Church abuse can cause worse post-traumatic stress disorder than other forms of trauma. And that’s not to minimize the effects of other forms of trauma.
It’s just that when Christians are abused by church leaders it impacts every element of their core identity and causes them to question who they are, what they believe and who they can trust. It breaks their confidence in those communities that were meant to love and protect them.
It breaks their trust in authority, and in God, and messes with their ability to trust the church and other institutions.
You would think this would make churches and their leaders all the more aware of the great responsibility they bear to act with the utmost propriety when it comes to allegations of abuse or assault. But sadly, it seems that is not so. Not only is church abuse common, so are the stories of how churches have been utterly delinquent in discharging their duty of care for the victims of that abuse.
A friend of mine* was recently admitted to a psychiatric unit to deal with complex PTSD after surviving months of intimidation culminating in a sexual act of indecency at the hands of her pastor. Her psychiatrist told her he frequently treats survivors of church abuse. In fact, only a few months earlier he had cared for a very unwell patient who had an almost identical story to my friend’s.
She also met six other inpatients who were hospitalised primarily for PTSD due to abuse in a church or Christian organization. What was most distressing to my friend was that their stories were frighteningly similar to her’s. The common thread in their stories was that while the abuse itself was bad enough, their churches’ responses to their allegations were what cemented the PTSD. These responses included things like victim reversal, claiming the revelations of abuse are damaging the church, publicly naming the survivor without giving her a voice and pitting her against her abuser, minimizing the abuse, and publicly extending empathy toward the offender without similarly extending the same to the survivor.
These are such conventional responses they even have a collective name – DARVO, an acronym for “deny, attack, reverse victim and offender.” The abuser denies the abuse ever took place, attacks the victim for making “false” allegations, and then claims that they are really the victim of baseless and salacious lies. But in the case of church abuse, it is often not only the abuser who engages in DARVO, but the church itself, turning the survivor’s own community against her.
Often women aren’t believed when they disclose sexual assault in the church. And if they are believed, they often get told to forgive. At worst, they are blamed and shamed.
And in high-profile cases, even Christian supporters of the abuser beyond their local church or organisation participate in the denial, the attacks and the victim blaming. The recent revelations about Ravi Zacharias is a case in point. Supporters of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries employed DARVO tactics, currying empathy for Zacharias and blaming his accuser as a gold-digger, even when they had no idea of the facts of the case.
Added to this was Zacharias’ use of a non-disclosure agreement to keep his victim silent. But even without the use of formal NDAs, churches regularly demand the silence of abuse survivors. The abuse must be kept secret to protect the reputation of the church. And so, at her most broken, the survivor has no avenue to share why and feels isolated in her trauma. It also means the perpetrator is given opportunity to abuse again.
And then, to add insult to injury, when Christian media outlets and social commentators take to the Internet to cast aspersions on the survivors’ motives, or to suggest the allegations have been part of a well-orchestrated campaign against the church, DARVO goes viral. This week alone I have been contacted by a number of women who were deeply affected by the irresponsible way a Christian publication reported on a case of indecent assault by a Hillsong staffer.
Is it any wonder these women end up in psychiatric units sharing their stories with each other when no one else will listen?
Why don’t churches have strict protocols for addressing allegations of assault or abuse? We have them to protect children. There are now requirements for churches to become safer spaces for minors, including background checks for church staff, mandatory reporting of child abuse, risk management plans, and strategies to address the protection of children and vulnerable people. We need similarly strict directives on issues such as duty of care, definitions of abuse, reporting obligations, and embedded practices that make churches safe for women too.
It was my friend’s psychiatrist who said that, in his opinion, church abuse produces some of the nastiest PTSD he’s ever treated. I just wish more pastors, denominational staff, and Christian thought leaders could talk to someone like him or take the time to truly listen to church abuse survivors.
Because the way we’re handling church abuse now ain’t good enough.
The church must stop protecting abusers while shaming their victims.
* My friend has given me permission to share her story on the condition that she remain anonymous. Some sections of this post are in her own words.