3 Things to Remember When Reporting Sexual Abuse

by | Feb 25, 2019 | Abuse, Uncategorized | 21 comments

On Friday I was talking about how churches should handle sexual abuse allegations. But what if you have to report sexual abuse yourself?

A number of issues came out in the comments on that post that I thought really should be highlighted. So instead of answering a different reader question today, I want to state very clearly those three things.

I was very moved by all the comments on the post from people who had been abused in a church setting, or who had been abused by people who go to church, and the church ignored it. I am so, so sorry if your abuse was not taken seriously. That is so wrong. And to all who wrote to me in personal messages–I am so sorry, too. I’m glad we can at least talk about it, because you don’t need to keep quiet. This isn’t your shame to bear.

So let’s go over those three things:

1. This is not JUST a personal sin you need to forgive

In Matthew 18, Jesus talks about how to handle sin in the church.

Matthew 18:15-17

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

That’s good advice for dealing with personal differences between believers. The problem is that many churches have told people that this passage applies when dealing with sexual abuse. This is completely off base for two big reasons.

First, sexual abuse is not just a sin issue. This is a crime.

As Jesus said, “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” When it is a crime, it falls under governmental jurisdiction. You go to the police, and you report it, and let the chips fall where they may. And remember that in most jurisdictions, even sexual contact between an adult and a clergy is against the law, not just an “affair”. This is especially true in the case of a youth leader and a girl (or boy) over the age of consent.

Second, sexual abuse is a sin that affects the whole body of believers.

Let’s take it to the extreme and say that you confronted the abuser, and the abuser repented. According to that passage, you’re not really supposed to involve others now.

But abusers tend to abuse again. Going to the abuser one-on-one endangers the body as a whole (besides being psychologically damaging and difficult to you).

When the body as a whole is endangered, it must be dealt with in a public way.

2. You have a right to tell your story.

The vast majority of sexual abuse survivors keep silent. A myriad of reasons make this more likely–they feel a deep sense of shame; they don’t other people to know about what they went through, because it’s embarrassing; they’re scared of what the abuser may do. But even more so, there’s often subtle (or even more overt) pressure from family and the church to keep silent.

You wouldn’t want to ruin the guy’s reputation. You wouldn’t want to ruin the church’s reputation. You wouldn’t want to ruin the family’s reputation.

And remember–if you start telling people what was done to you, they could sue you for slander.

So I want to dispel this last notion right now. It is not slander to say bad things about someone if those bad things truly happened.

Here is the legal definition of slander (or defamation) in the United States:

defamation is the all-encompassing legal term for an act, communication, or publication of a false statement to a third-party, which causes harm or damage to another person’s reputation.

The key word there is “false”. If you say things about someone which causes harm or damage to a person’s reputation, and those things are true, then it is not slander. And in the United States, you do not have to prove they are true, either. If sued, you simply have to show that you did not KNOW these things were false. In fact, the burden of proof is on your accuser to show that you were speaking things you believed to be false. I’m not a lawyer, of course, so what I’m saying should be taken with the grain of salt, but I still believe this is fairly self-evident.

Do you get the distinction? Now, if you spread the word that an individual is abusive, or that a church is harboring someone who is abusive, you may be sued. That is true. It is equally true that you would likely win that suit. However, it’s certainly painful to go through a lawsuit. Julie Anne from Spiritual Sounding Board started blogging after she reported that a church was harboring an abuser. She not only won that case; it was declared a nuisance lawsuit and the church had to pay all of her legal costs.

Recently Harvest Bible Chapel sued reporter Julie Roys and two bloggers and their wives behind The Elephant’s Debt because they were reporting on terrible things going on at Harvest. HBC withdrew that lawsuit when it became clear that suing them allowed the defendants to get subpoena access to all kinds of their internal documents they wanted to keep hidden. It was a great warning to other churches to not do the same thing.

So, yes, conceivably someone might sue you. But they would be really, really stupid to do so, because it’s almost guaranteed that you would win the suit, and if they did sue you, you now get “discovery” powers and they open themselves up to a nuisance lawsuit charge as well.

All that is to say that the threat of a lawsuit is often overhyped.

The real point here is that it is your story. You are allowed to tell your story.

Doing so is not ruining your family’s reputation, or the church’s reputation. Doing so is being true to what God has done in your life, and is protecting others.

There’s a principle in Scripture that is very important to remember in these cases:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.

We are supposed to reap what we sow, or, in other words, we’re supposed to have to deal with the consequences of our actions. The problem in the case of sexual abuse is that those who bear the consequences are rarely the abuser. It’s more likely the abused, who has to deal with the shame and the victimization. And they have to deal with pressure to keep silent, while the abuser goes on with his life.

