Places Where Our Children Find Safety

By Nancy Kauffmann 

I appreciated the reflection on When Abusers Have Done a Lot of Good by Alan Stucky. He talks about the trap we can so easily fall into when the person who has abused is someone who has been known “to do so much good work.”  No one wants to undo that good work, so we might choose to be silent. He ended with the following reminders:

1. The abuse itself has already undone the abuser’s good works, and it will come out eventually. There is no way I can stop that from happening.
2. By keeping it quiet and not being a victim advocate, I am actually undoing my own legacy and my own good works.
3. My participation in a cover-up will eventually come out, and that I can’t hide either. 

I think Alan is naming a reality that too often happens. But I also think there is another scenario that plays out many times in our faith communities.

The fact is that many of us do not understand how abusers operate, and because we don’t, any process or accountability we put into place can  be easily manipulated by them if we aren’t careful.

I remember a pastoral counselor who specialized in working with abusers say that sex offenders create a secret, private “kingdom” which they will defend at all costs. They may deny, minimize, blame or discredit the victim, blame  or discredit the reporter of the abuse, triangle the congregation/community, use scripture to justify, threaten or play the victim themselves, claiming false accusations. Or they might admit to what is known, act repentant and demand they be instantly forgiven in order to keep anyone from finding out about other victims or situations.

Abuse in the congregation that is not addressed is like poison that increases the pain of victims and survivors even more and spreads throughout the system to affect the health of all involved.

A pastor friend once told the story of visiting members of her congregation when she began her ministry assignment and hearing veiled references to something that happened over 30 years ago. When she pushed for more information, members would say, “Well that is in the past,” or “It doesn’t help to dredge up the past.” But clearly it was affecting the health of the congregation. Finally, she was able to uncover that a well-loved and trusted elder had sexually molested one of the youth.

Thirty years prior, the elder had denied the accusations and bullied the victim and the congregation into becoming silent. Eventually the victim and her family left the community, and the congregation put the whole matter behind them. But the poison was still present. After many long hours and hard work, this pastor and some strong leaders in the congregation were able to move the congregation to the place of healing and health by using resources within their community and their conference. While the abuser had died and understandably, the known victim didn’t want to have anything to do with the congregation, it was discovered that there was at least one other victim still in the congregation who had remained silent out of fear because of what she saw happen to the other youth. When she saw how hard the congregation was working to deal with the past and to create a safe space policy, she finally felt empowered to come forward.

Then, years after the abuse, the congregation surrounded her with love and support. For this congregation as with any, it has been an ongoing process that the congregation has committed to. They continue the hard work of being a safe space for all in the congregation. This value is posted by the main entrance of the building, so all members are reminded of their commitment to be a safe space. It has been a welcoming sign to visitors, and several have even decided to join because of that commitment upfront.

I commend congregations who have put into place safe space policies that outline clearly what steps will be followed when an allegation occurs.

Samples of such policies can be found at Dove’s Nest. It is extremely important to be proactive in setting up such policies before a congregation has a known situation. Attempting to deal with an allegation without a policy can be disastrous and only empowers the abuser and disempowers the victim.

The Panel for Sexual Abuse Prevention for Mennonite Church USA has named some other excellent recommendations for a congregation to be proactive.

The story of Jesus blessing the children is found in several of the gospels, but it is the Mark 10:13 version that names how Jesus felt when “the disciples spoke sternly” to the people bringing the children:

“But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.’”

I put this account alongside the words of Jesus in Matthew 25, “…just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.”

What kind of a church do we want for our children and grandchildren should they ever encounter the threat of abuse? Let’s make sure our congregations are places that our children will find safety.

Nancy Kauffmann is a denominational minister for Mennonite Church USA and a Dove's Nest board member. This piece originally ran on the Mennonite Church USA website.