No one wants to deal with the painful reality of abuse, but it happens—and it happens to people who are in the church and by perpetrators who are also in the church. Sometimes it even happens at the church—and not just to children or youth! Abuse is not limited by gender, age, race, religion, education, or socioeconomic level; it happens across the spectrum. The same applies to those who perpetrate abuse.
According to statistical data:
- 1 in 10 children suffer from maltreatment
- 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men report having experienced abuse from a partner/spouse
- Nearly 1 in 10 elderly people are abused
The actual figures are probably higher because abuse is often not reported. The person is either unable to report it or is afraid of retribution from the abuser. Think about the people you know; chances are they include victims of abuse. This issue is one the church cannot afford to ignore.
What constitutes abuse, you may ask: “While the definition of abuse is simple, the meaning of abuse isn’t so clear. Yes, abuse is when one person purposefully hurts another, but that is a common occurrence in life and most of us are guilty of engaging in that from time to time. But what abuse really means is control” (http://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/abuse-information/what-is-abuse-abuse-definition/[April 17, 2014]).
Most types of abuse are multi-faceted. For instance, those who endure physical abuse are often isolated from family and friends (psychological/emotional abuse), may be denied access to joint funds (economic abuse), and regularly hear threats against themselves or those about whom they care (verbal abuse). Most often abuse occurs where the person is living and is done by someone who is close to the victim—a relative or close family friend.
Some signs that abuse may be occurring or that there is the potential for abuse to develop include the following:
- People report feeling “uncomfortable” around a certain individual
- Bruises or physical injuries that do not have a logical explanation.
- Changes in a person’s behavior—becoming depressed, withdrawn, etc.
- Reluctance to go home or spend time with someone
- Nervousness, acting fearful, low self-esteem, putting down self
- Lack of necessities—appropriate clothing, food, shelter
- Indications of physical neglect—unclean living conditions, personal hygiene, etc.
- Change in financial status—suddenly unable to pay bills, buy food, etc.
- Signs of being over or under medicated
- Sense that a person is being controlled by someone else
- Development of “inappropriate” relationships—family friend who constantly brings gifts to a child, treats child to special activities, etc. without the involvement of parents
- Isolation from family and friends
- History of past battering
- Threats of violence
- Breaking objects
- Use of force during arguments
- Unreasonable jealousy
- Quick involvement in the relationship
- Cruelty to children and animals
- Abrupt mood changes
(Parts of this list came from: http://drphil.com/articles/article/601, April 21, 2014.)
Given the statistics listed earlier, there are likely people in your congregation (definitely in your community) who are being or who have been abused or affected by the abuse of others. Obviously, the best scenario would be to stop abuse before it happens, but that’s not always possible. However, if you become aware of (or even suspect) abuse of a minor, an elderly person, or someone who is mentally impaired, it is your legal and moral responsibility to report the abuse to the proper authorities. If you sense that a functional adult is being abused, talk with him or her confidentially and offer your support and encouragement as well as any Help Line numbers. The National Domestic Violence Hotline number is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
Additional articles that deal with issues related to abuse will follow in coming months.
So, where does the church fit into such situations?
- Be an advocate for those who are dealing with abuse or the repercussions of it.
- Know the offices to which abuse needs to be reported. Develop a relationship with the people who work in those offices.
- Educate your congregation about the signs of abuse and their responsibility to report it.
- Provide an environment where it is safe to divulge abuse.
- Develop and implement a Safe Sanctuary policy, including a screening interview, even if you have known the members of your church all of their lives.
- Help victims to develop an action plan for a safe exit. The National Domestic Violence Hotline (1-800-799-SAFE ) has a list of suggested steps.
- Believe what is shared, even if it seems improbable.
- Honor the person’s pain and the coping methods he or she is using to survive.
- Historically, the church has often been guilty of shooting its wounded. In their zeal to respond aggressively to sin, church members have failed to offer grace and compassion to wounded people. Remember that victims have experienced spiritual wounds; accept their ambivalence or anger toward God. Provide a supportive environment for spiritual processing of the survivor’s experiences.
- Be supportive of the way he or she is working through recovery. Do not criticize the time and money spent on therapy or self-help groups.
- Do not rush the victim through the healing process or encourage her or him to forgive before she or he is ready.
- Recognize that the victim’s relationships with family are often complicated, especially if the family did not protect the victim or does not believe the abuse occurred. Many victims are estranged from family, at least for a time.
- Respect the boundaries they need to feel safe.
- Do not attempt to counsel or give advice. Be prepared to refer the survivor for outside professional help.
(The following website was used a reference: http://www.churchleaders.com/pastors/pastor-articles/132930-innocence-lost-helping-victims-of-childhood-sexual-abuse.html, April 21, 2014.)