Speaking your story allows the abuser to start to reap what he sows. If it causes problems in the church community, that is not YOU causing those problems. That is the abuser causing those problems by his actions.

But if  you speak up, other innocent people will also bear those consequences, like the abuser’s poor family! Think of them!

Those people will be feeling the repercussions anyway. There are repercussions to be married to someone who is abusive. And it is always better to live in truth than to live in darkness and know that there is something wrong, but never be able to put your finger on it. It will be temporarily very disruptive to have this come out. But truth is never wrong. And you are not to blame for any negative repercussions to other people that also come. The abuser is.

You also do not have to “prove” that your story is true with a police conviction. Many will say, “well, he wasn’t charged, and so we can’t just take your word for it.” Just because someone has not been charged does not mean that the police don’t believe that it happened. A myriad of things go into making the decision to charge someone. But beyond that, your testimony is enough, and do not let others tell you that it is not.

I saw this tweet last night in my Twitter feed, and I thought it was timely:

It was her story. She had the right to tell it without worrying about the abuser. If she tells, the abuser is only reaping what he sowed, which is appropriate. And any chaos that falls after that is due to the abuser’s actions, not yours.

3. You are not responsible for preventing future abuse

One more thing. We’ve been talking about speaking up about your abuse to warn others that abusers may be lurking in their churches. The original reader question that was sent in to me addressed a situation where the man who abused her daughter was still volunteering at a church, and she was worried for other children’s safety.

She is right to be. And she is right to tell that church, and take other actions that I suggested in that post to get people to take it seriously.

But I do want to point one thing out: You are not responsible for any future abuse that this person commits. Only that person is.

And there is a point where it’s okay to say, “I’ve done enough. No one is listening to me. I have to let this go now.”

One of the big church abuse blogs is the Wartburg Watch. Part of its title, I believe, is from the Watchman passage from Ezekiel 33, which says this:

Ezekiel 33:1-6

The word of the Lord came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them: ‘When I bring the sword against a land, and the people of the land choose one of their men and make him their watchman, 3 and he sees the sword coming against the land and blows the trumpet to warn the people, 4 then if anyone hears the trumpet but does not heed the warning and the sword comes and takes their life, their blood will be on their own head. 5 Since they heard the sound of the trumpet but did not heed the warning, their blood will be on their own head. If they had heeded the warning, they would have saved themselves. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet to warn the people and the sword comes and takes someone’s life, that person’s life will be taken because of their sin, but I will hold the watchman accountable for their blood.’

A few things about this passage. First, it doesn’t directly apply to abuse victims. The abuse victim has NOT been appointed as a watchperson. In this passage, the person that God is holding accountable for warning the people was already chosen for that job. Just because you’re abused does not mean that you are now to blame if you don’t warn others.

That being said, it is also clear from this passage that if you do warn others, and they don’t listen, none of that is your fault. 

If you decide to speak up about your story, you are not required to make them listen and change. You can’t do that. You don’t have that power. All you are asked to do is to warn them. And then anything that happens after that is not on you.

At some point you may need to let things go, for your own sanity. The abuser ruined a part of your life; it’s okay to choose to put that behind you. Some of you will put it behind you by not speaking about it (that, too, is your prerogative). Some of you will choose to speak up and warn others (that, too, is your prerogative). But you must never feel that because you know this person is an abuser that you are therefore responsible for them. No. If you warned, that is enough.

I will say that, for your own peace of mind, if you do warn churches or individuals, it’s a good idea to have a paper trail, so that later, if something bad happens, you can prove that they had been warned. If you talk to someone in person, send them an email afterwards confirming the conversation. Send a letter to the elder’s board, and keep a copy. But even in all that, you are not responsible for what a church, or what an individual, chooses to do.

Okay, those are the three things I wanted to reiterate today: This isn’t a personal sin that requires personal confrontation; it requires public confrontation. Your story is your story, and you’re allowed to tell it. And you’re not responsible for future abuse.

Telling Your Story of Sexual Abuse: Disclosing sexual abuse in church

Any comments on those things? Or anything that I left out? This is an important topic, so let’s talk in the comments!

