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.

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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:

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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!

SheilaSidebarAboutMe - 3 Things to Remember When Reporting Sexual Abuse Sheila Wray Gregoire has been married for 27 years and happily married for 22! She loves traveling around North America with her hubby in their RV, giving her signature "Girl Talk" about sex and marriage. And she's written 8 books. About sex and marriage. See a theme here? Plus she knits. Even in line at the grocery store.
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