Being a witness to the disclosure of abuse in someone’s life, past or present, is nearly always unexpected. The best time to prepare to respond to someone telling you about perhaps the darkest, most vulnerable part of them, is not after hearing their disclosure…it is before.
The time to be prepared is now.
If we are not prepared to answer graciously and truthfully we will damage our loved ones and increase the size of their wounds tenfold.
Because of how important it is to know what to do what someone discloses abuse, here are some more practical and biblical ways to respond when hearing of sexual abuse.
As we have already said, when someone discloses to you the darkness of the sin done against them, it means they have trusted you with one of the most sensitive and vulnerable areas of their life. This is no small thing, in fact it is a great honor to be told such a tale.
More than likely you have been brought into the most inner circle of their life, it is not uncommon for you be the first (or else on a very short list) person to be told of this happening. Although it is uncomfortable, disconcerting and intimidating, to be told of sexual abuse in someone’s life is a great honor and a great responsibility.
It is appropriate to respond with thanksgiving. First and foremost to God for giving you a unique opportunity to administer grace and represent the love of Christ to that person. Second, it would also be appropriate to respond with thanksgiving to the person who has shared, because they have trusted you and shared a burden with you.
“Thank you for sharing that with me. I am sure it was scary to do that, thank you for trusting me to share this with you.”
A simple sentence that represents truth and can go a long ways in being a right response to a victim.
4. Speak Truth in Love
Ephesians 4:15 – “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.”
Speaking truth to one another, lovingly, is a part of God’s plan to grow us and make us more like Christ. Few times are as important to speak truth as when someone has disclosed a sexual assault in their life to you.
Because of the plethora of lies our culture tells about sexual assault, we must gently speak truth to our loved ones who have disclosed this.
We must speak the truth about responsibility…it is the perpetrator who committed both the sin and the crime against the victim. No one else.
We must speak the truth about the effects of the assault…it is normal for a victim to have fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, confusion or any number of effects. It can be life giving to assure a victim, “It is okay to feel the way you do, it is normal. You aren’t going crazy.”
We must speak the truth about God’s love for them…that no sin done against us can change the love that our God has for us or the value he has placed upon us as human beings made in his image.
There is no end to the truth we must speak, but we most remember to do so gently, appropriately, and timely. Not all truth must be said at once. And not all truth must be said right away. Choose wisely and dispense truth out in the properly sized amounts.
5. Explain options (Allow freedom)
Once these first things have been done, it can be helpful to explain some options to a victim about how they can proceed. But we must be cautious here, it is never okay to demand a victim do something, or even to tell them what to do next. They are the ones who are experiencing this trauma, and it is ultimately their choice how to proceed.
The reason they are a victim is because somebody didn’t respect their desires in a situation. May we not do the same to them.
That being said, most victims (and ourselves) have no idea the options before them. This is why its helpful for us to know different ways we can proceed and have the ability to share them with the victim. It is always good for you to learn about the resources your specific community has to offer in these areas, but I will provide some general options victims have.
- Go to a rape crisis center
Many cities have a rape or sexual assault crisis center. This can be a great first place to go for a victim, particularly if the assault is recent. Staff are trained in the trauma of sexual assault, are women, and are empathetic towards those who come in. A rape crisis center can provide antibiotics, physical exams, preserve evidence if a victim should ever want to go to a trial, and offers many other resources. If a crisis center is unavailable an ER is a fine option as well for an acute (recent) assault.
- Get counseling
Victims are in need of care and loving relationships, often times for the long-term, in order to find healing. Many victims will be hesitant to want to go counseling due to the stigma, or fear of opening up or any host of other reasons. It can be helpful to let them know that good counseling is a tremendous option.
If interested, recommend they find counselors with experience in trauma and someone who will treat them with the respect, belief and care they deserve as human beings.
- File a report
This can also be an intimidating step for victims. Many people see filing a police report as the guarantee they have to go to court where no one will believe them and face their perpetrator. This is not the case.
A victim is completely free to file a report simply to record the event and put the perpetrator’s name into the police system. You do not have to press charges. You do not have to have an investigation done. In fact your perpetrator doesn’t even have to know you filed a police report. The reason this might be suggested is in order to help bring about justice, or at the very least begin a paper trail of the perpetrator to help protect other victims in the future.
Certainly there are other options for victims, these are three general ones that fit nearly every situation. As with everything, talking about these things at the right time and with the right amount of grace is key. Again, make yourself aware of the other options your community has.
Look for women’s shelters such as the YWCA, perhaps a restraining order is needed, talk to a criminal victim advocate, find a volunteer advocate, talk to your church leaders, or another trusted person in your life…there are many options for the victim. Knowing they have steps they can take and options to chose from can help with the feeling of being completely overwhelmed (or at times add to it, be cautious of that).
We must be ready for victims to want to do all or none of these things. And that is okay. Gently revisit options throughout the relationship you have with the person, always supporting their decisions, knowing that those of us who aren’t victims can never fully comprehend what this person is going through.
My hope is that through growing our awareness and ability to care for those who have been abused and assaulted we become a people shining the love of God to others, and ready to minister to all who he calls us to. Through friends and family becoming more aware, more prepared, and more empathetic, we may slowly begin to break the power sexual assault has in our city, our country and our world.
(If this post was helpful read Part 1 for more ways to respond to the disclosure of abuse!)