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Trauma-informed care for clergy abuse survivors

28 April 2022 By Melodie Bissell

Ten things churches can do

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nce again, we have recently read the headlines that another Christian leader committed clergy sexual abuse. Our hearts break.

Whenever there is an incident of abuse, the focus seems to quickly shift to the offender. Seldom, if ever, do the headlines focus on concern for the victim who has experienced the assault and harm. The Church, in fact, has a history of compounding suffering by silencing the individual and casting them aside. It is time for that to change.

When we speculate about who is really at fault in such situations, we are distracted from the mission Jesus identified for Himself, and that we as His followers should also hold dear – to "proclaim good news to the poor" and "freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour" (Luke 4).

A key portion of our calling is to demonstrate compassion. Compassion recognizes the impact of abuse (the trauma) and comes alongside victims as instruments of healing and renewal.

Providing trauma-informed care – which is the standard in therapeutic care today – calls the Church to consider the physical and mental effects on the victim. Trauma-informed care asks things like, "What do you need right now?" "What do you want?" and "What part of your story do you want to tell?"

They need the space to make their own decisions and discover once again their own voice.

Trauma-informed care offers survivors a chance to find healing, rebuild the connections and trust fractured by abuse and betrayal, and find their own agency and power in the aftermath of the abuse. Individuals who have experienced abuse need the space to make their own decisions and discover once again their own voice – the voice that was silenced during the abuse.

In my academic research, my work as president of Plan to Protect, and as an independent victim advocate, I have learned from brave men and women who have entrusted their stories to me. I have also learned from the churches that have been instrumental in the healing of women and men. Here are ten of the key things I’ve learned so far.

1. A strong reminder of our call to holiness and to care for the oppressed is needed.

The Church must take seriously the call to be a holy people for "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (1 Peter 5:16). May we never be accused of watering down the gospel or the theology of sin, salvation and judgment. We must walk the talk and not make excuses for leaders who abuse others.

church life

2. We need to prioritize incarnational discipleship.

In my doctoral thesis The Experience of Spiritual Healing Among Adult Victim-Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse: A Phenomenological Study, conducted with six victim-survivors of sexual abuse, we discovered the greatest influencers toward healing were the people who walked with the survivors, the spiritual practices they engaged in and their experience of the presence of God. Let us walk with intention alongside those we minister to, not just with a formula or a ten-step program but modelling through our words and actions the spiritual practices and the presence of God, as we are invited. This is what will help nurture the spiritual healing of abuse.

3. Codes of conduct for all pastors and lay leaders must be established – and we hold each other accountable for our actions.

Any hint of hero worship must be challenged and our leaders held accountable to codes of conduct. Behavioural parameters must be established and clearly communicated. We must call out any questionable behaviour – even among leaders who in the past we put on pedestals. Only Jesus should be the focus of our unlimited admiration.

4. Women should be on leadership teams and boards.

We must combat patriarchy and provide women with voices at the table. We can invite a woman to be the spokesperson when abuse occurs. Women can provide a different and necessary perspective in responding to allegations and disclosures of abuse, especially when the abused person is a woman.

We must call out any questionable behaviour – even among leaders who in the past we put on pedestals.

5. Whistleblower, reporting and response policies all need to be established, and response teams and victim advocates trained.

Staff members should forward all concerns or complaints about misconduct to the designated team, which will receive and respond to the concerns from a trauma-informed approach, in line with a strong standard of care and the organization’s well-thought-out policies.

6. The named individual should be immediately suspended when someone brings forward an abuse allegation or disclosure.

I applaud churches that take this swift action. It does not mean the person is guilty. Rather, it demonstrates the church takes allegations or disclosures seriously and desires to avoid compounding possible harm.

7. Investigations need to be outsourced to independent third-party investigators.

Churches must not conduct their own investigations but entrust this task to professionals trained to independently interview all the parties and document their findings. A third-party investigation does not determine guilt or innocence. Instead it identifies the preponderance of evidence. Under the preponderance standard, the burden of proof is met when the party with the burden convinces the factfinder there is a greater than 50 per cent chance the claim is true. Once the investigation is complete, a church must communicate the findings with empathy and care. It is critical for the integrity of the investigation that the church stay true to the stated findings of the third-party investigator, report the actual findings and not spin the outcome of the investigation in anyone’s favour. To avoid causing further pain, the full investigative report should not be read by the public, the victim or the respondent.

8. Opportunity to express their own agency and voice must be provided to the victim(s).

As much as possible, provide victims with opportunity to make decisions that impact them personally. Some decisions can’t be transferred or shared, but many can, such as where a meeting will be held, timing of communication, the registered therapist of their choice and the amount of their story to be disclosed. Don’t further silence a victim – instead empower the victim to break the pattern of silence.

9. Appoint a victim advocate to walk alongside the victim-survivor and liaise with the church.

The needs of the one who was oppressed and victimized must stay at the forefront of the response during the days that follow the misconduct and the investigation. Victim advocates help provide voice and agency to the victim, and will continue to follow up frequently with the individual.

10. Provide someone to care for the community members and the family members of the offender.

Remember, there are also secondhand victims impacted by the misconduct. Communities of faith, spouses, children and parents are also deeply hurting. Marriages are often broken. Churches providing counselling services to everyone closely impacted demonstrate they are trying to provide trauma-informed care.

When a church is providing trauma-informed responses and sincere apologies, be aware your words and reactions may be triggering and could cause further spiritual harm to the survivor. Church, we must do better when responding to victim-survivors of abuse. May we shift our focus and attention to becoming intentional instruments of healing.

"I am amazed and grateful that the place of my greatest wounding – the Church – is also where I found my deepest healing," writes one survivor of clergy sexual abuse. "Decades later, when I could no longer hide, and the wounds refused to allow me to function normally, I released my secret to my pastor. He believed me. He apologized on behalf of the Church and spiritual authority. He helped me to find a counsellor and receive prayer ministry. He treated me with the respect I thought I didn’t deserve. I suspect my scarred soul will forever remember and hurt, but now peace prevails and I can function normally without festering wounds torturing me. I know an intimacy with my Healer, the Lord Jesus, because the Church listened, believed and did everything they could to help me."

Melodie Bissell is president of Plan to Protect and an independent victim advocate. Illustrations:

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