#ChurchToo Through the Lens of Trauma

On November 21, 2017, Emily Joy Allison typed out and tweeted her truth. Approximately ten years prior, a man who served as a volunteer and mentor in her high school youth group groomed and abused her.

I certainly didn’t know that a romantic relationship between a teenage girl and an adult mentor in a religious setting was illegal in several states and unethical in all of them. I trusted him explicitly. He was a godly man who had my best interests at heart. He had told me that so many times.1

When her parents discovered what happened, they forced her to call him and apologize. She recounts her story in #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing (Allison, 2021).

Emily’s tweet quickly went viral and served as a catalyst for other survivors of abuse in church or ministry environments to advocate, share their stories, and connect with one another using the hashtag #ChurchToo. Lyz Lenz describes #ChurchToo as “an invitation to honesty. It’s a baptism in truth. It’s a holy reckoning”2.

The “holy reckoning” described by Lenz is much needed. The Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury (2018) surfaced 300 abusive priests from six dioceses in Pennsylvania. Story after story recounts how priests raped and spiritually abused children:

There was the priest, for example, who raped a seven-year-old girl – while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils out. Or the priest who made a nine-year-old give him oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water to purify him. Or the boy who drank some juice at his priest’s house, and woke up the next morning bleeding from his rectum, unable to remember anything from the night before. Or the priest, a registered psychologist, who “treated” a young parishioner with depression by attempting to hypnotize her and directing her to take off her clothes, piece by piece.3

Even when victims tried to share their stories and address the abuse, they were invalidated and silenced. The offending priests continued to abuse other children.

This abuse and culture of protecting the predator priests instead of children is not isolated to the Catholic Church. Boz Tchividjian of Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE) reported data gathered from top insurance providers for Protestant churches who received 260 reports a year of minors being sexually abused by church leaders or church members.4 One example is New Tribes Missions. GRACE conducted an independent investigation of New Tribes Missions, now Ethnos360. The report from the investigation revealed the prevalence of abuse of missionary kids and a culture which “emphasized the saving of souls at the expense of children.”5 One of the missionaries who served as a dorm parent, David Brooks, “often talked with these children about his close walk with the Lord while simultaneously sexually abusing them. He told these children not to tell, because bad things would happen and no one would believe them.”6

The reports on the Catholic Church and New Tribes Missions revealed abuse of power and prioritizing institutions over the people for whom they are purposed and designed to care. Langberg cautions leaders regarding self-deception and abuse of power, which is a misuse of power. Types of power include verbal, emotional, economic, spiritual, positional, and cultural.7 Power is a gift given by God to men and women to fulfill His mission on this earth. As His image-bearers, every human being has power, and this power is inherently used or withheld for good or evil. Langberg points to the following examples in Scripture:

As long as you’re using the sheep for food, then you’re a wolf, not a shepherd. Ezekiel 34 warns against shepherds who feed and clothe themselves rather than their sheep. And Jesus speaks about the Pharisees in similar ways in John 10.8

Furthermore, it is impossible to understand abuse without acknowledging vulnerability. Langberg, in her book Redeeming Power: Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church, states:

To be vulnerable is to have the capacity to be wounded. Just as power can harm or bless, vulnerability leaves humans open to being blessed and hurt, to good and evil. Vulnerability and power are intertwined, engaged in a dance that is sometimes beautiful and sometimes destructive.9

In Christian environments, both children and adults can be vulnerable. One must have the capacity to choose in order to consent. It must be safe to say no. In the context of a church, a church leader has positional and theological power. They are in a position of spiritual authority and most likely have the reputation and support of others. If someone has the power to be believed and protected, to blame and ostracize another, it is not safe to say no.

