Dealing with disclosures of abuse
If someone in your church confides in you about abuse, your response can make the difference.
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If you are a church leader, in particular, you may find yourself frequently in pastoral situations where an adult victim may disclose that they are fearful or are being disrespected in their relationship.
If this happens, always wait until they are alone and it is safe to speak. It is crucial to do this only when no one who could be a potential abuser is present or able to overhear the conversation.
Let them know that you are worried about them and ask if they are ok. Do not push them to talk if they are uncomfortable, but let them know that you’re there if they need to talk. And if they are unwilling to speak to you, offer a staff member of a different sex to step in, or provide a contact for your local domestic and family violence shelter or outreach service.
What to do if someone confides in you
If someone confides in you about experiencing domestic violence, your response can make a real difference. Not picking up on a victim’s mention of her partner’s controlling behaviour or domestic violence could lead the victim to believe you condone violence in interpersonal relationships.
If the victim feels believed by the people around them, they are more likely to seek help.
Listen very carefully
Don't speak until the person finishes telling you their story.
Respond immediately with concern and sympathy
They will be uncertain telling you – will you believe them? Will you correctly identify what has been happening or will you minimise it or mischaracterise it? In the first minute try to indicate with body language and words how you are responding to their disclosure. Be unambiguous in your willingness to listen and be there for them.
Most victims will minimise or downplay their experiences
They might only tell you about one aspect. They may want to protect their abuser. They may be ‘feeling you out’, testing the waters. Try to say something like, “It sounds like a lot is going on and I want to listen to whatever else you want to tell me, but I just want to be clear right now that from what you’ve told me so far, what's happened is very wrong”.
Don’t rush to give answers
Don’t say anything yet about what you’ll do or what she could do. It is likely that discussing an action plan will be too overwhelming at this stage and will just disempower her. Avoid overloading her with spiritual ‘should’s’ like asking her to forgive what hasn’t been repented of. Safety is the most important thing right now.
Find out about her safety
Is she currently safe? Are her kids safe? Where are they staying right now? Does she need medical attention?
Reassure her that this is not her fault
Does she consider herself responsible for the abuse, partly or wholly? Watch your own emotions closely – you are likely to feel very angry at some point and it’s possible that you will unintentionally direct that towards her. How is she feeling towards the abuser? Her feelings are likely to be ambivalent and complicated. Don’t make statements assessing the abuser, but do characterise their behaviour and what he has done as wrong.
Find out what she wants
Spend this time finding out what she wants to do first. What resources is she aware of, and which does she want to make use of? Be led by her, even if what she’s saying she wants is different from what you would think would be wise. If you take over, you risk re-abusing her by undermining her dignity and autonomy.
Don’t over-promise your support
In the heat of the moment you may have a strong urge to rescue her. Remember supporting her through this is a community responsibility and does not rest only on your shoulders. But do talk about what you think you might need to do in response to her disclosure, such as offering a referral to local domestic violence services or reporting any risks to children.
What to do if someone discloses historical abuse
Take it as seriously as current abuse
Some of the more urgent concerns will be different, but the experience is no less serious.
Be aware of your own desires to be reassured
We are often tempted to these kind of wishful thoughts when confronted by someone’s pain - ‘I’m sure they’ve moved on’, ‘they seem to be doing alright now’. However, past traumatic experiences can be as painful and damaging as recent trauma. Try to find out how their past abuse is affecting them now. For example, is the abuser still in their life and in what way? Do they need to cut ties with them? Is it even possible for them to do so, remembering the complexity of family abuse?
Consider why they have brought this up now
Is there something that has triggered these painful memories? Is there similar abuse happening to them again? Or perhaps they sense they are now ready to take steps towards healing. Do they need counselling, medication, other support?
Find out their current needs
Ask them what they need from you and their faith community.
Be a safe friend
When a friend or loved one confides in you about an experience of abuse, this is an act of bravery and deep trust. Your response can greatly impact their healing journey. The following tips are based on a blog post by Ashley Easter.
Dismissing your friend’s story could be devastating and even cause feelings of re-victimisation. It’s important to take your friend seriously and let them know you believe them.
Gentle questions are good but empathetic listening is paramount. Practice holy listening, paying close attention to what they choose to share with you and letting them share at their own pace.
A kind, compassionate word goes a long way, but steer clear of over-simplified and super spiritual answers which often do more harm than good. Instead, try saying something like, “God didn’t want you to experience this abuse. I don’t know why it happened but I’m going to be here for you whenever you need it.”
Abuse and abusers have a way of making a victim feel worthless. Take every opportunity to let your friend know that they are valuable, worthy, and deserving of love, respect, and justice.
Let them know it is not their fault
Abusers and their supporters will try to tell your victimised friend that the abuse was fully or partially their own fault. This is just another way to hurt the victim. Be clear with your friend, no part of the abuse was their fault. The blame rests fully on the abuser.
Give them space, but not too much
Your friend may need some space. It’s good to keep checking in periodically to let them know you are still there if they need you, but make sure you respect their need for space. One exception is if your friend talks about hurting themselves. In that case, call the police or local hospital for help.
Be ready to suggest professional resources
If your friend has recently experienced domestic violence, offer to go with them to the nearest hospital or police station, or help them find a local crisis service.
Respect their boundaries
After abuse, survivors sometimes experience what are called ‘triggers’. Triggers can result from sight, smell, touch, or other senses that remind the survivor of the abuse they experienced and cause them to feel overwhelmed or uncomfortable. You friend might not want to visit certain places, see particular people, or even be touched. That is ok. And as their friend, it’s important to let them know that you will respect this.
Support their personal method of safe healing
Everyone heals a little differently. Perhaps going to church is too traumatic for them, or praying can feel distressing. These are completely normal reactions to this kind of injury. Do not shame them. Let your friend know you support their healing methods, as long as they are safe for the survivor and those around them.