SNAP: What to do when your minister is on the list of clergy accused of abuse

SNAP: What to do when your minister is on the list of clergy accused of abuse

BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - Nearly a week after the Catholic Diocese of Baton Rouge released the names of clergy members who have faced credible accusations of sexual abuse involving children, the city is still processing the shocking details of some accusations.

The information below is adapted from The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priest’s website, which published it as a resource for community members struggling to reconcile with the priest abuse revelations.

1) Remain open-minded. The natural human instinct is to recoil from alleged horror, and immediately assume that the allegations are false. In every case, the proper response is to remain open-minded, SNAP says.

2) Allow those impacted to feel whatever emotions arise. Those close to the situation 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.

4) Remember that abuse, sadly, is quite common, SNAP says.

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-clerical 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 his/her elderly parents or young children from suffering too. Don’t compound the pain he/she is in by disclosing his/her identity to others.

7) Understand that abuse victims may have “troubled” backgrounds (i.e. drug or alcohol problems, criminal backgrounds, etc.) Instead of undermining the credibility of accusers, these difficulties actually enhance their credibility, according to SNAP. (When someone is physically hurt, there are almost always clear signs of harm; so too with sexual abuse. The harm is reflected largely in self-destructive behaviors. One might be skeptical of a person who claimed to have been run over by a truck but showed no bodily injury. Similarly, one might be skeptical of an alleged molestation victim who always acted like a “model citizen.”)

8) Don’t allow the mere passage of time to discredit the accusers. SNAP says advocates should stress to fellow parishioners that there are many good reasons why abuse victims disclose their victimization years after the crime. In most instances, victims come forward when they are emotionally able to do so, and feel capable of risking disbelief and rejection from precious loved ones, including family members, church leaders, other authorities, and fellow church members, SNAP says. Sometimes, victims are psychologically able to come forward only after their perpetrator has died, moved or been accused by someone else. Sometimes, victims have been assured that their perpetrator would never be around kids again, but have learned that this isn’t the case.

(In other cases, it takes years before victims are able to understand and/or acknowledge to themselves that they have been sexually violated. This is a common defense mechanism.)

9) Ask your family members and friends if they were victimized. Abuse victims may continue to “keep the secret” unless specifically invited to disclose their victimization by someone they love and trust, SNAP says. Even raising this topic can be very uncomfortable. But it must be done. It may be very awkward and family members may even act resentful at first. But soon they will remember that their loves one only ask because they really care about them, and will see the question as a sign of that care.

10) Mention the accusation to former parishioners and parish staff now living elsewhere. Members of the clergy 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. SNAP encourages victims and advocates contact the proper civil authorities if they have any information (even if it’s “second hand” or vague) that might help prove the guilt or innocence of the accused. 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, according to SNAP. Remember, police and prosecutors are unbiased professionals with the skills and experience needed to ascertain whether an allegation is true or false.

12) Don’t allow other parishioners to make disparaging comments about those making the allegation.Remember, the sexual abuse of children has terribly damaging effects. SNAP encourages advocates to help prevent such victimization and assist anyone who is in pain to get help as soon as possible. Critical comments about those who make allegations only discourage others who may have been hurt. Such remarks prevent those who need help from reaching out and getting it. SNAP encourages advocates show compassion for abuse victims by telling fellow parishioners that hurtful comments are inappropriate and reminding them that they can defend their minister without attacking his accuser.

13) Educate yourself and your family about sexual abuse. SNAP recommends several books and resources on the subject. Check out the web site for clergy abuse victims: SNAPnetwork.org

14) Support the accused minister PRIVATELY. Calls, visits, letters, gifts, and prayers - all of these are appropriate ways to express love and concern for the accused minister. Public displays of support, however, are not, SNAP say. Public displays only intimidate others into keeping silent. SNAP says it can be terribly hurtful to victims to see parishioners openly rallying behind an accused minister. Supporters may want to publicly defend a minister, collect funds for the minister’s defense, and take similar steps, but SNAP recommends that they don’t. Instead, supporters are encouraged to express their appreciation of the minister in direct, quiet ways. Young victims who see adults they love and respect publicly rallying around accused perpetrators, can become less likely to report their own victimization to their parents, the police, or other authorities. They can be scared into remaining silent, and their horrific pain will continue, SNAP says.