The Abuser’s Greatest Tool

Sexual abuse is sadly prevalent in our world. The Center for Disease and Prevention reports one out of three women and one out of four men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact at some point in their lives.10 Furthermore, the majority of survivors of sexual abuse know their abuser. The Department of Justice found that three out of four female adult victims knew their offender. Additionally, 90% of child victims of sexual abuse know their perpetrator.11 Salter says offenders only very rarely sneak into a house in the middle of the night.12 More often they come through the front door in the day as friends, neighbors, boy scout leaders, teachers, doctors, coaches, and church leaders and are powerfully adept at grooming.

Church leaders have access to those who are dependent on them for spiritual nurture and protection. They have the positional power that can be misused to meet their own needs. Sexual abuse happens through a form of seduction, that aims not at passion, but at trust, of the parents or of the child. Anna Salter who has studied pedophiles and sex offenders says misplaced trust is the predator’s most powerful resource.13 This misplaced trust is not only for the victim, but for the surrounding community. Likeability is such a potent weapon that it protects predators for long periods of time.

Misplaced trust is the predator’s most powerful resource.

Abuse’s Lifeblood: A Complicit System

When the abuser has a good reputation and is seen as a nice person, communities sometimes protect that individual or the institution over victims. One sex offender, who was a minister, said, “I considered church people easy to fool…they have a trust that comes from being Christians…they tend to be better folks all around. And they seem to want to believe in the good that exists in all people…I think they want to believe in people. And because of that, you can easily convince, with or without convincing words.”14

Christians may have a misunderstood theology, promoting grace, mercy, and forgiveness when abuse is exposed, hindering them from belief and responding to truth with justice, thus thwarting accurate representation of Christ. Those who should be protected, instead may be silenced or told they need to forgive and move on. Even worse, they may believe that exposing abuse will hurt ministry done in the name of Christ. When institutions deal with matters internally, not involving legal support, they are essentially covering up evil and protecting evildoers in the name of Christ.

DeMuth states, “Sexual abuse flourishes in environments with unequal power relationships, particularly when a church’s standing in the community is at stake. Sexual abuse always involves the abuse of power and control, and when you have church leaders needing a good communal or national reputation, survivors ultimately take the backseat.”15

Christians may have a misunderstood theology that hinders them from believing the victims and responding to truth with justice. Those who should be protected instead are silenced or told they need to forgive and move on. Christians may believe that exposing abuse will hurt the ministry, leading to covering up evil and protecting evildoers in the name of Christ.

Understanding and Response for Victims of Abuse

Why do the victims stay silent? A reflexive response when abuse is disclosed is to ask: Why did the victim not say something earlier? It is true that there is often silence around abuse. Research shows that 60% of child sexual abuse victims never tell anyone they have been abused.16 The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that the majority of rapes and sexual assaults perpetrated against women and girls in the United States between 1992 and 2000 were not reported to the police. Only 36% of rapes, 34% of attempted rapes, and 26% of sexual assaults were reported (National Institute of Justice, 2010). Anna Salter describes secrecy as the “lifeblood of sexual aggression.”17 Rachael Denhollander gives perspective on the question of secrecy.

I have been asked that question more times than I can count. Sometimes it is motivated by a genuine desire to understand and sometimes it’s articulated like a weapon, casting doubt over whether my abuse even occurred. The truth is, I did say something sooner–many of us did. But as survivors of sexual assault will tell you, saying something is one thing. Being heard and believed is another.18

Her insight reveals how this question plagues victims, perpetuating distress from their own feelings of guilt, shame, confusion, and responsibility, embedded in the lies of the abuse and deception of the abuser. Victims stay silent because they may not yet have come to understand the abuse for what it was. Many were groomed and greatly deceived by the abuser. They stay silent because of fear, guilt, shame and being told or led to believe there must have been something they did to participate. In some cases, it is threat and imbalance of power that silences them, including using God or “God’s mission” as a motivation to stay silent. They stay silent because they have lost voice, power and hope. They stay silent because they feel helpless and see no way out and no good options. They stay silent because they observe being in a culture where they will not be heard, believed, or understood.

