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6 Ways The Church Can Help Sexual Abuse Victims

Written By Gillian Chong, Malaysia

Gillian Chong is a counselor and the co-founder of Agape Vision, a non-governmental organization in Malaysia serving at-risk youths who have been abused and marginalized. Agape Vision empowers youths to be leaders through programs such as Expedition Agape Malaysia, in which youths lead community service projects both in Malaysia and overseas. Agape Vision is currently setting-up a residential treatment centre in Malaysia which will provide severely abused youths with a therapeutic milieu in a residential setting as well as professional therapies to support the youths’ healing from childhood abuse.

“Who’s going to believe me?” she asked wearily, her head cradled on one hand. She was seeing me for counselling after being sexually abused for many years by a pastor. We were processing her childhood experiences of sexual abuse at the hands of the man who first led her to our Savior, and her feelings of helplessness all those years. “He’s a pastor!” she cried out vehemently.

I nodded, my heart aching. In truth, her words echoed my own. “Who’s going to believe me?” For so many years, I asked the same question. First molested by a full-time church youth worker, and then seduced by a youth pastor—both women—I lived in a web of terror throughout the weeks and months of both experiences.

At the back of my mind was the cry, “Please, somebody help me!” Yet because same-sex relationships are so taboo in churches, I felt unable to voice out my plea for help. I thought nobody would ever believe me if I told them that the very leaders who were teaching us—about the sins of sex outside marriage and the importance of setting boundaries—were the ones touching me in ways that I felt unable to escape from.

I felt so alone. I thought there was surely something very wrong with me. I never thought that I would be a victim in the very place that I felt the safest.

A sexual abuse survivor’s journey to healing is a long and painful one—and it’s a journey we cannot walk alone. For me, my helplessness led me to spend more time with God and His Word, pouring out my deep hurt and betrayal to Him. I found that truly, “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18). God understood the depth of my pain. He spoke to me in my times of anguish and reminded me that He would never leave me nor forsake me (Hebrews 13:5).

When I felt dirty, He assured me through His Word that His blood had cleansed me and washed me whiter than snow. I also sought both pastoral and professional counselling so that I would have support as God led me through my journey to His freedom and healing.

While the stories I have shared above happened within the church, there are many other survivors who have been abused by those outside the church. I believe that as the Body of Christ, we should protect and support sexual abuse survivors through the painful months, and even years, of healing ahead.

So how can we as Christians, whether church member or leader, help support survivors of sexual abuse, and protect the church from sexual abuse within churches?

 

1. Believe Them

Nothing sets a victim free as much as those three words, “I believe you.” Perpetrators are wily to know what they should do to keep victims silent, and the biggest lie they convince their victims of is, “Nobody will believe you. They will believe me.”

Childhood victims of sexual abuse, especially, often act out due to their abuse. Over and over again, in the non-governmental organization Agape Vision that I co-founded with a friend, we have been referred “at-risk youth” for troubling behavior, which ranges from being involved with gangs to suicide attempts.

In each case, as the youths trusted us enough to open up and share about their lives, we found the trauma of childhood sexual abuse at the core of their issues. Yet, when one of our youths was brave enough to finally share with his mother the abuse he went through, he was told, “You are a liar!”

We need to be careful that the exhaustion of dealing with someone’s “difficult” behavior does not blind us to the possible reasons behind such behavior. And when someone trusts us enough to tell us about their experiences of abuse, we should listen and assure them that we believe and will support them.

 

2. Educate Yourself

As the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have been exploding with disclosures from men and women from all walks of life, more and more people are asking for greater education on sexual abuse.

There are a few non-governmental organizations in Malaysia, where I live, that specifically make it their mission to empower communities to protect children and adults from sexual abuse. They run workshops and trainings to educate and bring awareness to participants. Among them are PS The Children, Projek Layang-Layang, and our NGO, Agape Vision. The trainings include topics such as, signs that a child has been sexually abused, the grooming process that perpetrators use, as well as how to educate children about personal body safety.

If you know of someone who has experienced sexual abuse, or wish to educate yourself more, do a Google search for other organizations in your area that provide training in this area.

