Dealing with abuse: the journey towards healing
by Marion Van Driel
Churches have traditionally been considered safe places – sanctuaries. Sadly that is not always the case. Sexual misconduct and other abuses occur all too often. How does real ‘sanctuary’ look for someone suffering the wounds of abuse?
Abuse occurs within trusted relationships or through violent assault – both devastatingly traumatic. The victim’s journey towards healing is often stalled by confusion, pain, and shame. Suppressed pain can lead to a host of physical, mental and emotional side effects.
“Very often the perpetrator tries to blame it on them, . . . to silence them,” explains Sophia Van Vuuren, a Registered Clinical Psychologist at Burnaby Counseling Group. Victims may be threatened or manipulated for a long time before they disclose the circumstances of their abuse. Often victims “start to doubt their own safety systems,” says Van Vuuren, “if they have learned as children to trust their safety system in their bodies, they become confused and can be re-victimized.” Because their boundaries are breached, victims listen to others rather than trusting their own judgments. Ideally, reporting the abuse should occur as soon as possible, to prevent a vicious cycle. But coming forward is vital even if the pain of their abuse, which Van Vuuren calls “a cancer for their mental health”, has been carried for years.
Steps toward healing
Often Christians – even, and especially those in leadership positions – are disinclined to believe that one of their respected peers could be an abuser. This is largely due to the nature of the perpetrator’s ability to manipulate people, covering up their duplicity. The potential for recurrence is high when unidentified perpetrators exist within church leadership roles; a victim may very well choose to trust that person with their story. Van Vuuren recommends that victims see a counselor trained in dealing with abuse situations as the first step of relief.
Joanne Van Beek, founder and previous Director of Rise Up Ministries Society has heard the stories from women impacted by domestic abuse. The consequences are far-reaching. “Sexual abuse destroys people…it’s not like being in a car accident. It messes with their mind, it messes with their spirit, and consequently, it messes with their relationships forever and ever.” She firmly believes that the church plays a critical role in bringing hope and support. In seminars to church leaders, her message is, “The most important thing for you to do, is to simply believe the [victim’s] story … she’s risking a tremendous amount in coming to you.” Victims of abuse require validation – assurance that they are not at fault; that the perpetrator’s behaviour is inappropriate. Misperceptions of the victim and the community need resetting. Disclosure addresses the health of the victim and ideally, the perpetrator’s activity.
The incredible damage done by church leaders who abuse their power potentially keeps victims from the fellowship of believers, and ultimately from trusting God, personified in the male gender. Both Van Beek and Van Vuuren identify the issue of a patriarchal system that Christians often believe is abating, but which still has a hold within the church. Traditional gender roles and misinterpretation of scripture to justify male domination is still alive and well.
Adult victims need the church’s support, but making decisions for them, Van Beek says, is to exert power over them – exactly what their perpetrator has done. Ask, and listen: how do they want to be supported? It might mean just being heard – for the moment. It may mean assigning one or two trusted people to attend a support group with them.
Van Beek says that we do fairly well with Safe Church when it comes to children, but it’s rare that a church works through how to deal with a young adult or spouse who comes forward. How will the church support that person? While it’s wise to refer them for professional help, there still needs to be supportive care in Christ’s name.
Van Beek vehemently resists the old adage “It takes two to tango” in abuse situations – an attitude of judgment occurs all too often. Van Beek clearly differentiates between ‘common couple conflict’ and a relationship where one has all the power. She has seen churches take a crucial stand of banning an offender from their services – a stand that prevents recurring bouts of anxiety and trauma for the victim.
Hope through faith
Through crises, people are sometimes drawn to their deepest place of faith. Van Vuuren observes faith as “a wonderful, therapeutic part of the healing process.” She adds that victims can change their perceptions, realizing that churches and other ‘safe places’ are not immune to perpetrators of oppression and injustice. Victims’ healing includes resetting safety indicators within themselves, learning about appropriate behaviour, boundaries and skills to protect themselves.
Situations of abuse are messy. Victims require an inordinate amount of compassion. After the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus asks, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbour to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10:36,37).