Victims stay silent because they may not yet have come to understand the abuse for what it was. Many were groomed and deceived by the abuser. They stay silent because of fear, guilt, shame and being told or led to believe there must have been something they did to participate. They stay silent because they have lost voice, power and hope, seeing a culture where they will not be heard, believed, or understood.

The Comprehensive Impact of Trauma

The impact of one who has been sexually abused is layered and complex. It is difficult to overcome, and healing takes a long time. DeMuth says this kind of soul-killing assault leads to trauma.19 Trauma is a response to a threat to one’s physical or mental wellbeing, resulting in one feeling helpless and fearful. Causes of trauma can be natural disaster, war, and genocide, as well as abuse and neglect. Trauma also happens when someone witnesses violence or threat.20

It may be helpful to think of trauma as a heart wound. What happens if I have a physical wound? How does it heal? What does it need? I can see a broken bone, but I cannot see a broken heart. If I have a physical wound, one can see that it is painful. The wounds of a heart are not easy to see. It is easier to hide, but it may be seen in one’s behavior or countenance. Just like a broken bone, heart wounds must be cared for. What if I ignored a broken bone and thought it would heal without any care or attention? It is possible, but it will become worse. A physical wound is vulnerable to infection if it is not treated. This could cause a person to become sick. A heart wound must be treated with care. If we ignore a broken heart, a person will not heal. It will cause more problems. If we blame a person for a broken heart, it will only lead to greater pain and isolation.21

Some survivors of abuse develop post-traumatic stress disorder. They relive the experience through flashbacks, dreams, images, and sensations. They may avoid reminders of the trauma, whether that be thoughts, feelings and memories, or people and environments. To be reminded of the trauma may lead to dysregulation of emotion and reliving the trauma. They may also be continually on the alert for danger.22 Trauma impacts decision-making and emotions, often leading to depression, anxiety, or other mental disorders. Adult women who were sexually abused as a child are more than twice as likely to suffer from depression as women who were not sexually abused.23 Adults with a history of child sexual abuse are more than twice as likely to report a suicide attempt, which is twelve times the normal suicide rate. Females who are sexually abused are three times more likely to develop psychiatric disorders than females who are not sexually abused. Among male survivors, more than 70% seek psychological treatment for issues such as substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, and attempted suicide.24

Trauma may lead to physical and medical symptoms. It may impact one’s attention/consciousness, since dissociation is a main way that victims endure abuse. On a physiological level, trauma creates an adaptive shift from a brain and body that focus on learning to a brain and body that become focused on survival. The learning brain may engage in exploration while the survival brain seeks to anticipate, prevent, or protect against the damage caused by potential or actual dangers. Openness and discovery are replaced by harm avoidance and defensiveness.25 The dominance of the survival brain over the learning brain represents a “biological trade-off between dealing with danger and facilitating growth, healing, rejuvenation, learning and self-development”.26 This survival mode can be displayed in emotion regulation, information processing, and attachment. If a brain and body are distracted by defense against external threats, it hinders the brain-body system from having the resources to cope, function and be restored.

The following example illustrates this. Suppose you just had a car accident. What are you feeling? Your body is most likely completely overwhelmed. You are shaking. Your heart is racing, and you cannot think clearly, trying to make sense of what just happened. Now suppose your pastor comes to you and is giving an exegetical explanation of a portion of Scripture and asks to discuss it. What would that be like? It sounds illogical and insensitive. But there are children and adults that perpetually feel like this, but not because of a car accident, but because of enduring the betrayal and trauma of sexual abuse. Do we recognize that this may in fact be a barrier to their capacity to receiving Scripture on Sunday morning or during a weekly Bible study?

Do we recognize that the effects of trauma in victims may be a barrier to their capacity to receiving our well-intentioned but misguided ministry efforts such as preaching or Bible studies?