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Sheila Wray Gregoire

Author at Bare Marriage

Sheila is determined to help Christians find biblical, healthy, evidence-based help for their marriages. And in doing so, she's turning the evangelical world on its head, challenging many of the toxic teachings, especially in her newest book The Great Sex Rescue. She’s an award-winning author of 8 books and a sought-after speaker. With her humorous, no-nonsense approach, Sheila works with her husband Keith and daughter Rebecca to create podcasts and courses to help couples find true intimacy. Plus she knits. All the time. ENTJ, straight 8

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21 Comments

  1. Anon

    One thing that hasn’t come up, but that I have no doubt you would affirm, Sheila, is that repression is real. I first was exposed to this idea while watching The Keepers documentary, which you recommended. The main woman interviewed repressed her memories of abuse well into adulthood. Well, I found out last summer that my mom was sexually abused by a close adult to her family when she was a young girl. She told me (I’m 33) that she didn’t remember these events until
    I was around the age she was when it started for her (around age 6). Even now she says she doesn’t have a lot of specific memories, just images in her mind. I don’t think anyone who knows my mom would ever expect to learn this about her. She is strong and she never seems afraid and never raised me to be fearful about the world. I admired my mom before, but even more so now. I share this to let people know that repressed memories are valid and even if you don’t have enough to go on to take it to the police, it’s ok to share the story that you do have with those who are close to you. Also, for those of us who haven’t suffered abuse, it’s so important to remember that literally anyone, even the person you least expect, could be walking around with these experiences inside them.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Yes, very true! Thank you for sharing. (And The Keepers was so good, wasn’t it? Horrifying, but so good.)

      Reply
    • Natalie

      That’s a good point, Anon. And I’d like to also clarify that repression of memories isn’t just something that can happen with sexual abuse victims, but with any sort of abuse victim. My husband experienced some terrible verbal and emotional abuse from his mother, grandmother and extended family as a children. He has repressed it all (he probably should go see a therapist, even though he can’t remember anything about it and for the most part leads a very normal, emotionally and mentally healthy life). He and I are very open when it comes to communication and emotionally supporting each other, and when I’ve tried to discuss this topic with him over the years and “play therapist”, he literally for the life of him cannot remember anything that happened expect for many a snippet here and there. His memories of his childhood are very few and far between. While I remember almost all of my childhood (but I also have a very good memory), he remembers maybe a dozen stories and experiences from high school and earlier. However, the brain often does what it does for a reason. His coping mechanisms were repression and eating (of which eating has still been an issue he struggles with to this day and resulted in him being a very unhealthy weight). His sister experienced the same abuse, but her coping mechanism was not repression. She remembers everything and has coped by abusing drugs and alcohol and letting men abuse her for decades. My husband’s cousin’s experienced an even wider range of abuse including physical and sexual, and they range from having sexual disorders to drug and alcohol addiction to morbid obesity to mental and emotional disorders that they medicate. Every one of them needs to see a therapist desperately, though none have. Sometimes, repression of memories can be the brain’s safest way to self-protect and try to heal. Though in my opinion, everyone who’s experienced any form of abuse really should talk to a good quality therapist or psychologist.

      Also, I’m going to add The Keepers to my watch list. Sounds interesting!!

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Natalie, beware of The Keepers. It’ll make you weep. But it is a story that we need to know, because it’s still happening, and not just in the Catholic church. Just be ready for the emotional gut punch!

        Reply
  2. Laura

    Excellent!!

    Reply
  3. Kate

    Beautiful! I’ll keep these in mind whether it happens to me or another person. I think the most frustrating part is that most of the survivors have said, it was women mostly advising them not to tell, for the sake of “reputation” crap. I swear, sometimes we women are SO cruel to each other. I’m about to attend a new church in March, i have a feeling that it might be a home church for me, and if i decide to become a member, and later find out any form of abuse is going on i’ll bring the whole church down! This woman will not be silent. Screw your reputation. The church is suppose to be Holy like Christ is Holy. There is a reason why Christ is exposing all of this, he’s cleaning out his bride. To sanctify and make her whole. If the God i worship purifies his church then i His follower can do the same, by seeking lout legal actions.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      I totally agree, Kate. I think that God is deliberately shaking the church right now, in judgment, because we need it. And we should get on board with what God is already doing!

      Reply
  4. Phil

    My abuser’s name is Ron Weber and he probably lives near Chicago Illinois.

    Reply
    • Sarah O

      I truly hope naming the name gives you some relief and freedom Phil. I know you’ve avoided doing so for a long time. Praying for you.

      I am so sorry. This should not happen to anyone. I am so thankful that you continue to work toward healing and have been able to keep your faith. I don’t understand all this at all. How could such an idea occur in the first place? And how on earth could someone proceed to act on it.

      I am so sorry Phil.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        Yes, Phil, I’m proud of you for speaking up and owning your history. It is your story; you can take control of it. You don’t need to feel like there is something you can’t tell, because what happened does not reflect on you; it reflects on your abuser.

