the Hope of Survivors

Overcoming Dysfunctional ‘Forgiveness’—Martin Weber, D.Min., Board Chairman

Martin Weber(From the July 2010 edition of HopeSpeak)

“Just forgive your pastor! After all, nobody’s perfect. So quit holding grudges and move on with your life.”

Many victims of clergy sexual abuse find themselves scolded like that from church members who feel a mistaken obligation to shelter a predator pastor. Usually this comes after months of denying that anything happened, while often blaming the victim for making up lies.

When the evidence of pastoral sex becomes, undeniable, the next step is to blame the victim for being responsible, entrapping their beloved “man of God.” (Never mind the obvious fact that any man who cannot keep his clothes on in the counseling room when counseling vulnerable people is not qualified to serve in the clergy profession, whatever his talents may be or his knowledge of Scripture.)

The inevitable next step in the dysfunctional behavior of an enabling church is to sweep the pastor’s guilt under the church carpet in the spirit of “forgiveness”—often without even the pretention of church discipline. They consider this attitude “being like Jesus.”

Actually, the “Jesus” they worship is not found in the Bible.

Our Savior did not live in denial, pretending that nothing really happens to victims. Nor was Jesus an enabler of evildoers or the protector of their corrupt religious systems.

Time after time in the Gospels, we see Jesus exposing evil and evildoers: “Nothing is covered up that shall not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known” (Luke 10:21). Jesus also declares that those who abuse His children will have a huge millstone hung around their necks and then drowned in the depths of the sea (see Matthew 18:6). This is a metaphor of the predator’s final damnation.

Of course, God is always willing to forgive anyone for anything through the blood of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But when abusers and their enablers refuse to confess and come clean about what happened—hiding sin or even defiantly declaring innocence—the message to them is: “God opposes [literally, ‘wages war’] against the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5). “Whoever conceals his sins shall not prosper, but whoever confesses and forsakes them shall have mercy” (Proverbs 28:13).

Evidently there can be no genuine closure without disclosure.

But what happens when the predator—or his enablers—refuses full disclosure? What can you, the victim of abuse, do at this point?

Having made your own disclosure to church leaders who refuse to support you, it now becomes possible for you to seek personal closure and healing without them. Even if your best friends refused to believe you and stand up for you (which qualifies them as former friends now), you are capable of moving on with the rest of your life.

What does this mean? Here are some specific, practical suggestions:

After giving up hope of reconciliation with a dysfunctional church family, the next step is to find trustworthy spiritual support. This begins with a qualified Christian counselor, who understands biblical principles of healing. If none of your former Christian friends is supportive, pray for new friends of faith. Perhaps you are not yet ready to find another church home, but meanwhile you need a small circle of supportive women who love you, understand you and will pray with you. (Check out The Hope of Survivors on Facebook!)

Having secured a new spiritual support base, some victims then seek the help of civil authorities. In two of America’s 50 states (Texas and Minnesota), clergy sexual activity with a parishioner is actually a crime in which the predator can be prosecuted. All 50 states have at least some provision for clergy abuse victims to seek legal remedy.  Whether it is worth the trauma to you of confronting your abuser in court is a matter only you can decide. Legal action is sometimes necessary to reclaim your losses in paying for counseling, job retraining, relocation or other expenses necessitated by abuse from a clergy predator and his conspiratorial church system. (The Hope of Survivors will not attempt to give advice in legal matters, but we are always here to pray with you.)

The goal here is not revenge but closure.

The reason you don’t have to seek your own vengeance against the predator is that God has promised to take care of it for you: “‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay’” (Romans 12:19). Indeed He will!  Remember the millstone necklace from Jesus that has your predator’s name written on it.

Consider the secular judicial system in all 50 states: If a felony is committed against me, it’s “the state of the Nebraska against Martin’s abuser.” The government (of which I am a citizen) takes ownership of prosecuting the offender. I don’t have that role, whether I would desire it or not. I must release my offender from my personal vengeance and step back to let the authorities perform their judicial responsibility—not only on my behalf but also for the common good of society. And since my government is watching over my rights, I am free to resume my life under the provision of its protection.

So abuse victims have no role in either determining the guilt of the accused or executing punishment in some type of “street justice.” Our responsibility is to release the attacker to face whatever the government may want to do with him, and go about the business of living again. This is not yet grace on our part—as law-abiding citizens, we are simply respecting the sovereign role of government.

Now as Christians, let’s consider the grace of God at this point. With our lives secure in the hands of One who is both just and merciful, we are free to experience healing to the point that we no longer worry about whether the perpetrator will be punished. We can even pray for his rehabilitation, hoping that he can experience the same grace that we need and receive from God every day.

This does not mean we should put ourselves in a position to be re-victimized by trying to rescue him. We are not his messiah, any more than we are his judge.

How do we forgive him? By releasing him entirely to God and not seeking our personal vengeance against him. We want him to get on with his life—such as it may need to be in order to keep him from hurting anybody else again (including us). Whether he repents and reforms is between him and God. Meanwhile, we are focused on moving on with our own lives and looking to God to work it all out for good.

What kind of good can come from evil done to us? Lots of it, including but not limited to the following:

  • We are now able to offer empathy to others who have been abused, which is far more comforting to them than mere sympathy.
  •  We are equipped through our experience to help others know how to find healing by explaining to them all of the above and guiding them through their own journey.
  • The righteous indignation that we may feel about abuse can now be channeled into redemptive mission—primarily to others who have been victimized.

In cases of sexual abuse, we need to release the perpetrator to God and those whom He has appointed to have authority over their prosecution and possible recovery (depending upon their attitude). It is usually wise for us to be entirely removed from this process, for at least two reasons:

  • The perpetrator needs to know that the game is over for him; he needs be put on the other end of the power imbalance—firmly (yet fairly) dealt with by those who have authority. Any contact with his victim may reawaken those proclivities to re-abuse the power he had (or still can manipulate) over that person.
  • For the sake of the victim, the perpetrator must be out of sight and out of mind, so healing influences can take over.

This involves the victim not being obsessed with him any longer, either to seek evil or good to come upon him. To seek evil would be to keep our focus on the perpetrator instead of that which can help us heal. But trying to rescue the perpetrator would also keep the focus on him. Others (non-victims) are better positioned to help him get his life turned around.

Victims must release their abusers to God so completely that they do not even make it their responsibility to keep holding them up in prayer. Others who are not at risk of being re-victimized can pray for the predators. Besides, God—without anyone’s intervention or intercession—is fully able to save anyone who is willing to repent.

It’s quite possible that keeping the abuser as a prayer interest is a subtle way of not letting go of him, hanging on to one last vestige of the old abusive and possibly addictive relationship. Even if that’s not the intent of the victim, for her to make herself the perpetrator’s “prayer warrior” is to give him an opportunity to worm his way back into her life—if not in reality than at least in her nightmares (or her wishful thinking to get back to the good old days when he was your “friend” instead of your enemy).

To safeguard themselves from re-abuse, I urge victims to surround themselves with exclusively healing influences and move on with their lives. When they are healed enough to reach out with their own healing hand from God, let it be in empathetic ministry to fellow victims rather than to reconnect with their perpetrator.

Well, I’ve spent almost the whole day writing this and there is a lot of stuff piling up on my desk that I’d better deal with.  

But first I would like to share one last thing, if I may. Please remember that even if you feel all alone right now, thousands of others are sharing your suffering. With Jesus on your side, you are not victims anymore or even mere survivors—you are conquerors! “And since God is for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31).

The LORD is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart...Psalms 34:18