This is combined with the relational impact of trauma. Abuse shatters safety in relationship and community and also impacts one’s perception of self-identity. It rocks one’s world, challenging and changing core beliefs about life, self, others, and God. For children in particular, “to experience repeated trauma while in the process of developing is to be shaped, imprinted by terror and fear rather than by love and safety…”.27 Without understanding the impact of trauma, we can grossly misinterpret victims’ affect and behaviors, thus perpetuating the isolation and damage rather than repairing it.

Spiritual Impact of Abuse

Trauma has capacity to shape and to shatter meaning. When this abuse is perpetrated by a spiritual authority figure, there is devastating impact on the victim and the victim’s relationship with God. How can a child think of a heavenly Father as good and safe if that same child is abused by a “Father” or spiritual authority at their church or school? They will inevitably see God through the lens of abuse. They have learned about faith, hope, trust, and love through the experience of sexual abuse.

In a study interviewing sex trafficking survivors about the impact of trauma, almost all of the participants mentioned faith or religion. Half of the participants credit faith/spirituality as a form of coping or means of survival during the time of being trafficked. More than half described how spiritual beliefs were a part of their healing process after the trafficking experience, describing additional spiritual growth as a result of the trauma. The majority also described struggles and questions related to their faith, including questions and doubts about God’s presence and purposes in their experiences. Some of them experienced exploitation at the hands of church leaders and so-called Christian parents, while some of them had experiences of re-traumatization and re-exploitation within faith communities after they had been trafficked.28

For the individuals sitting in pews and Bible studies, how do they receive messages about God’s love? How do they understand concepts such as power, submission, and headship? What do they do when they hear God described as Father or hear sermons on forgiveness? What does he think when he hears that God is a refuge in times of trouble and will never abandon us? Or how does she feel when she never hears sexual violence or abuse referenced in teachings?

How can both the reality of their abuse and the promises of God exist? If He is always present, where was He? Why did He not stop it? These are normal, expected questions from those who have experienced abuse. It is expected that they may have a distorted image of God if seen through the lens of spiritual and sexual abuse. If someone is betrayed by those who are supposed to protect and love them, they find it difficult to grasp God’s love for them. God may be seen as a punitive father, inconsistent, helpless, cruel, mean, absent, abandoning, rejecting, withdrawing.

Victims may suffer in silence, wracked with shame and fear. They may withdraw from God and community. Withdrawing often takes place on a subconscious level.

Many abuse victims believe in God and do all the things Christians are supposed to do…but they do them out of duty not heartfelt affection. Their relationship with God is not intimate…They don’t really trust Him. Their active Christian service is a hollow substitute for a personal relationship with a God who frightens them.29

Many victims believe they must be an exception to the promises of Scripture. Truth does not register. The betrayal of abuse and the impact of trauma are barriers to Scripture, to Christian community, and to relationship with God. Therefore, we must see the courage and desperation that it takes to continue to show up. For those who experienced abuse within a church context, they have been taught lies about God. What then is our response? Our response will perpetuate these lies or demonstrate truth that leads to freedom and healing.

The Role of the Church in the Healing Journey of Trauma

How do you explain to someone the confusion, sick feeling, and shame without knowing why that swirls through your mind…when something is terribly wrong? How do you explain to someone who has never been that vulnerable that even though I wasn’t held down, I was still trapped? If then I wasn’t physically overpowered, I was completely powerless? I can’t forget any detail.30

In Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse, Langberg describes how abuse destroys the image of God—expressed through voice, power, and relationships—in human beings. Abuse silences voice, renders one helpless, and destroys the fabric of trust in relationship. Therefore, the healing of abuse must be the reversal of its impact. It must restore voice and power in the context of a safe, healing relationship. This means that everything we do and say, as institutions, leaders, and as loved ones, must be the reversal of the trauma and abuse of power.