        And your story is really God’s story–the work that He is doing in your life. It is not your abuser’s story. It is what God has done in you, and what He continues to do in you. And I’m glad that you are so humble and such an inspiring voice for someone who wants to grow and keep running towards Jesus!

        Reply
        • Phil

          Thank you Sheila and Sarah. I have named my abuser in my home church. I went to as many former council members I could that were still in the church and still living at the time and told them my story. I have talked to my Mom and brother about it and many many others including counselors and sponsors and friends in my 12 step group. I have never been to therapy directly for this topic. Otherwise, I really don’t think about it unless the topic is brought up. Occasionally an issue occurs that I can relate to my past and what happened to me. I searched up my abuser today for the first time in 15ish years. He has a great charade going on on his facebook page. At first my heart sank but then I realized it is all a charade. He is a defrocked Ordained Lutheran Minister who currently claims he is an Executive Director or Chief Priest of a Lutheran based Community Church that doesn’t exist. More of the same of what I already know about him. He misrepresents the Bible and Lutheran Theology. Maybe I wasted some time today. But you know what? This conversation stirred me. I started questioning if I was lied to by my church Synod and my Pastor and trust issues started coming up. So I went on a search today. I needed to be sure once again that the job was done. I would take up my sword and go if I had to. AND as my heart sank and my stomach became queazy I started getting ready to go fight; Then I figured out that what I was looking at was a sham. Knowing he is not serving in a church is what gives me peace. That is how I cope with it. That gives me the satisfaction for my time left on this Earth. Ultimately, God will judge my abuser and I already know the results on that. This of course gives me even deeper comfort. I believe in what I did. I did what I could do and did my best to keep him from harming others. I believe God is happy with the steps I have taken not only to remove him from the church but for the self care I have carved out for myself as well. I like how it was pointed out that it is MY story and not my abusers. I am going to ponder that some more for sure. I really like it. While I say I am at peace with my past, I would say it does not take much to stir me up when the topic comes up. I certainly was stirred today. I do thank you both and I just want to say that I named my abuser here today not because I am not done with it. I named him because I believe others need the courage to do so as well. Whether it is for internal or external purposes any victim of abuse has to walk through their past. You don’t just talk about it once and all is well. Sheila – do you recall maybe a little over a year ago I told the group here about a picture Grace and I found while going through pictures? It was a picture of my abuser. That was close to 2 years ago we found that. I am 46. My last contact with my abuser was close to 30 years ago. I am still talking about it. I think it’s healthy to be able to talk about it. I put my abusers name out here as a demonstration for others. I AM STRONG. YOU ARE STRONG. I WILL NOT BE DEFEATED BY AN ABUSER. YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE DEFEATED EITHER.

          Reply
  5. Ashley

    Because of the emotional abuse I went through, I have done quite a bit of reading on abuse in the last year. Because of that I found out about Jimmy Hinton, a pastor who turned in his own father for sexually abusing children. His father was the previous pastor of the church Jimmy Hinton became the pastor of. Now, Jimmy and Clara Hinton (his mother) have a terrific podcast called The Speaking Out Against Sex Abuse Podcast. They each have their own blog, too. I think they have valuable information. Some of what they cover is what the family of the abuser suffers, which is just horrible. Anyway, I have a lot of respect for this family and the work they are doing to help others. And for those not familiar with their story, when they found out with the abuse, they turned the dad in to the police, never even questioning if that was what they would do. They KNEW they would do the right thing.

    Reply
    • G

      SO GLAd you mentioned Jimmy Hinton and Clara. PLease- EVERYONE INVOLVED WITH CHILDREN AND TEEN MINISTRIES- PLEASE Go to their site now. I implore you to devour all the training and instruction they have there. It will revolutionize your thinking about what safe looks like. Spoiler – being in the room isn’t enough. Predators abuse kids in front of parents. (Larry Nasser for example). Please anyone’s working with kids and all parents- arm yourself with the truth at their site. It’s powerful stuff to understand how to better protect.

      Reply
      • Sheila Wray Gregoire

        They really do write amazing stuff! And I’m so impressed with how they did the right thing, at great personal cost.

