Why don't we want to believe it?
As more safeguarding failures within the Church hit the headlines, I am acutely aware of the experiences of so many within our Survivors’ Network. More than 500 women have found a safe space to be seen and heard within this community; the stories they share all too often are not only of being abused by men who were meant to love them, but of being silenced, ignored and at worst shunned by churches who were meant to love and support them.
People often ask why victims of abuse don’t report straight away, and the reasons are many; we talk about them in relation to domestic abuse in our level one training. But, one of the greatest barriers to asking for help is the fear of not being believed, of being sidelined, silenced and people siding with the abuser.
It’s not an irrational fear. Abusers can often be charismatic, charming and fun to be around in public. People find it hard to match a disclosure of abuse with the person they think they know.
It’s a psychological thing. If a friend of ours has a terrible car accident, or is attacked by a dog, or a stranger, we find it easy to empathise and support them. But when they are hurt by someone we know, let alone admire, we are put in a quandary.
"Abusers can often be charismatic, charming and fun to be around in public. People find it hard to match a disclosure of abuse with the person they think they know."
This isn’t a nameless, faceless issue anymore. It requires us to make a choice about what and who to believe. If we are to believe a disclosure of abuse, it means that perhaps we have been deceived by the abuser, or that our judgement has been wrong; it means the world isn’t quite what we thought it was and that makes us feel unsafe. So we step away into the safety of not having to confront these uncomfortable truths by looking the other way or saying it’s impossible or worse still, blaming the victim. (Read more on this in our previous blog).
It makes us feel better momentarily, but it is devastating for those who have been abused. In their moment of greatest vulnerability, they have discovered that they are all alone; no one is going to stand by them or speak up for them. Their worst fears are confirmed - their needs are considered less important than those of their abuser. They have no value.
What mistakes do we make?
Believing that all abusers have horns. They don’t. They are often wolves in sheep's clothing. Sometimes they’re even in the shepherd's clothing, and we need to be prepared to believe that.
Minimising abuse. Don’t call abuse misconduct. Don’t get bogged down by something not being ‘criminal’ or only one story. Abuse of power comes in many forms and someone always gets hurt. Their experience is not minimal.
Thinking that the reputation of an organisation is more important than the wellbeing of an individual. It isn’t, and when we start thinking like this, we’re getting caught up in a world which says appearing perfect is what matters. In fact, we should be shining a light on injustice and proclaiming freedom for those who have been oppressed, even when it’s happening in our own circles and organisations. That is a good reputation to have.
Focusing on the abuser not the abused. Whether it’s crime dramas or news headlines, we can put all our attention on the fallen leader, leaving the victims to get lost in the aftermath. Perhaps we could be a little more like Jacinda Adern: after an attack in Christchurch in 2019, she refused to say the name of the terrorist who killed 51 people and instead focussed on responding to the trauma in the community.
Victim Blaming. We need to recognise that this is a psychological defence mechanism. If we can find a reason why someone has been hurt, then it means we can avoid doing that ourselves and stay safe. If a woman is raped because she wore a short skirt, then the women in my life will be safe so long as they dress differently. If that boy got abused because he was power hungry, then my child won’t if he stays humble. Victim blaming gives us a (false) sense of security.
How can we do better?
We have to prioritise the wellbeing of those who have been abused. It’s that simple. The God we follow is a God of justice who is for the oppressed not the oppressor, and if we are to bear His image, we must do the same, however uncomfortable that makes us feel.
It means listening to those who have been subjected to abuse, believing them and asking them what they need. It might mean signposting them to specialist support and walking with them as they access that. It might mean empowering them to tell their story to the relevant authorities. It always means ensuring that they know that they are not alone and that they matter.
Where can I find help?
For those who have been triggered by these particular issues:
- Safe Spaces is an independent organisation that provides a confidential, personal and safe space for anyone who has been abused by someone in the Church or as a result of their relationship with the Church.
- The Restored Survivors’ Network is a community for Christian women who have been subjected to domestic abuse.
For leaders who struggling to know how to respond:
- Natalie Collins has written an excellent template statement
- Justin Humphreys from safeguarding organisation ThirtyOne:eight has written a helpful blog about how to respond when you hear about safeguarding concerns about a leader. ThirtyOne:eight also have an independent safeguarding helpline | 0303 003 1111
Resources for churches
We've created the Church Guide to help churches respond to disclosures of domestic abuse and support survivors. We also run three levels of domestic abuse training for churches, to help you explore the topic in more depth