If trauma silences, then we promote voice, by asking, listening, believing and bearing witness, repeatedly and for as long as it takes. If trauma misuses power and results in helplessness, we empower those who have been victimized, by offering choice, promoting relational safety, not assuming we understand need but coming alongside them in ways that help them increase agency. We become a student of survivors, asking them what they need, connecting them with resources, and being willing to accompany them physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

If the trauma of abuse shatters relationship, we represent God accurately in truth, love, grace, mercy, and compassion. We care more for the protection of survivors, than the reputation of a person or organization. We become representatives of God to the survivor. Our work is to teach in the seen that which is true in the unseen. Our words, tone of voice, actions, body movements, response to rage, fear, failure all become ways that the survivor learns about God. We try to represent God as the survivor struggles with questions about God.31

Representing God includes becoming safe individuals and safe communities. First and foremost, church leaders and volunteers have a mandated responsibility to report matters of abuse. Churches promote safety by having proactive policies and procedures that protect the vulnerable through prevention and response to abuse disclosures. When abuse is reported, churches call for an independent investigation by an outside group of trained, trauma-informed professionals (like GRACE) to discover what is true and make recommendations for response and repair.

The Church is called to accurately represent Christ in responding to abuse and trauma—to be a refuge for its members.

In addition, survivors should always be given the choice of if and when to share their stories. Questioning how a victim contributed in appearance, behavior, or presence when the abuse occurred is damaging, implying blame or consent. Forcing a meeting with the offender for forgiveness or reconciliation purposes retraumatizes and misrepresents the character of our God. The silence of avoiding, ignoring, or remaining inactive speaks loudly to a victim.  On the contrary, forcing the victim to talk about the trauma narrative is also damaging. Response, belief, and protection are paramount for the healing journey of those who have been victimized and for accurately representing the character of God.

The Church is called to accurately represent Christ in responding to abuse and trauma—to be a refuge for its members. In the words of survivor Rachael Denhollander:

So much work remains. So much evil to fight. So much healing to reach for. So many wounded to love. Consider this your invitation to join in that work. To do what is right, no matter the cost. To hold to the straight line in the midst of the battle. To define your success by faithfulness in the choices you make. The darkness is there, and we cannot ignore it. But we can let it point us to the light.32

May the Church reclaim its identity and mission to be light in dark places.