        Reply
  6. Sara

    I have so many thoughts and questions on this. My brother-in-law sexually abused two of my daughters over a period of two years. He was between 13 and 15 at the time. He was formally charged and his parents voluntarily sent him, and paid for, a 15 month Christian rehab program for boys. The judge later decided that it would count towards his sentencing along with 1 year of probation. He is now 21 and studying to be a police officer. I’m not sure how I feel about that. It not only seems ironic, but also unfair.
    The worst part of this whole situation is that my family is looked upon as the bad guys within our extended family because we refuse to see him again. This makes all holidays extremely uncomfortable and mostly nonexistent, because my in-laws see this as unreasonable.
    I know this may have gone off on a different tangent than the original article, but I’m not sure how to move forward. How can maintain a relationship with my in-laws who refuse to accept the consequences of his actions? Should I do anything about his current field of study?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Sara, that’s so tough! I honestly don’t know about the police officer thing. I would think that stuff on your juvenile record would come up in a background check, but I don’t know. I think phoning the police department anonymously and asking if a sexual abuser is allowed to be a police officer if the abuse was done as a juvenile may be warranted, just because of the nature of the occupation. But I don’t know if I’d report him.

      As for your extended family, I am so sorry for the pain you must be feeling. It is perfectly reasonable to want to keep your children away from him. I think telling your in-laws very firmly, “your son hurt our children. If you want to continue to see your grandchildren, you must respect how we are choosing to protect them from future harm. If you cannot accept that, then please realize that it is not us who are endangering the family; it is you.” And be firm. You’re allowed to be! And again, I’m so sorry that you are going through this.

      Reply
    • Phil

      Sara – to offer you comfort – if you live in the USA it is defintiely tough to become a police officer. My brother inlaw who is what I would call a normal guy couldnt even make it into police academy. It is not easy. The backround checks are intensive and very personal. They are looking for liars and weak people and they purposely try to trip people up. An example question they ask on the application is have you ever peed in the shower? If so how often? You can bet all criminal records juvinile or not do come up. And if they lie its an aoutomatic out and if they lie and get away with it….it will resurface at some point. I understand your pain and I wish there were some better answers. Best wishes to you and your family

      Reply
  7. Chris

    If you say say something bad about someone, and they can prove that its not true, and they can prove specific damages directly related to your statement, they can sue for slander. It does not matter if you believe you were speaking the truth. They do not need to prove that you knew the statement was false, you may really believe its true. But if they can demonstrate that the statement is false, what you believe does not matter. Lawyers do not take (usually) defamation cases on contingency because proving damages incurred by a specific statement in court is really hard.

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      My impression is that this varies very much by jurisdiction. In the UK, it’s much easier to prove slander. In the US it’s much harder, and I thought that intent played a role.

      Reply
  8. Diana Winkler

    Thank you so much for talking about this! I have a ministry for domestic violence and abuse victims that uses music and public speaking to educate, empower, and help victims heal. I am a facilitator for Mending the Soul healing groups. Anyway, I have told my story many times in my healing groups, and once in public. I have been struggling with fear of my ex finding out I was telling my story in public and suing me.(He once threatened to sue me based on a photo I had on my website that was his uncle and his cousins and me doing a concert at Christmas. I wouldn’t take it down because it was my picture, it was a happy memory, and I wasn’t making anyone look bad!) I don’t say his name, but some people have told me that doesn’t matter. I guess anyone can sue anyone these days. I have a video of me telling my story the first time at my church, and I say his first name. I am afraid to put it on my YouTube channel. I am in process of writing a book for churches on how to deal with abuse in the church. Again, I’m always worried about the legal aspect of outing the churches in my past who have enabled my abuser by not doing anything about this abuse. I could change the names of the churches or the victims and still teach the principles. Your blog article today gave me some courage to go through with what I’m called to do, regardless of what my abuser thinks or does. What do you think?

    Reply
    • Sheila Wray Gregoire

      Hi Diana!

      I think that your story is your story.

      At the same time, people can sue you. It doesn’t mean that they will win, but they can. IF they do, then they open themselves up for discovery, which YOU will win, because you’re telling the truth. You can’t be prosecuted for telling the truth.

      Nevertheless, it is a big hassle to be sued, even if you win in the end. I say that just to warn you that there may be consequences. However, if you make it very, very clear that if you are sued you will not roll over, but you will proceed with discovery, publicize the whole thing, and ruin them even more, perhaps they would just back off. 🙂

      Few people sue actually. And your story if your story–it’s not illegal if it’s true! If you’re worried, though, talk to a lawyer friend, because laws are always different in different jurisdictions. I know some in the US have anti-SLAPP legislation, too, which penalizes someone for nuisance lawsuits (which is what they would be doing). A lawyer could walk you through that.

      Ultimately, you would win in the end. But in the interim it could be stressful. Those who have been sued (think Julie Roys; Julie Anne from Spiritual Sounding Board; The Elephant’s Debt; and more) usually end up much stronger and with a much larger audience!

      Reply

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