1) Remain open-minded.
The natural human instinct is to recoil from alleged horror, and to immediately assume that the allegations are false. But the overwhelming majority of abuse disclosures prove to be true. In every case, the proper and Christian response is to remain open-minded.
2) Pray for all parties involved.
Every person involved deserves and needs prayerful support.
3) Let yourself feel whatever emotions arise.
You may feel angry, betrayed, confused, hurt, worried and sad. These are all natural, "typical" responses to an allegation of sexual abuse. None of these feelings are inappropriate or "bad." Don't "kick yourself" for feeling any of these emotions.
4) Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common.
It's far more widespread than any of us would like to believe. Experts estimate that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 9 boys will be molested in their
5) Don't try to "guess" or figure out who the accuser is.
Abuse victims, like rape victims, need their privacy to recover from their trauma. Openly speculating about who is alleging abuse is essentially gossiping, and helps to create a hostile climate that will keep other victims
(even those abused by non-clergy perpetrators) from coming forward.
6) If you do know the victim(s), protect his/her confidentiality.
There are many good reasons why abuse victims are unable to publicly come forward. Often, the person wants to keep elderly parents or young children from suffering too. Sometimes the victim feels great fear. Don't compound the pain the victim is in by disclosing his or her identity to others.
7) Understand that abuse victims often have "troubled" backgrounds (e.g., drug or alcohol problems, criminal backgrounds, etc.)
Instead of undermining the credibility of accusers, these difficulties may actually enhance their credibility. When someone is physically hurt, there are almost always clear signs of harm; so too with sexual abuse. The harm is often reflected in self-destructive behaviors. (One might be skeptical of a person who claimed to have been run over by a truck but showed no sign of bodily injury. Similarly, one might be skeptical of a molestation victim who always acted like a "model citizen.")
8) Don't allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers.
Stress to your fellow congregants that there are many good reasons why abuse victims disclose their victimization years later. In most instances, victims come forward when they are emotionally able to do so, and feel capable of risking disbelief and rejection from loved ones, including family members, church leaders, members of the congregation, and others. Sometimes, they are psychologically able to do so only after their perpetrator has died, moved, or been accused by someone else. Sometimes, they have been assured that their perpetrator would never be around kids again, but have learned that this isn't the case. Sometimes, it takes years before victims are able to understand and/or acknowledge even to themselves that they have been sexually violated. This is a very common psychological defense mechanism.
9) Ask your family members and friends if they were victimized.
Many times, abuse victims will continue to "keep the secret" unless specifically invited to disclose their victimization by someone they love and trust. Even raising this topic can be very uncomfortable. But it must be done. It may be very awkward and your family members may even act resentful at first. But soon they will remember that you really care about them, and will see your question as a sign of that care.
10) Mention the accusation to former members of the congregation and to former church staff who may be living elsewhere.
They may have information that could prove the guilt or innocence of the minister facing allegations. This is especially important because sometimes abuse victims or their families move away after experiencing abuse.
11) Contact the police or prosecutors.
It's your duty as a citizen to call the proper civil authorities if you have any information (even if it's "second-hand" or vague) that might help prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. It's your duty as a Christian to help seek justice and protect others from harm. Remember: abuse thrives in secrecy. Exposing a physical wound to fresh air, clean water and sunlight can be healing. Exposing sexual crimes is also ultimately healing. Usually, police and prosecutors are unbiased professionals with the skills and experience needed to ascertain whether an allegation is well-founded or not.
12) Don't allow other members of the congregation to make disparaging comments about those making the allegation.
Remember, the sexual abuse of children has terribly damaging effects. As a Christian, you want to help prevent such victimization. And you want anyone who is in pain to get help as soon as possible. Critical comments about those who make allegations only discourages others who may have been hurt. Such remarks prevent those who need help from reaching out and getting it. Show your compassion for abuse victims. Tell your fellow congregants that hurtful comments are inappropriate. Remind them that they can defend their minister without attacking his accuser.
13) Educate yourself and your family about sexual abuse.
There are many excellent books and resources on the subject. There are also good books specifically about molestation by clergy. Check out the web sites for clergy abuse victims: SNAPnetwork.org and StopBaptistPredators.org.
14) Support the accused minister PRIVATELY.
Calls, visits, letters, gifts, and prayers - all of these are appropriate ways to express your love and concern for the accused minister. Public displays of support, however, are not. They only intimidate others into keeping silent. In fact, it is terribly hurtful to victims to see church-goers openly rallying behind an accused minister. You may want to publicly defend the minister, collect funds for his defense, and take similar steps. Please don't. Express your appreciation of the minister in direct, quiet ways. Even if the minister is innocent, somewhere in the church or community is a young girl being molested by a relative or a boy being abused by a coach. If these children see adults they love and respect publicly rallying around accused perpetrators, they will be less likely to report their own victimization to their parents, the police, or other authorities. They will be scared into remaining silent, and their horrific pain will continue.
15) Don't be blinded by the pain you can see.
The pain of the accused minister, and those who care about him, is obvious. You can usually see it in his face, his posture, and his actions. But please try to keep in mind the trauma of the accuser too. Because you rarely see his/her pain directly, it's important to try and imagine it. Thinking about the pain you can't see will help you keep a balanced perspective.
16) Try to put yourself in the shoes of the alleged victim.
It's easy to identify with the minister. You may know him, love him, and trust him. And you have probably met many other ministers and have known them as warm and wonderful individuals. On the other hand, you may have never met a clergy abuse survivor, or at least didn't know that you had. So it is more difficult to identify with them. But even though you may have never previously known such a person, try, as best you can, to imagine the shame, self-blame, confusion and fear that afflict people who were molested as kids by trusted religious authority figures.
17) Use this painful time as an opportunity to protect your own family.
Talk with your children about "safe touch," the private parts of their bodies, who is allowed to touch those parts, what to do if someone else tries, and who to tell. Urge your sons and daughters to have similar conversations with your grandchildren.
18) Turn your pain into helpful action.
In times of stress and trauma, doing something constructive can be very beneficial. Volunteer your time or donate your funds to organizations that help abused kids or work to stop molestation.
19) Keep in mind the fundamental choice you face.
On the one hand, at stake are the FEELINGS of a grown up. On the other hand, at stake is the PHYSICAL, EMOTIONAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, SPIRITUAL AND SEXUAL SAFETY of potentially many children. If one has to err in either direction, the prudent and moral choice is to always err on the side of protecting those who can't protect themselves: children. Remember too that it's easier for an adult to repair his reputation than for a child (or many children) to repair their psyche and life. Another way to look at this: Being falsely accused of abuse is horrific, but actually being abused, and then being attacked or disbelieved is far worse.
20) Bring in an outside expert or a professional therapist who can lead a balanced discussion about sexual abuse.
Therapists understand and can answer the questions you and your fellow congregants are facing, and help you deal with the emotional impact of this trauma too.
21) Urge other ministers and church staff to also follow these guidelines.
[This material was originally posted on the SNAP website, and has been revised for posting here.]