Far more people have been sexually abused than are reported. The reasons for underreporting are numerous. It’s long past time to defang those reasons.
To those who have been sexually abused
If you have been sexually abused, it’s OK to tell someone.
It won’t be easy.
But when you tell someone, you do something significant. When you tell someone, you begin to undo the power sexual abuse has over you. Right from the start, as soon as you tell someone, you remove the power of silence and secrets.
But who do you tell? There’s more wrapped up in that question than may appear at first.
Sexual abuse creates a profound breach of trust, especially when that abuse is inflicted by a trusted person. And sexual abuse usually is.
Start by telling yourself.
Something happened to you. You may have a lot of questions about it, but one thing seems clear to you: It wasn’t right.
You didn’t ask for the abuse. Someone who should have protected you didn’t. Someone who should have cared for you instead hurt you.
You may never have allowed yourself to acknowledge what really happened. You may not yet be ready to delve into all of what happened. It may be enough, initially, for you simply to tell yourself what happened. And then to agree with yourself—it wasn’t and isn’t right.
After that, who you tell and when are your decision.
Some of your options are:
• Hotlines. There are a handful of agencies you can call. Each has trained professionals available 24/7.
• The National Hotline for Domestic Violence, 1-800-799-SAFE (7233).
• The National Child Abuse Hotline, 1-800-422-4453.
• The Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 1-800-656-HOPE (4673).
• Reporting agencies. Reporting agencies differ by state. In Texas, contact the Department of Family and Protective Services, 1-800-252-5400.
“Texas law says anyone who thinks a child, or person 65 years or older, or an adult with disabilities is being abused, neglected, or exploited must report it to DFPS.
“A person who reports abuse in good faith is immune from civil or criminal liability. DFPS keeps the name of the person making the report confidential. Anyone who does not report suspected abuse can be held liable for a misdemeanor or felony.”
• Law enforcement. This option may terrify you, but here’s why law enforcement should know: A legitimate investigation cannot take place without a report to law enforcement.
• A counselor. Write down some goals—what you want or need—for counseling, and look for a counselor who fits those goals.
Look for a counselor or therapist who has experience working with trauma and/or sexual abuse. If a counselor is not a good fit, don’t give up on counseling but find someone with whom you feel comfortable and who you believe will help you achieve your goals.
When you are ready to tell someone, I encourage you not to stop telling until someone believes you. You will know you have been heard and believed when the person you tell walks with you through the next steps, which can include making a report or seeking a counselor.
I used to pass a business several times a week that had a large sign posted at its entrance. The sign read: “Safety is a moral issue.”
Church, you are responsible for providing a safe place. You are responsible for knowing and vetting your volunteers. You are responsible for the people you call and hire. You are responsible for the policies you have in place and for abiding by those policies.
When an incident happens on your property or on your schedule involving one of your leaders—paid or volunteer—you are responsible for taking it seriously and reporting it appropriately.
You don’t need an insurance company or an outside denominational entity to force your hand. You can do what’s right because it’s what is right.
If I haven’t been hard enough already, here’s a hard word: You may want people to trust your church, but because of the neglect of many churches—as pointed out in the recent Houston Chronicle/San Antonio Express-News report—the church as a whole must now accept people’s mistrust and work to earn trust once again. It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen overnight.
You may want to redeem the situation, but you may have lost the right—either by your own inaction or the inaction of another church. That redemptive work may have to be done by a third party. So be it.
The sanctity of each and every person who encounters your ministry is more important than your reputation. Caring for the people in your congregation and community is more important than preserving your organization.
Take the appropriate steps to deal with sexual abuse and misconduct when it occurs, and better still, engage in the best practices to do all you can to prevent such occurrences.
If you need help writing policies, organizations like MinistrySafe can help you. Remember, though, the best policy is an enacted policy. So, be sure you and your ministry can abide by the policies you create or can adapt your structure and staffing to meet the requirements of the policy.
Resources for addressing sexual abuse also are available in our Falling Seed column.
To all of us
Dealing with sexual abuse isn’t easy, but we are created in the image of God. Surely, we can do hard things.
Another word to abuse survivors
When you think you’re too broken to go any further, remember: You made it this far.