Let’s say you are a pastor, priest, or minister and you start noticing a new couple on Sundays. They always sit near the back door, and they slip away before you or anyone else can greet them. After a few months, they stay around long enough tell you their story. Now you know why they are so skittish: their previous pastor betrayed their trust to meet his sexual needs.
Here are five things you can do to gain their trust and restore their faith:
- Listen with compassion and respect, and believe what they are telling you.
- Acknowledge the courage it takes for the victim to confide in you, or to even be in church at all.
- Provide a safe environment if the victim asks to meet with you. The presence of another person (the victim’s spouse, yours, or both) can be helpful. If you must close your office door, make sure the room is clearly visible through a window. If you must meet with the victim alone, use the business seating in your office (e.g., chairs on either side of a table or desk) and not your “pastoral” sofa or chairs. Most adult clergy sexual abuse begins in a pastoral counseling setting.
- Acknowledge the gaps in your understanding. If you have never spoken with a victim or survivor of clergy sexual abuse, acknowledge that you don’t fully understand the experience. Commit to educate yourself, and follow up on that promise! Read the clergy materials at The Hope of Survivors and FaithTrust Institute.
- Make sure they have the support they need to heal. Let them know about the help offered by The Hope of Survivors. Introduce them to people in the church whom you trust (introduce female congregants to women; male congregants to men). Those friendships are vital to spiritual and emotional healing.
Now let’s imagine a harder situation. What if the abuser were one of your friends? My new pastor faced this situation when I joined his church. He and my former pastor had worked together for years on local ministry and advocacy efforts. Fortunately, I had been a leader in one of these efforts. My new pastor already knew and respected me even before I walked into his church, but I don’t think that made it any easier. He still had to accept the painful reality that a beloved friend and colleague was not the man he thought.
Seventh-day Adventist pastor Ray Hartwell faced an even harder situation. Not only was his new congregant’s abuser a friend of long-standing, but the congregant herself was a total stranger. How tempted Pastor Hartwell must have been to stand by his friend! Thank God, he stood up for justice and compassion instead. You can read Ray Hartwell’s moving account here.
As we move into the final two weeks of Clergy Abuse Awareness Month, I want to thank the good pastors in my life. You have guided, supported, and prayed for me as I have healed from a profound spiritual crisis. Perhaps you have even paid a price because you didn’t turn away. You, my friends, are the Good Shepherds, and you have helped this lost sheep find her way back home.