 

3. Set Up Safety Procedures in Church

Perpetrators often target areas where they can access children and young adults, and this often includes children’s church or youth ministry. Not only does this give potential perpetrators access to children and young adults, but they also have the opportunity to build trust with young people, whom they can then victimize outside church premises.

85-95 per cent of child sexual abuse victims were abused by people they know. But setting up some basic safety procedures can help protect our young people. Some things you can do are:

  • Always have more than one person present with children and youths, be it in the church hall, at cell groups, or outside during activities;
  • Do not allow private conversations to take place in areas where the child or youth cannot be seen by other adults;
  • Do not allow contact outside the activity premises alone with the child or youth;
  • Repeatedly inform and assure children and youths that, should there ever be any inappropriate conversation or touching by anyone inside the church, regardless of their status in church, the children and youths can speak to any of the adults in charge of the ministries, who will immediately take measures to protect them.

 

4. Set Up a Reporting Process in Church

It is easy to assume that church members know that they can report to the leadership of the church, be it the pastors or the deacons, in case of any sexual abuse. But I speak from personal experience that I did not know I could report to the leadership of the church, despite attending the church for many years.

Especially when a perpetrator is someone trusted by parents, and spoken well of by other church members, it can be hard for a victim to speak up. We need to enable our young people to speak up if they are abused, and making it known that there is already a reporting process in place can help.

Pastors can also address this issue specifically from the pulpit during services. I applaud the service held in Pastor Rick Warren’s church where he specifically addressed the issue of sexual abuse within the church during the service. He gave a stern warning from the pulpit to any perpetrators in the congregation, that he would hunt them down and report them to the police.

This gives so much reassurance to victims hiding in the congregation that it is safe for them to report abuse in church, and that they and possible future victims will receive protection and justice.

Sadly, the young lady I shared about at the start of this article was told that her perpetrator would be subject to church discipline, but was not assured that she would be supported in reporting the abuse to law enforcement. It is indeed frightening for survivors of sexual abuse by church members or leaders to continue seeing the perpetrator regularly attending church with them if they are not prevented from attending church services and meetings as part of the discipline process.

 

5. Emphasize the Importance of Speaking Up

Since sexual abuse, especially at the hands of persons the victims trust, can be so shocking and traumatizing, it can be difficult for victims to say “no” and run in the spur of the moment.

This is why it is so important that pastors, parents, and teachers regularly teach children and young adults that they can inform us if they feel unsafe at any moment. We should not be afraid to speak in an appropriate manner about topics that are often seen as taboo, such as sex and private body parts, so that children feel comfortable using such words and will not be afraid to approach us about these topics.

We can also carefully look out for any changes in the person’s behavior, but we should be careful of assuming that we know the circumstances causing it.

 

6. Refer Survivors for Professional Help and Support

When responding to the survivor’s story, we have to be careful that our words do not unwittingly retraumatize him or her by thoughtless words and projection of our own feelings of disgust and horror.

When I disclosed the experiences I went through to church leaders and others, I heard words such as “your (perpetrator) was looking for someone who was willing,” “you were naïve,” or “your demeanor makes it look as if you want it.”

All these words made me feel guilty and overly responsible for something that was not my fault. Thank God for professional counsellors who were able to help me navigate the overwhelming sense of guilt and shame that I experienced through therapy, and who helped me to place it on the shoulders of those who should feel guilt and shame—the perpetrators.

And now, through my own counselling work, I strive to also provide survivors with the therapeutic support that they need, because I have seen for myself the difference it makes to a survivor as they heal.

While I do not discount church counsellors at all, for trauma as great as sexual abuse, professional help is needed along with the loving healing of our Savior. While professional counsellors can help survivors comprehend and cope with the traumatic effects of the abuse, ultimately it is only the Lord who can do the deep, complete healing that a survivor needs.

 

As the voices of #ChurchToo rise in volume and number, I hope that the church will take this opportunity to see how they can best protect the Body of Christ and support those who have been hurt through sexual abuse. Those who have been brave enough to speak up should be encouraged and applauded for having the courage to confront what many do not. I hope this article provided you with some steps that you and your church can take to make the Body of Christ a safer place for all.

