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How can the church respond redemptively to the sexual abuse crisis?

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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How can the church respond redemptively to the sexual abuse crisis

In We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis, prolific author Mary DeMuth uses Scripture, research, and sexual abuse survivors’ stories—including her own—to call the church into action against the evils of sexual abuse.

Dr. Jim Denison interviewed DeMuth via email. This is their exchange:

Jim Denison: Mary, your story of being sexually abused at the age of five is heartbreaking. When you came to Christ as a teenager, how did the church help you deal with your pain? What could it have done better?

Mary DeMuth: At that point, my connection with church was brand new, so I didn’t initially disclose to my church, as I didn’t know them well. But I did share with my Young Life leaders, and they were amazing. They listened, prayed, and dignified my story. They didn’t shrink away from it. 

I moved away from my first church, and then when I found my second church, there was a barrier in me sharing because my youth pastor was a man, and I didn’t feel comfortable sharing my story with him. If there had been a woman in leadership in that church, I most likely would have talked about it with her.

JD: If you could offer wisdom to pastors and other church leaders reading this article, what would you say to them?

MD: Err on the side of listening, without first formulating a contingency plan in your head. Let the story unfold, offer empathy, and pray. 

If this abuse has happened in the church by a member or volunteer, report the violation to the proper authorities as a mandatory reporter. 

Obviously, fire or let go of anyone who has sexually abused someone else. 

Be honest about what occurred (if it happened related to the church), and if the situation calls for it, have an independent investigation to determine what happened and what you can learn going forward. 

Offer to help survivors. 

Have elders and leaders reassess child protection policies and how you will deal with any further claims. 

We have to remember that there are people out there who are bent on harming others. We cannot prevent them from preying, but we can create policies and environments that make it far more difficult.

If you have someone coming to you in need of counsel who has been abused, but not in the church, certainly listen and pray, but also understand that people who have this story also battle trauma and are in need of trauma-informed therapy. Curate a list of counselors who deal in that type of therapy.

I would also say I felt so alone most of the time I attended churches over the years. So few talked about sexual abuse from the pulpit. So I often felt like I was the broken one—all alone in my suffering. 

One of my strongest recommendations is to have those stories shared from the front. I think some leaders are reticent to do that because they fear the counseling load afterward, but isn’t that what pastoral care is about? Helping the wounded? 

I would argue that if someone is keeping an abuse story hidden, they seldom grow beyond that. This is a discipleship issue. If our hearts are to see our congregations grow in Christ, then we must be part of demystifying the secrets, taking the stigma away. Let’s drag that awful issue into the light. We all know that Satan thrives in darkness and his plan is often isolation and lies spoken over people, so we must tell the truth about abuse and its aftereffects. This is a spiritual warfare issue. 

JD: What is the #MeToo movement doing well? What should it do better? 

MD: It is letting stories be told. I’ve often told audiences that an untold story never heals. So I’m utterly grateful for the space for survivors to finally let out their stories. This is necessary. 

However, I worry a bit about the manner in which people first tell their stories. My recommendation is to find the safest person they know and share in the circle of that strong relationship. Sharing it first on social media, while cathartic, can also have difficult consequences, like hearing and reading people’s insensitive comments. Secondary trauma often occurs in people’s reactions to your story, where they question it, judge you for not telling it sooner, or marginalize you. 

I also worry that the #MeToo movement has fueled a mindset of vengeance. While I agree that sexual abuse is excessively grievous (I am still living with the scars), it does me no good to stay in that place of wrath. There is a place for downright anger, of course, but as Christ-followers, as we mature, we move through the stages of grief (in our own time, not in timing prescribed by others), and move toward allowing that anger to fuel change. 

JD: How can the church be a proactive, redemptive force for honesty and healing in the larger culture? 

MD: By finally letting go of silence and reputation management. 

Lack of transparency has deeply harmed the church and wounded so many people—so much so that those abused within church structures have left the church behind, not necessarily because of the abuse (although that is wholly understandable) but because of the strange response they received in the aftermath: silence, shaming, hushing, blaming. 

We have ceased to be both Good Shepherds and Good Samaritans to folks like this. 

And I would argue that how we treat the most broken in our midst is actually the true measure of a church—not numbers, not reputation, not a celebrity pastor at the helm, not even in influence. 

I recently spent a weekend at a small, caring congregation. It deeply encouraged me. The pastor and his wife have been open about this issue, have welcomed people’s stories, and are doing the hard work of bearing the burdens of their congregation. There are many faithful churches quietly fulfilling this kind of ministry. We must recognize them. 

I wonder if, perhaps, our American penchant for bigger and better has made us strong in platform but anemic in caring for those in our pews. 

JD: What else would you want our readers to know? How can we pray specifically and effectively for abuse victims and their families? 

MD: That 100 percent of us are affected by sexual abuse. 

We have either experienced it or we know someone who has walked through it, or we know someone who has perpetrated abuse. It is time to be honest about it, time to acknowledge the lengthy journey of healing in abuse’s aftermath. This is a watershed issue for the church. 

How we deal with it openly, humbly, and with proper apologies will affect the church of the future. By loving, dignifying, and praying for survivors, we are building into our future church communities.

Pray that all that is hidden will come to light. 

Pray that once stories are brought to light that justice will be served. 

Pray that survivors will be able to find the kind of therapy and help they need and that the Body of Christ would call it their mission to financially help those who suffer this way. 

Pray that God would raise up advocates who both love the church and hear the survivor. 

Pray for all those who have left the church because they were not shepherded—pray Jesus would leave the ninety-nine and chase the one. 

Pray for those on the front lines of this kind of clarion call ministry because the road has been rocky, extensive, and exhausting. Many feel like they’ve been voices crying out in the wilderness. 

Pray for those who have perpetrated, that they would admit their guilt, humble themselves, and walk through the justice system with surrendered hearts. 

Pray our churches will become havens for those who have suffered abuse. 

Pray for the sexually broken.