professional, I have observed that many myths of sexual abuse continue to stand in the way of love and healing for survivors of abuse and the community of faith.
1. The myth of the “provocative victim”
This myth suggests that children, teenagers, and adults who are harassed, abused, or assaulted by a perpetrator of sexual abuse somehow contributed to their experience by being sexually seductive, naïve, or physically tempting to the abuser. This myth is very destructive. This myth does not help perpetrators take responsibility for their behaviors, which in turn prevents their repentance and healing. Worse still, this myth prevents healing for survivors of abuse because it places responsibility for ending the abuse on the survivor. Leaders acting from this myth have focused on changing the victim’s behavior. The survivors were instructed to avoid being alone with the perpetrator, to lock their doors, to change their clothes, or alter their behavior so that they would not cause their abuser to “stumble” into sin. Many survivors of abuse internalize this message and blame themselves, contributing to a cycle of depression, guilt, and shame.
2. The myth that silence indicates they desired the encounter, so it wasn’t abuse.
“You must have liked it or you would have stopped it.” Closely tied to the myth of the provocative victim, this myth suggests that a survivor of abuse was in part responsible for abuse continuing against them or another because they did not speak out. In truth, when someone is victimized, they are often shamed and fearful of not being believed, of being blamed, and of being punished. At times, they are confused, as they may not experience the perpetrator of the abuse as a constant danger. The perpetrator may also be the only person who has ever given them affection or meaningful attention, and they feel that the abuse is the price they must pay for that care. Other times, they do speak out and are not believed, so they do not tell anyone else. The inability to report the abuse is not the same thing as desiring abuse.
3. The myth that sexual abuse is a children’s issue.
Sexual abuse is not a children’s issue; adults are abused as well. Sexual abuse affects all members of the community. While abuse is most likely to occur before the age of 17 in boys, and before age 24 in girls, sexual abuse occurs across all ages, genders, nationalities, and socioeconomic classes. In churches, sexual abuse can occur to adults by church leaders who are powerful or who have authority over them just as it occurs to children and teenagers.
4. The myth that sexual abuse is a women’s issue.
It is true that women and girls are sexually abused at alarming rates, with 1 in 4 women in the United States experiencing unwanted sexual encounters in their lifetime. Men and boys are also victims of sexual abuse at alarming rates with 1 in 6 experiencing unwanted sexual encounters in the United States. Worldwide, especially in conflict zones, these statistics of abuse can be higher. While a higher percentage of abuse victims are female, the framing of sexual abuse as a “women’s issue” is an obstacle for men and boys who are abused and need the ministry and support of the church community.
5. The myths of sexual abuse and sexual orientation
Several myths fall in this category. These myths make it difficult for victims to open up about their experience. In the Christian church, these myths especially silence male victims of male perpetrators. Victims are not chosen because of their sexual orientation. Perpetrators are not attracted to them because of their sexual orientation. Perpetrators may assault victims of both genders or a single gender, which may or may not be consistent with their own sexual orientation. While being sexually abused can have very real consequences to survivors’ experience of their sexuality, being sexually abused does not cause an abuse victim to become homosexual, and it does not cause them to become a perpetrator.
6. The myth that it is best to “keep it secret and move on”
Healing does not occur in a predictable manner for any survivor of abuse, as every experience is unique. Leaders should respect the right to privacy of survivors of abuse, not sharing details the survivor does not want public. Survivors should control the information about their abuse, as an individual’s preference for disclosure will be different and may change as they grow and change. However, many survivors do not chose silence, as speaking out is a way for many of them to heal. Well-meaning faith leaders may encourage a survivor to remain silent believing that the comfort of the community is most important. Silence does not facilitate a survivor’s healing and it does not help the faith community — which needs to struggle with the consequences of realities of abuse — heal either.
7. The myth that “it is wrong to involve outsiders”
This myth frames abuse as an issue of church discipline rather than legal action. Churches and Christian organizations often cite Matthew 18:15-17, stating they must give the perpetrator a chance to stop their behavior before involving authorities. This can result in dangerous efforts to “reconcile” the survivor and perpetrator resulting in continued abuse. Matthew 18 is an important framework for dealing with relational sin and conflict, but it is not the definitive scripture for all kinds of conflicts. For example, few churches would apply this standard to a murder, an active terrorist threat, or a kidnapping within the church. Sexually abusing a vulnerable person is rarely a crime of a single occurrence. Most perpetrators repeat the behavior so reporting them is a matter of protecting the victim, the community, and the perpetrator.
8. The myth of transparency about the abuse will “Harm the cause of Christ”
While I fervently believe that survivors of abuse should control the information about their experience, often it is very apparent to community members that church and organizational leaders are hiding details of a scandal to save the face of the ministry. Jesus was the most transparent and truthful leader in history. He was not afraid to speak the realities of the failures of religious leadership in his time. Vulnerability and transparency (while protecting victim anonymity and dignity), is an important step to rebuilding meaningful ministry. Many have left the church not for their experience of abuse, but for their experience of betrayal at the hands of church leaders in the aftermath of the abuse.
9. The myth that the church must guide the victim to seek forgiveness and reconciliation
The path to forgiveness and the meaning of or possibility of reconciliation with a perpetrator is an individual spiritual process of a survivor of abuse. It may be a task for decades, as the meaning and impact of the abuse will be different at different stages of their life. Many well-meaning families and pastors — in efforts to preserve ministries — have pushed victims to “forgive and forget” and placed victims in harm’s way again. This myth is very damaging to the physical, emotional, and spiritual safety of survivors of abuse. Christian leaders must not allow their own needs to see resolution occur to supersede the needs of the victim of the abuse.
10. The myth that sexual abuse is only a Catholic Church concern
While the very public Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal has attracted media attention, the systemic factors that facilitated repeated victimization of individuals by religious leaders in the Catholic Church are present in many evangelical and Protestant denominational, non-denominational, and parachurch organizations. Protestant and evangelical leaders must also face the reality that a culture of secret keeping, victim blaming, and shaming also exists in many Protestant circles, and confronting these concerns is imperative to healing the Body of Christ from the ravages of sexual abuse among its leaders.
Tara C. Samples, Ph.D., is a grateful disciple of Jesus. She has worked as a professional counselor, is a professor and is currently completing her postdoctoral residency in clinical psychology. She believes that social justice is the responsibility of the body of Christ which is called to speak for those whose voices are not heard by the powerful. Tara is a wife, a mother of two creative young girls, and an advocate against injustice, violence, oppression and sexual exploitation in the church and in the world.
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