Finding Beauty in My Tragedy

Written By Emily Razzi, USA

In my brief 22 years of living, I have known brokenness in too many ways: sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, bullying, anorexia, and suicidal thoughts. Some of it was inflicted on me, some self-inflicted and some of it was a result of not living in line with the Word of God and understanding the Father’s abundant love.

Centuries ago, in a garden, man was deceived by one lie from the serpent: God isn’t who He says He is. Once the lie was believed, disobedience came into the picture. Eventually, shame wrapped us in a garment of fig leaves, breaking our relationship with the One who gave us our very breath.

But in that heart wrenching and incredibly frustrating story, God still brought forth beauty, by showing us His redemptive love and giving us glimpses of goodness and beauty in this world. I love the beauty of His creation. The artistic side of me adores being outside, enjoying nature and looking for ways to create. This is one of the many ways I see myself “made in His image”. I love taking leaves, pine cones, sticks, flowers—you name it—and turning them into beautiful crafts.

I remember hearing the crunch beneath my feet last fall as I walked on broken leaves. Some leaves had holes from the effects of nature, whereas others were stepped on, torn apart, and left in the dust. Brokenness is to be expected in a sinful world. People are broken and remain so when they do not come to God and trust Him to create beauty.

Looking down, I longed to bring beauty out of that lifeless foliage. I think that’s how God sees us. He sees possibility and hope in a way that only He can. He sees beauty emerging from every gaping hole and frayed edge that we desperately try to hide. This is a beauty that He desires for us and delights in giving to us—but first, we must be willing.

The past catches up

The same fall I trekked through these broken leaves, my past of being sexually abused was brought back through nightmares. I started having flashbacks. Lies surrounded me and grew louder each day. “It’s your fault. You are disgusting. You’ll never be good enough.” The darkness filled my heart, even though I wasn’t even at fault; I was the victim. I knew there was another layer to this that I needed to deal with. So I left my bible college and headed back home to receive help for my trauma from the sexual abuse.

How do we see beauty and hope in such tragedy, especially in one that occurs through no fault of your own? And more importantly, how do you run to a Father when you feel He could have, but didn’t, save you in your hour of affliction?

The first time I understood the hope in this tragedy was through a common form of psychotherapy used to help people unpack their abuse encounter called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). My therapist at the time used that technique with me, intertwined with inner healing.

We asked the Holy Spirit to come and bring me back to the memory and to show me where God was during the act. A vision of the Spirit of God holding me and crying with me came to mind and at that moment, I knew that God had never left me. His Word stands true when He says I will never leave you nor forsake you.

I also came to understand how even the truth of being a victim can become an unhealthy lifestyle. Victimization was so comfortable for me, it was like a warm blanket on a cool autumn day. Yes, what happened to me was cruel and unjust, but the Father never called us to a victim lifestyle. That pain and trauma was taken from you and me and nailed to the cross so that we don’t have to relive it over and over again. My prayer is that you’ll choose to live in that victory instead of being bundled up in that heavy, tattered victim blanket. Cast it aside, step outside and smell the fresh air that is His victory over sin and death.

As humans, we think beauty is only found when the broken season is over, like the rainbow at the end of the storm. And although that may be true at times, it’s not always the case. I found beauty in grieving my tragedy of being abused. This summer, my pastors took me to a conference where we prayed for deliverance specifically from the lies that were rooted in my abuse. At the end of the prayer, the person leading me through asked the Holy Spirit to show me where He was in that situation and where He was bringing me now.

I saw the Father literally breaking down the four walls of the room I was abused in and turning it into a beautiful garden. The Father was holding me at the very age I was abused at and singing over me, “Baby it’s okay, you’re safe here with me, no one can touch you now, I am doing a new thing. I am clothing you in my love you are safe here with me.” I’ll never forget it. The Father knows His children. He knows exactly what speaks to their aching hearts, and in that moment, He knew I needed the safety of my favorite place—the outdoors, a garden enveloped by His love.

Going through these life-changing encounters with the Father made me realize that we are wrapped in the Father’s embrace and presence wherever we go. This has brought me to a deeper understanding of His love and has helped me whenever my flesh wants to believe the lies. I now see every little act as a sign of His wondrous love for us: from the light beaming in from the window to wake me up, to the prompting of the Holy Spirit during prayer and worship. His beauty is all around us.