top of page

Abuse Response Work: Reflecting

It has been a whirlwind five years for sexual abuse activism, hasn’t it?


A few highlights:


On October 16, 2017 in the throes of mounting accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, actor Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” And with that, #MeToo found its place in history.


Only a few months later on January 24 of 2018 Rachel Denhollander testified, along with more than 150 others, at National Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar’s sentencing. Her well-chosen words, captured on video, held millions of people spellbound.


Allegations of covering up sexual abuse by clergy sent the Southern Baptist Convention to its knees, forcing a denomination-wide investigation, voted at the 2021 convention, which revealed allegations against over 380 church leaders in over 20 states.


Only four months after his death to cancer in May 2020, celebrity Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias lost his halo to shocking evidence that he had abused multiple women. I personally followed a lead to a spa owner who knew and suspected him, told me a blood-curdling story about him, but was not willing to report.


Being a survivor of sexual harassment and assault from a ministry leader, I’ve supported other survivors since I can remember. Fifteen years ago I became a certified clinical counselor and developed a network of counselors and coaches, called Abide Network, to assist Adventists and other Christians seeking biblical mental health support. Out of a desire to see the Seventh-day Adventist Church at the head and not the tail of appropriate institutional response to sexual abuse, I worked with a team to develop the Project Safe Church ministry beginning in 2018. In 2021 I defended my doctoral dissertation on an aspect of sexual abuse by clergy. So, for the last five years, I've been in the thick of it! Many times I’ve wanted to flee from abuse response work, but as of now, I’m here.


I’ve learned much over the last five years about how to do this work, but also how _not_ to do it. Because an unexamined ministry isn’t worth operating, I have purposed in my heart to review the last five years of both my work and well-known public cases in order to shape my approach moving forward. Done well, this work can raise awareness, keep churches safe, protect the vulnerable, and shine out the heroic love of God. Done poorly, it can terrorize good leaders, promote false accusations, create a backlash that makes victims less safe than ever, and lose sight of forgiveness and redemption. Here I’ve boiled down the lessons I’ve learned, asking you to pray as you read, please.


Lesson #1 Resolve Trauma

Many abuse responders are abuse survivors. Those survivors often hear, “You can’t handle these cases. You’re too damaged by trauma.” We typically push back that posttraumatic growth can develop character and courage to meet crises effectively, and that experience is a great teacher.


But I have learned that, like it or not, growth and effectiveness are not automatic! While encountering evil can sober and sharpen the mind, it can also cause us to see threats everywhere—in fact, this “seeing ghosts” is a classic marker of PTSD. Unresolved triggers can cause irrational thoughts and behavior. The traumatized brain thinks in black and white and can miss the greys and subtleties involved in tough cases. Unhealed moral injury can fester into vindictiveness. A damaged person can misdirect anger from long ago onto current circumstances. It is possible to be cavalierly confident in our recovery while daily reenacting our past.


Now, no one should assume this about trauma survivors. Checking whether our trauma is talking should be done by the survivors themselves and their inner circle. Nothing is more belittling than “You can’t think rationally, you’re too upset" and nothing is more insulting than, "You're bitter." But in order to be effective, survivors need to be especially self-aware, in touch with our own biases, and daily opening our hearts to the leading of the Spirit to reveal drives and motives that may be hidden from us. And this brings me to lesson #2. Often the Spirit works through other people.


Lesson #2

Team Trust

We are only as effective as our willingness to receive feedback from trusted others. Good work with abuse situations hinges on this team approach. We need friends who can put a calming hand on our shoulder when our hackles go up. We need velvet gloves to stroke without chafing and hold without forcing.


Working with complex situations can resemble the blind men and the elephant; each describes a part—a trunk, a tail, a foot—but cannot see past it. Those blind men’s ability to “see” depends upon their willingness to hear others' perspectives. We are all blind men, limited by our biases and prejudices. Because of this, we need each other.


Because of the emotional intensity bound up in abuse scenarios and the deep passion to protect the oppressed, we may, for example, be tempted to see a team member who views a matter differently as an enemy. If we fail to manage these differences well, and suspicion and distrust set up residence in the team, all, frankly, is lost. “Let everyone be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” James 1:19. "In an abundance of counselors, there is safety” Proverbs 11:14.


Lesson #3

The Power of Quiet

I’ve learned the hard way that abuse response work is best done as quietly as possible. Social media culture oozes pride, ostentation, and phoniness. These things, I’ve learned the hard way, don’t combine well with highly private and delicate matters. Sensationalism might draw attention in the short term, but it will destroy our influence in the long term.


Lesson #4

Holding to Evidence

Gut feelings and intuitions can be useful. These nervous system red flares pull our attention toward important things. Women possess these gifts in rich supply, enabling them to read body language, facial expression, and other subtleties, with ease.


But gut feelings do not a closed case make. In fact, if we allow our emotions to decide cases, the backlash will ruin our influence. Evidence must drive our conclusions. Imagine telling a room full of church administrators: “I just know he’s guilty!” It wouldn’t go well. The Biblical standard says, “In the mouth of two or three witnesses everything will be established” 1 Corinthians 13:1. In short, this means that our accusations must be backed by evidence.


The #MeToo expression "Believe women" ultimately conveys the message that women don't lie about sexual abuse. But there's a reason the story of Potiphar's wife is in the Bible. We must . . .


Lesson #5

Be Wary of False Accusations

Like airplane pilots and brain surgeons, abuse responders' mistakes can cost reputations and even lives. We simply cannot afford to be wrong. A false report is a form of abuse in and of itself; in fact, 1 Corinthians 5:11 condemns those who profess Christ yet are “sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner.” That word “reviler” is sometimes translated “abuser.” To revile a pastor or other spiritual leader without just cause is to abuse that person. We will never solve the problem of sexual abuse while engaging in yet another form of abuse.


On balance, disbelieving those who report abuse can cause secondary trauma. So how do we avoid either kind of harm? A helpful phrase is: “Believe and investigate.” Never assume the reporter is lying—that would be another form of accusation—but follow the rule of law. Most victims will understand that their claims must be investigated and substantiated.


Working with an institution can be discouraging. Abusive individuals know how to evade detection, to fool the system. This tempts us to take matters into our own hands. But vigilanteism only creates a backlash against all abuse responders, creating division that will slow our progress in the end. Social media is already being used as a kind of kangaroo court in which activists of various causes become judge, jury, and executioner of cases. We will never build trust while we deny the reality and unfairness of cancel culture.


We rightly fear leaving victims to sweat out their trauma with no support, having been betrayed by their beloved institutions. We are told to “seek justice” and “defend the oppressed” Isaiah 1:17. At the same time, I rightly fear another form of oppression, that of publicly condemning a person without just cause.


Will you pray for us, that those of us attempting this solemn work will walk more carefully, pray more often, and think more clearly than ever before? We need it for this most difficult of tasks.

7 comments
bottom of page