How Can Church Leaders Support Victims of Abuse?

“How Can Church Leaders Support Victims of Abuse?” How to Help (2018)

“How Can Church Leaders Support Victims of Abuse?” How to Help

How can Church leaders support victims of abuse?

Bishops, branch presidents, and stake presidents should call the Church’s ecclesiastical help line immediately each time they learn of abuse for assistance in helping victims and meeting reporting requirements. The help provided can guide the ward council’s efforts in supporting victims of abuse.

Because of the trauma of abuse, victims may be impacted physically, spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. As a leader, you may have questions about how to help.

Increasing your knowledge and understanding of the impacts of abuse will help you support, minister, and effectively provide spiritual guidance and support.

Understanding Victims

Victims of abuse may think, feel, and behave differently than how they did before they were abused. In your desire to support victims, seek information to respond sensitively. (See “How can I support someone who has been abused?” for more information on how to provide support).

Be sensitive to the following as you work with these members:

Build trust

Abuse damages trust, even with those who are most likely to be trusted, including family members, friends, Church leaders, and God. Even if victims come to you for support, it may not mean you have a relationship of trust. Victims may be seeking people they hope to trust.

It is common for victims of abuse to only share portions of their experience (see “What if I am struggling with trusting others?”). You may need to spend additional time in building a relationship of trust and responding to safety or other concerns.

What you can do:

  • Seek to respond with love.

  • Believe their experience.

  • Be open and transparent.

  • Check-in with the member frequently during your discussion(s) about what you can do to help them feel safe (for example, ask if they would like someone to accompany them, allow the survivor to choose when and where you meet and determine if they are comfortable with topics being discussed)

  • Explain your thoughts and actions clearly and encourage victims to ask questions if they don’t understand.

  • Be careful with your words. Saying things such as “let it go” or “it’s time to move on,” may make them feel like you do not care or that you think they are overreacting (see “Emotions, Thoughts, and Behaviors Commonly Experienced by Survivors of Sexual Abuse”).

  • Be consistent in your interactions.

  • Follow through on what you say you will do.

Reaffirm worth and worthiness

Abuse is often destructive to a victim’s faith. Most victims feel abandoned by God and wonder why He didn’t protect them or stop the abuse. They often incorrectly blame themselves for the abuse. Most victims question their worth. Some may focus on being overly religious to compensate for their feelings of personal unworthiness. Others may lose hope and struggle with their faith or may withdraw from spiritual activities.

How you can help:

  • Recognize victims’ personal beliefs about their worth and worthiness.

  • Sensitively teach gospel principles of worth and worthiness.

  • Emphasize the love of our Heavenly Father and the Savior for them.

  • Reassure victims that the abuse was not their fault (see “What if I think the abuse is my fault?” and “Am I still of worth?”).

Clarify adversity

Victims may mistakenly believe the abuse was a trial given to them by Heavenly Father so they could learn something. They may have been told that experiencing the abuse was necessary for their growth or that it was part of the plan for their life. This is false doctrine; the Lord is not the author or source of atrocities in the lives of His children (see James 1:13, 17; 2 Nephi 26:24; Omni 1:25; Alma 5:40; Moroni 7:12). This false idea may cause them to search for the positive in their situation and try to ignore their pain. It may also cause them to think that God wants them to suffer.

What you can do:

  • Avoid telling victims that God gave them this trial so they could learn something or that it was something they agreed to in the premortal life.

  • Help them understand that the abuse was a direct result of someone else choosing to use his or her agency poorly.

  • Teach victims that God loves them and that they will be “supported in their trials, and their troubles, and their afflictions, and shall be lifted up at the last day” (Alma 36:3).

Reinforce the survivor’s own timeline for healing and forgiveness

Victims often feel pressured to forgive the offender before they are ready. If they are told to forgive prematurely, they may believe that the offender’s need for forgiveness is greater than their need for healing. As victims heal, the ability to forgive will come.

What you can do:

  • Help victims focus on their own healing.

  • Help the survivor be patient with his or her own desire to forgive. Avoid setting a timeline for healing and forgiveness. Listen to victims to understand when they are ready for help in working to forgive. The steps of healing will make forgiveness possible (see “Can I heal from this?” and “Is it possible to forgive?”).

  • Help the survivor to trust in the Lord’s ultimate law of justice in the life of the offender.

Help them forgive themselves

Victims may make unhealthy choices as a way of coping with the trauma or pain from the abuse. For example, they may try to numb the pain and trauma by using alcohol or drugs. They may have a difficult time forgiving themselves for these choices.

What you can do:

  • Remind them they are loved.

  • Allow them to discuss the things they believe they need forgiveness for or need to repent of.

  • Without condoning his or her behaviors, compassionately discuss with the survivor his or her actions and the ways those actions were used to cope with the trauma of abuse.

  • Reassure them of the Savior’s mercy and love.

  • Reassure them of your unchanged positive feelings about them.

  • Help them on their path to self-forgiveness.

  • Encourage them to understand that their bishop can help them to know what does and what does not need to be repented of.

Be aware of personal space

Many victims of abuse are sensitive to the space around them. They are often not comfortable with physical contact. When they are asked if it is okay to hug them, they often say yes, when they really want to say no.

What you can do:

  • Help victims by respecting their personal space.

  • Allow the victim to discuss the physical touch they are comfortable with (whether it is no touch, a handshake, or a hug). Let them initiate this conversation or they may feel unnecessary pressure to respond

  • Be aware that victims often put aside their own physical comfort to please others.

Validate the victim in the midst of trauma reminders

The trauma of abuse causes victims to be vulnerable to triggers, which are reminders of what happened. Triggers may happen anywhere at any time. The survivor may be triggered by something they see, smell, hear, and so on. When victims are “triggered” they often feel symptoms similar to what they experienced at the time they were abused. This can include being overly aware of their surroundings, increased anxiety, increased heart rate, sweating, shaking, panic, or the need to get away from others.

What you can do:

  • When victims share these feelings with you:

    • Provide validation that these responses are real and common.

    • Allow the victim to discuss their needs in these situations.

    • Validate the victim’s needs.

  • If a victim is triggered when with you

    • Reassure the victim that he or she is safe.

    • Allow the survivor to leave if he or she feels the need to leave.

    • Allow the survivor greater space; they may need you to leave them and allow them to cope with their trigger.

Helping Victims Feel Safe

Victims often have a difficult time feeling safe physically and emotionally. Creating a safe environment for victims can help them build trust and find healing.

When meeting with victims, consider the following:

  • Ask if they would like someone else (of their choice) to be present.

  • Ask if they would like the door to be open.

  • Invite them to sit wherever is most comfortable for them.

If the victim is in the same congregation as the offender, remember that the safety of the victim is most important. Consider what you can do to help the victim feel safe participating in Church services or activities.

Getting Victims Help

Victims may need many sources of support as they work through the healing process. Bishops and other Church leaders may consult with Family Services, where available, about how to best support victims and find available resources.

When helping victims get support, consider the following:

  • Offer to assist victims in getting professional help.

  • Avoid putting a timeline on how long counseling should take. Be aware that the amount of time in counseling varies, depending on the individual’s circumstances.

(Bishops Only)

  • If given authorization, consult regularly with the victim’s therapist.

  • Consider covering the cost of professional counseling, regardless of the victim’s ability to pay (this can be covered through fast offering resources).

Community and Church Resources

(Some of the resources listed below are not created, maintained, or controlled by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While these materials are intended to serve as additional resources, the Church does not endorse any content that is not in keeping with its doctrines and teachings.)

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