Notes

1 Emily Joy Allison, #ChurchToo: How Purity Culture Upholds Abuse and How to Find Healing (Minneapolis: BroadLeaf Books, 2021), 8.
2 Ibid., xiii.
3 Office of Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Report I of the 40th Statewide Investigating Grand Jury (Harrisburg, PA: Author, July 27, 2018), 10.
4 Mary DeMuth, We Too: How the Church Can Respond Redemptively to the Sexual Abuse Crisis (Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2019).
5 Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment. Amended Final Report for the Investigatory Review of Child Abuse at new Tribes Fanda Missionary School (2010, August 28), 2, https://www.netgrace.org/new-tribes-mission
6 Ibid., 18.
7 Diane Langberg, Redeeming Power:  Understanding Authority and Abuse in the Church (Michigan: Brazos Press, 2020).
8 T. Hein, T. (2020, October 20). “How Churches Elevate and Protect Abusive Pastors: A psychologist explores the power dynamics that help turn shepherds into wolves,” Christianity Today, October 20, 2020, https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2020/november/diane-langberg-redeeming-power-abuse-church.html.
9 Langberg, Redeeming Power, 19.
10 Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Preventing Sexual Violence Fact Sheet (2021), https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/sexualviolence/fastfact.html.
11 Department of Justice, Sex Offenses and Sex Offenders: An Analysis of Data on Rape and Sexual Assault (1997), https://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/SOO.PDF.
12 Anna Salter, Predators, Pedophiles, Rapists and Other Sex Offenders: Who They Are, How They Operate and How We Can Protect Ourselves and Our Children (New York: Basic Books, 2003).
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid., 28-29.
15 DeMuth, We Too, 60.
16 K. London, M. Bruck, S. Ceci, & D. Shuman, “Disclosure of Child Sexual Abuse: What Does the Research Tell Us About the Ways That Children Tell?” Psychology, Public Policy, and Law 11, no. 1 (2003), 194-226; S. E. Ullman, “Relationship to Perpetrator, Disclosure, Social Reactions, and PTSD Symptoms in Child Sexual Abuse Survivors,” Journal of Child Sexual Abuse 16, no. 1 (2007), 19-36.
17 Salter, Predators, 4.
18 Rachael Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth? My Story of Breaking the Silence and Exposing the Truth about Larry Nassar and USA Gymnastics (Illinois: Tyndale, 2019), 1.
19 DeMuth, We Too, 143.
20 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (Washington, DC:  American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
21 H. Hill, M. Hill, R. Bagge’ and P. Miersma, Healing the Wounds of Trauma: How the Church Can Help (New York: American Bible Society, 2014).
22 American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual.
23 P. K. Trickett, J. G. Noll and F. W. Putnam, (2011). “The Impact of Sexual Abuse on Female Development: Lessons From a Multigenerational, Longitudinal Research Study,” Development and Psychopathology 23 no. 2 (2011), 453–476, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0954579411000174
24 P. Rohde, L. Ichikawa, G. E. Simon, E. J. Ludman, J. A. Linde, R. W. Jeffery, and B. H. Operskalski, “Associations of Child Sexual and Physical Abuse with Obesity and Depression in Middle-Aged Women,” Child Abuse & Neglect 32 (2008), 878– 887; S. A. Dube, R. F. Anda, C. L. Whitfield, D. W. Brown, D. J. Felitti, M. Dong, and W. Giles, “Long-Term Consequences of Childhood Sexual Abuse by Gender of the Victim,” American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 28 (2005), 430 – 437; A. E. Waldrop, R. F. Hanson, H. S. Resnick, D. G. Kilpatrick, A. E. Naugle, and B. E. Saunders, “Risk Factors for Suicidal Behavior Among a National Sample of Adolescents: Implications for Prevention,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 20 (2007), 869 – 879; K. Kendler, C. Bulik, J. Silberg, J. Hettema, J. Myers, and C. Prescott, “Childhood
Sexual Abuse and Adult Psychiatric and Substance Use Disorders in Women: An Epidemiological and Cotwin Control Analysis,” Archives of General Psychiatry 57 (2000), 953-959; N. Voeltanz, S. Wilsnack, R. Harris, R. Wilsnack, S. Wonderlich, and A. Kristjanson, “Prevalence and Risk for Childhood Sexual Abuse in Women: National Survey Findings,” Child Abuse and Neglect 23 (1999), 579-592.
25 C. Courtois and J. Ford, “Defining and Understanding Complex Trauma and Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders,” in Treating Complex Traumatic Stress Disorders, ed. F. Courtois (New York: Guilford Press, 2009), 13-30.
26 J. Ford, “Neurobiological and Developmental Research: Clinical Implications,” in Ibid., 33.
27 Diane Langberg, Counseling Survivors of Sexual Abuse (United States: Xulon Press, 2003), 60.
28 Heather Evans, “From the Voices of Domestic Sex Trafficking Survivors: Experiences of Complex Trauma & Posttraumatic Growth” Doctorate in Social Work (DSW) Dissertations, 126 (2019), https://repository.upenn.edu/edissertations_sp2/126.
29 Steve Tracy, Mending the Soul: Understanding and Healing Abuse (Michigan: Zondervan, 2005), 120.
30 Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth?, 115.
31 Langberg, Counseling Survivors.
32 Denhollander, What is a Girl Worth?, 323.

Hannah Wildasin is Assistant Professor and Co-Director of the Graduate School of Counseling at Missio Seminary. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor with over ten years of clinical experience.

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