This page contains three sections: (i) an analysis of what forgiveness is and whether it is really required of abuse victims, (ii) reasons why churches should be told if their minister abuses, and (iii) the criteria for a satisfactory apology. They are all matters which victims who disclose are challenged to explain and justify, again and again and again. I hope the information here will give them the words they need.
Are Abuse Victims Really Required to Forgive their Abuser?
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse are often criticised for speaking out about their experience, more especially since a disclosure of abuse can result in the minister's removal from job and house, estrangement of his family, and destruction of an apparently successful ministry. Victims are exhorted to forgive, often more out of the church's desire for them to keep silent than for any other reason. But forgiveness can mean many things. What are victims being asked to do?
It is important to realise that options 1 and 2 can ONLY come when a victim is healed to the point where such a choice is possible. Even then, option 1 is extremely hard for victims, while option 2 is difficult to achieve because of the kind of change abuse causes. Option 3 is unwise for the same reason. Both options 3 and 4 would allow the abuser to continue his (or her) abusive actions with nothing to stop them (see the issues of forgiveness and trust, and forgiveness and punishment, below). Option 5 is often apparently offered long before the others, but in many cases before the victim has realised the full extent of the damage done by the abuser, therefore can be rescinded once the victim understands fully.
As someone else said: It doesnt seem to make sense if all an abuser has to say is "Im sorry" and then its as if he had never abused anyone. Its doesnt seem to fit when there is such a struggle toward healing, over such a long time, for those who have been abused.
Yet victims are made to feel more sinful by being told to "forgive, as Christ forgave you". They are told that God forgave them unconditionally, and they should therefore forgive the perpetrator unconditionally. This is false theology. God does not forgive unconditionally. God's forgiveness is dependent on four things:
1. Recognition of the sin. Without recognition of sin by the sinner, there is no forgiveness.
2. Repentance of the sin. Without repentance by the sinner, and a firm intention to change, there is no forgiveness.
3. Recompense for the sin. In other words: payment, or punishment. Whatever word you use, there is clear evidence that God's forgiveness is dependent on someone paying the price for sin before forgiveness is possible.
4. Restitution for the sin. Sinners in the Bible who recognised their sin tried to restore the situation to a "pre-sin" state (eg. Zacchaeus paying back four times what he stole). This was the action which authenticated their claim of repentance.
When the church demands these four things of perpetrators of sexual abuse, before requesting that the victim forgives, then they will be acting in line with Scriptural patterns. Until and unless the Church requires these things of perpetrators, victims will only be forced into a false forgiveness, which hinders their and the affected congregation's full healing.
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Other problems that often arise for victims are the issues of forgiving and forgetting, forgiveness and trust, forgiveness and punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation, and repentance and remorse:
Forgive and forget We are often told to "forgive and forget", and we assume it is Scriptural. It isn't. The phrase "forgive and forget" comes from Shakespeare's King Lear. While God may forget, at no time does God require humans to do so. In fact, requiring victims of abuse to forget is the worst thing possible. It is the exact opposite of the healing process. Healing requires integration, not repression, of the memories.
Forgiveness and trust Forgiveness is often confused with trust. This confusion ignores the fact that forgiveness is about past events, while trust is about the future. Even when a perpetrator has truly repented, it is still the only responsible course to ensure that they are kept out of situations that may cause temptation.
Forgiveness and punishment Many believe that forgiveness and punishment are opposites - that forgiveness negates the need for punishment. This is not so. The opposite of forgiveness is revenge. Punishment, on the other hand, is society's means of enforcing moral standards and the offender's personal responsibility.
Forgiveness and reconciliation Often victims are expected to be reconciled to the offender, especially after they claim to have forgiven. Forgiveness, however, only says that there is no continuing bitterness. It does not, and cannot necessarily, mean that the relationship can be restored, as if the abuse had never happened. Sins may be forgiven, but their consequences may be permanent. Letting go of the past does not mean altering it.
Repentance and remorse Remorse is not repentance, although is often mistaken for it. Remorse focuses on the possible consequences of discovery for the offender, rather than focussing on recognition and restitution. Repentance is about taking responsibility; remorse is about avoiding it. An easy way to determine whether an offender is remorseful or repentant is to ask what they plan to do in restitution.
For a fuller treatment of this subject, see Patrick Parkinson's book "Child Sexual Abuse and the Churches" - chapter 8. (For information on where to obtain this book, see the books page). For Bible references for the points listed above, see references. Warning: If bible verses are likely to trigger you, please avoid this link. These references were added by request, so that victims can use them when they face church officials.
Why churches should be told if their minister abuses
People often ask why churches (particularly individual parishes) should be told if their minister has been removed because of sexual offences. Often, they ask because they haven't really understood the difference between forgiveness and punishment, forgiveness and trust. However, no matter how much the church hierarchy may believe that the matter is resolved when they have finished their disciplinary action, and that it's in everyone's best interests that the abuse is not publicised, there are still extremely compelling reasons why church members should be informed. They are as follows:
Christians are supposed to be about openness, honesty and accountability. That goes for the ways congregations operate too.
People can only respond appropriately (to victims, perpetrators and others hurt) if they're dealing with the real problem, rather than a pretend one.
Lying about what happened allows the perpetrator to pretend that he's been hard done by and/or minimise the offence, which in turn fosters confusion among congregation members as to whom they should be supporting and how.
Concealing what happened doesn't encourage the perpetrator to face the enormity of his (or her) actions.
Pretending a different offence doesn't allow parents the opportunity to take steps to safeguard their children, or church members (such as Sunday School teachers or youth leaders) to be alert to the danger of the offender being around the children in their care.
Concealing the offence invalidates the trauma suffered by the victims, by protecting the offender and preventing the victim/s from telling their story.
Congregation members can only truly heal from the loss of trust and sense of betrayal if they're tackling the real hurt.
Concealing the offence allows the offender to move away and then
pretend he isn't a danger.
Apologies can be extremely healing for victims. Indeed, many victims have felt forced into civil litigation by churches which have failed to require an apology from the perpetrator. An apology, at its best, can serve both to acknowledge the damage to the victim, and convey to the victim that the perpetrator understands fully what he or she has done.
I believe that an ideal apology follows the criteria below:
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