Upon invitation I attended a Safe group meeting, not to speak but to listen. To go somewhere just to listen is not so easy for a preacher. Preachers tend to speak. But I was invited to listen. Listen, I did—listened and learned, and was moved to tears. Safe is a group of sisters in the Lord who regularly meet together in the Golden Horseshoe region to support and encourage each other. What our sisters have in common is that they are victims of sexual abuse. As they meet bi-weekly, Safe is a lifeline for them. The women there that evening spoke about their past, their experiences, and the response of the church and its office bearers to their plight. It is not that they want to raise an issue. These, our sisters in the Lord, experience pain and lasting damage in loss of relationships and self-respect.
The stories were heartwrenching—stories of sexual abuse and other violence by grandfathers, fathers, step-fathers, foster parents, neighbors, “friends,” bosses, colleagues, and others. Mostly, the women had experienced the misery when they were young. Because they were still children at the time, they could not handle the enormity of the pain and betrayal. Their souls, minds and psyches were damaged. It is haunting them to this day, and they find it very difficult to speak about it with office bearers whom they see as “authority figures.”
A number of the women spoke about office bearers, at home visits telling them they should not talk about things like that; or, that they had to forgive whomever had hurt them. And this after working up the nerve for perhaps a year to speak about it! They also spoke about compassionate office bearers who listened, came back to visit, and did their best to help, However, very sadly, often these women are ignored, not taken seriously, misunderstood, not receiving the help and support they so desperately need and want.
A SAD STORY
To put it into focus, let me tell the story of one of the women. She has been struggling for years with the emotional, psychological and spiritual effects of incest. Her ability to trust had been ruined through an incestuous relationship imposed by her father. She did not know what trust was anymore. The abuse had taught her not to trust. Although she made an external profession of faith, she did not trust God. She did not know how to trust. It was an unfamiliar concept. She did not realize that she was incapable of trusting. She thought she trusted God. She had learned to become whom she was told to be, not the person God had created her to be. She did not know the difference, or even that there is a difference.
Many years later, when she learned the difference and that she actually in truth did not trust God, the new awareness was shocking and frightening.
Her father faithfully took the family to church. She was told to listen to the minister because he preached God’s Word. The hypocrisy was not lost on the young lass as she sat in the pew and saw her dad in the elders’ bench.
As she got older, she started listening more closely to the sermons, looking for comfort, help, answers and direction. The minister said that we have to trust God. Indeed we do. God is trustworthy. But she did not know how to trust. Her dad had robbed her of the ability.
Many sermons came across as hard. Because she was unable to trust God, she hadn’t prayed for quite some time. This worried her greatly. Then she heard: “If you haven’t prayed for a week…” That’s me, she thought, leaning forward. Yes, then what? Tell me what to do! “…then you have a problem…” Yes, I know! But what should I DO!? “…And God is not pleased with you.” This statement left her reeling, feeling like she’d been hit over the head with a baseball bat. Sermons on Lord’s Day 39 (fifth commandment) and Lord’s Day 51 (Fifth Petition) were especially difficult because often blanket statements about honoring parents and forgiving others were made and left unqualified. She was convinced she was going to hell because she could not forgive her dad for lifetime of pain and a broken soul.
Even the comforting words of Lord’s Day were gut-wrenching for her: I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in !ife and death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. She called it the “B-word.” Be!ong. To her, belonging to someone meant annihilation. She had belonged to her dad. He could do with her as he wished. It was a lie that had become truth for her when she was just little girl. Her father had stolen her body and soul and used them at his sick pleasure. He would say, “You belong to me.” She was her dad’s property to be used and abused. When she heard from the pulpit that she belonged to Jesus body and soul she would retch. Was she just a piece of property? Because of incest, that which at catechism puts forward as our only comfort in life and death made the young girl heavy.
These childhood lessons were deeply il grained and internalized. Because the were taught by a father, they were not easily unlearned. This dear sister, now in her forties, is still busy unlearning them. She grew up with a ruined psyche, her soul tampered with, and emotionally crippled. She is slowly unlearning—learning to replace lies with truth.
The cost of abuse is enormous. There was the cost of lost relationships; the cost of ways of feeling less, knowing that she will never be what she would have been had her youth been healthy; the financial cost years of counseling , as well as the thousands of hours “lost” by this.
Despite the pain that will never go away, her story has a pretty happy ending. God used years of thorough counseling from a skilled psychologist to teach her to trust again. Daily, she is learning to trust more. She is happy to belong to the Lord Jesus Christ. She now knows the difference between belonging to her Savior and “belonging” to her dad, although this concept alone took three to four years of intense work to perceive and internalize. She walks with the Lord and is very happy to do so, a pretty happy ending! But we need to remember that such happy endings are very rare. Many abuse victims go lost—lost to family, to the church, to the Lord. It’s time to weep!
The story of this courageous survivor and godly woman ends with a plea. She asks that the church, in its preaching and pastoral work, realize that there are always those who, because of abuse, don’t feel part of the “we.” Among us we have those who, because of stories like hers, cannot trust and cannot pray. In their struggle, they feel alienated from the rest of the congregation. Blanket “we” statements about how we are the covenant people, about how we know where our help is while the world doesn’t; we trust in God; we believe in and have the truth—such blanket “we” statements don’t do much to help them. She pleads that we ministers, in our preaching, also address with encouragement those who are struggling and who don’t feel part of the “we.”