15) Try to put yourself in the shoes of the alleged victim. SNAP says it can sometimes be easy to identify with the minister. Community members can meet dozens of ministers and know them as warm and wonderful individuals before adulthood. On the other hand, few people have met and openly discussed the lives of clergy abuse survivors SNAP encourages advocates try, as best they can, to imagine the shame, self-blame, confusion and fear that afflict men and women who have been victimized by trusted religious authority figures.

16) Use this painful time as an opportunity to protect your own family. Talk with 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 children to have similar conversations with your grandchildren. SNAP recommends reading this information for more recommendations on speaking with children about sexual violence.

17) Turn your pain into helpful action. In times of stress and trauma, doing something constructive that also benefits the community can be very beneficial, SNAP says.

18) Keep in mind the fundamental choice you face. On 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, SNAP says.

19) Ask your pastor to bring in an outside expert or a therapist who can lead a balanced discussion about sexual abuse.Therapists understand and can answer the questions and help the church community deal with the emotional impact of this trauma too.

20) Urge other church employees to follow these guidelines too.

SNAP also advised advocates of 5 ways religious leaders create an environment to abuse adults:

1.) Isolate:

  • Create opportunities to be with the victim one-on-one (phone calls at work or after hours, working together on a project, counsel/support the victim through an issue)
  • Share ‘privileged’ information with the victim
  • Make the victim feel special through praise and recognition
  • Pull the victim away for group events or other priorities because there is a greater need (work, emotional support, prayer, etc.)
  • Discuss marital issues
  • Criticize friendships and family

2.) Create doubt:

  • Compliment the victim in ways that seem flirtatious
  • Touch the victim in ways that seems sexual
  • Ask the victim to share his/her interests; discuss their dating relationships/marriage, sexual history

3.) Praise submission:

  • Teach the victim the virtue and necessity of submission. This may include:
  • A spiritual authority or covering is biblical – it is helpful for spiritual growth; it is a form of protection
  • Submission to a religious leader honors God
  • Submission maintains unity within the church
  • Women are called to be submissive; it shows they trust God
  • Failure or refusal to submit to authority is failure considered rebellious and sinful

4.) Foster fear:

  • Remind the victim of consequences and punishment that could come by refusing the submit to the abuse, trying to end the abuse or telling anyone about the abuse. This may include:
  • “You will be punished by God”
  • “You will be held responsible”
  • “You will be excommunicated from the church”
  • “You will be labeled a whore; held responsible for seducing/tempting a religious leader”
  • “You were the sinful one (victim believes their behavior was sinful)”
  • 'You will be ostracized by friends and family"
  • 'You will be responsible for the religious leader losing his job/livelihood"

5.) Secure silence:

  • Shame the victim (this is your fault, this is what you wanted, etc.)
  • Equate silence to trust
  • Express sorrow/regret, which the victim should forgive
  • Tell the victim that he/she will not be believed
  • Tell the victim that he/she participated and enjoyed it
  • Lead the victim to believe it was consensual or in response to the victim’s need

What Makes Adults Vulnerable?

  • Desire for community, connection, belonging Belief that church is a safe place
  • Culture of submission, especially for women
  • Life circumstances (season of transition, loss, isolation, etc) Desire for a spiritual mentor
  • Victim’s belief that he/she is bad or more sinful than other

SNAP encourages anyone who may have suffered, witnessed, or suspected abuse at the hands of church workers to contact the Louisiana Child Abuse Hotline at 855-452-5437 to make a report, or contact independent support groups. Victims are also encouraged to contact the Sex Crime Division of the East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney’s Office by calling 225-389-3445.

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