Abuse is a complex issue, but beyond the abuses themselves, religious communities often respond to disclosures, and even admissions of abuse, in ways that further abuse victims, survivors, and their family members.
For example, Rachael Denhollander, the tenacious attorney that brought prolific abuser Larry Nassar to justice, stated that her advocacy for abuse victims caused her to lose her Christian community. Another example involves Andy Savage’s Highpoint Church congregation. After publicly confessing that he had been sexual with a teen under his spiritual authority twenty years prior, his congregation responded by giving him a standing ovation. This reveals not only an ignorance of what constitutes sexual abuse and the devastating harm it causes, but it also welcomes abusers and communicates that they are safe and free to abuse with impunity in such communities.
So, what are some behaviors we can practice to make sure that victims, survivors, their families, and advocates feel welcome, protected and supported? Plus, what can we do to make sure that abusers do not feel welcome, or safe to groom and abuse potential victims, in our sacred spaces?
We can learn much from the wisdom displayed by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during the sentencing of Larry Nassar. Let’s take a look at what she did:
She gave the victims the platform to speak about their experiences of abuse and the harm Nassar’s actions caused them. Usually, victims directly related to the case are permitted to read aloud a statement in the presence of their abuser. Yet, Judge Aquilina invited any of his many victims to come and speak. She created a safe supportive space within her courtroom for victims to be heard without fear of retaliation from their abuser.
At the same time, she limited Nassar’s ability to respond to his victims. This is extremely important. Abusers’ communications with their victims overflow with rationalizations, blaming, shaming, and slander. To allow an abuser the opportunity to speak with their victim is to allow them to be re-abused. Plus, to allow an abuser to have a public platform is to allow them to recruit allies.
In fact, as expected of a serial abuser, Nassar wrote a letter to the court complaining of his suffering. Nassar believes that being forced to hear his victims’ accounts of his abusive behavior is unjust because it caused him suffering. Judge Aquilina wisely refused to read it to the court. The letter, not surprisingly, included shifting blame and other triggering accusatory spin meant to slander his victims. For example, he described his survivors as being women scorned, the kind that “hell hath no fury like.”
Another thing Judge Aquilina did was focus all her empathy on the victim/survivors. Make no mistake, listening to a week’s worth of statements communicating experiences of abuse and the long-term devastating effects is not easy. Yet, Judge Aquilina invited and encouraged this. She had the capacity to hear their suffering and to empathize with them through it.
Meanwhile, she withheld her empathy from the abuser. This is a difficult truth for many Christians. We prefer to believe the best of people and we desire for even the worst abusers to have a redemption story. But the reality is that abusers use our empathy to manipulate us. It is symptomatic of their abusiveness. To show an abuser empathy is to help entrench them deeper into their delusions of entitlement.
In addition, it causes great pain and grief for victims, and in many cases, it re-victimizes the victim. I am not suggesting that you shouldn’t have compassion for someone who is an abuser. But, you must use wisdom and not reveal your compassion to them. Remember it makes you vulnerable to their spin, it can re-victimize a survivor, and it affirms the abuser’s right to abuse.
Giving victims/survivors a platform to share their experiences, restricting an abuser’s voice, empathizing with victims, and withholding empathy from abusers will help foster a community that is safe and healing for victims/survivors, as well as for recovering abusers. These behaviors, exhibited by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, strongly signals to abusers that they are not safe to abuse and that if they do, their victims will be believed and supported while the abuser will be reported and held accountable.
Now, it is one thing for Judge Aquilina to practice these behaviors in her courtroom, but how can we incorporate these practices into our sacred communities? For different congregations, these might be practiced in various ways. Perhaps the key is to practice creativity and be innovative in customizing and applying these concepts.
For example, as long as the focus is from the victim’s experience and not the abuser’s redemption, empathizing with victims and not abusers can take place in preaching and teaching that connect contemporary issues of abuse with biblical stories of abuse.
Other ideas include inviting speakers that are survivors, such as Nicole Bromley, to open up a discussion about abuse. They could be invited to lead a workshop or class, or you could begin a book club using a survivor’s book.
Churches could teach about healthy relationships and spiritual growth. If you are a leader you could focus on pursuing your own emotional health.
A few more thoughts: Invite survivors to create ministries and create spaces for survivors to minister. Know and recommend your local resources. Speak about abuse in ways that remove any stigma and shame for victims/survivors. Do not provide a platform for former abusers. Do not highlight redemption stories of abusers – shift focus to the healing journey of survivors.
Have you thought of any ideas for making sacred communities safer? Do you belong to a congregation that focuses on creating a safe place? If so, please share in the comments section below.