She also pleads for understanding and patience. She did not know where to turn when her spiritual confusion was at its ugliest. If she had told an office bearer about how the “B” word made her want to vomit, would there have been any understanding? If she had said that she did not want to belong to Jesus Christ, would the response have been a compassionate, “Why do you say that?” or a judgmental, “You shouldn’t say that!” She pleads for the presence of those who can listen, pray and comfort without judging or telling one what to think or how to feel. She knows of others in our churches who live a very fragile existence, who are in constant mental pain, who struggle to live, to live with the Lord, and who are trying to make sense out of a big mess. She pleads for obvious understanding and compassion that we may be the healing community we are called to be.
WAYS TO HELP
How can we help sisters or brothers in our churches who have been sexually abused? First, we need to listen and believe. It takes huge amounts of courage for victims to speak about what they have gone through. They are burdened with guilt and shame. When they begin to speak about the abuse, just listen. Don’t say too much.
Take them seriously. It is not ours to judge the case. Investigations of alleged crimes are the business of the police and the courts of law, not ministers and elders. It is our task to listen, to comfort, and to point to the cross, the source of all comfort and healing. As we point to the only hope, realize that, for them, it is almost impossible to perceive it.
Pray in the public prayers for victims and for abusers. Pray that abuse may stop. Let it be addressed in sermons. Realize that every congregation has those who are strugglipg, who don’t feel part of the community, who carry a lot of pain and feel alienated.
Deal firmly and pastorally with perpetrators. Insist that they learn to know the damage they have done. There are courses available for sexual offenders that leave them with little doubt about what they have done. For reconciliation to take place between offender and victim, the offender first needs to understand what he has broken.
Sometimes abuse victims are unable to speak about their experiences. Advise them to write about it. A colleague of mine receives letters from a parishioner who cannot speak about her past but can pour her heart out on paper. Regularly, he finds letters in his mail box. Writing the letters, mailing them, and knowing that her minister is reading them is very helpful for her.
Be understanding and sympathetic when faced with the more severe possible results of abuse. Some abuse victims cut themselves. Don’t tell them they should not do that. They already know thatl Ask why they are cutting themselves. The answer you will probably get is because then they feel something. After years of being dulled and broken, and not feeling anything, the feel of pain is better than nothing. Some make suicidal threats, gestures or attempts. Do not be judgmental. These are attempts to escape flashbacks, the pain and misery. Always they are cries for help.
Do not give a list of things they have to do. To an abuse victim, unasked for advice is like judging. Very likely the victim will not be able to do what you tell her to do anyway.
Realize that Dissociative Identity Disorder (or Multiple Personality Disorder) is a real phenomenon. It is an adaptation often caused by extreme physical, sexual and/or emotional abuse suffered in early childhood. Since children are not equipped to deal with severe trauma, in order to keep living, other identities are “created” to hold the memory. It is a coping mechanism. The alter identities stay with the person into adulthood. During the evening I visited Safe, I saw instances of switching from one identity to another. This “disorder” (probably better called “adaptation”) is responsive to treatment. Qualified mental health providers will need to be involved, and office bearers need to be committed to giving much love and support for the long haul.
Invite a sister or brother who is a survivor of abuse to address an office bearers’ conference to speak about abuse and how ministers, elders and deacons can best help. They will speak candidly about past experiences of home visits and other pastoral contacts—good and bad—and shed invaluable light for office bearers.
DUTY TO REPORT
The Child and Family Services Act Ontario (every province has a similar act states that any person who believes, reasonable grounds, that a child is or may be in need of protection must report the belief to the authorities. One who deals with children on a professional basis is subject to a $1,000 fine for not reporting it. Again, it is not the duty of church office bearers to investigate the case. The Lord has not empowered the church to do that. He has empowered the state to investigate. The church has been given the power of the gospel, and it must work with that to comfort the wounded and call the sinner to repentance. The great thing about letting the state do its God-given task of investigation, trial and punishing is that the church then has the room to minister appropriately both victim and offender.
Let the message be heard that there is refuge in the church for the abuser. Oh yes, there is refuge for the repentant—also a repentant abuser. No doubt! But let them not find refuge in the church while they continue to perpetrate their evil and destruction. Let the church stand by the victim. Men and women, girls and boys who have been abused need to know that church stands by them, and not by abuser.
Let the abuser repent—truly repent. Let him come to a good and full understanding of what he has done. Let him admit it, it unconditionally, without at all trying wiggle out of any of the blame. Then forgiveness can be extended and reconciliation can begin to take place. For we can and do find each other at the foot of the cross. That is our hope, our comfort. and the only place for healing.
Anyone wanting to contact Safe can call me, George van Popta, at (905) 304-4952.
Rev. van Popta is a minister in the Canadian Reformed Church.
Reprinted from Clarion, Oct. 29, 1999.
SOME HELPFUL LITERATURE
• The Wounded Heart: Hope for Adult Victims of Childhood Sexual Abuse, by Dan B.Allender. NavPress, 1990, rev. ed., 1995.
• When Child Abuse Comes to Church, by Bill Anderson. Bethany House, 1992.
• More Than One: An Inside Look at Multiple Personality Disorder, by Terri A. Clark. Thomas Nelson, 1993.
• Silencing the Voices: One Woman’s Triumph Over Multiple Personality Disorder, by Jean Darby Cline. Berkely Books, 1997.
• Eros Redeemed: Breaking the Stranglehold of Sexual Sin, by John White. IVP, 1993.
• Sexual Offending and Restoration, by Mark Yantzi. Harold Press, 1998.
• A Handbook for a Counseling Services Network. Counseling Services Network Committee of the Canadian Reformed Churches, 1998 Contact E. Vaisanen @ (905) 945-09751.