Children are utterly dependent on their adults to provide for their basic physical needs, safety and security, and the resources to continue to access their needs. When children are abused, especially by those charged primarily with their care, the betrayal runs deep. Survivors articulate an existential injustice.
“It seems to me that Childhood is like building a bank account, parents, teachers and other caring adults, make deposits of love, care, and support in a child’s bank account. Abuse makes withdraws on the account; the higher the balance, the more resources a child has for the withdrawals, the younger the child is when the abuse happens, the lower the account is for the child to draw on. I had only four years of deposits, which stopped suddenly, then the withdraws started.” I was born legally blind. My mother abused my father and threw him out when I was four. My mom beat me mercilessly, sexually assaulted me, arranged for men to come into our home to sexually assault me, and she delighted in her cruelty to me. I finally escaped after a couple of decades. In that time no one helped me. I prayed that whole time. God chose to do nothing. The clergy I’ve attempted to speak to are either unable or unwilling to provide adequate explanations for this. Christians say God is love and God is good all of the time, but this ignores my experience. I have had no experience of love. I do not know what it is. And God allowing a child to be tormented can hardly be good for the child, nor could it be good for the abuser. Where is all of this love Christians go on about?
JVC spiritual care client (the italicized portions are paraphrased)
How would you answer these questions?
The Julie Valentine Center recognized the spiritual impact of abuse after years of listening to similar spiritual questions from numerous clients and watching churches poorly respond to incidents of sexual assault among membership. “There is a corner of the heart reserved for church pain,” as my colleague would say. From our years of listening, it would seem that for many clients it is the church hurt that tends to supersede the pain of the assault itself. From ignoring anything happened to covering up crimes, from minimizing the hurt a victim/victims’ family feel to rushing them to “forgive and get over it,” many of our clients have lost entire faith families, pastoral guidance, and even a felt connection to God in the wake of churches’ responses to sexual assault. JVC’s response to this impact included hosting annual training events for religious leaders, adding a chaplain to our staff to provide spiritual care to these clients, and developing an increased understanding of spiritual injuries among all staff.
What distinguishes a professional chaplain from a congregation’s pastor, rabbi, imam, or priest is both context and purpose. While the former serves in a secular context offering equal access to spiritual care for all people regardless of religious background, the latter serve in specific contexts preaching and teaching a specific set of sacred texts and religious beliefs to a specific group of people. Thus, my job in working with the clients is not to try and solve their problem or seek to provide a nice, tidy theological answer. My job is to honor the pain behind the questions; validate the questions; and offer to be a conversation partner for wrestling with these issues, index possible resources for the client, or simply sit in the metaphorical dark with this client for the season of deep grief and great loss. I do not set the goals of care; the client identifies their goals in working with me. They get to move the goalposts as they need. Sometimes a person who never intended to return to a church finds themselves eagerly exploring possible new congregations. Sometimes a person who deeply believed they were beyond God’s benevolence came to believe they were indeed beloved, and no thing done unto them set them apart from God. Some find peace after a season fraught with anxiety. Some find hope after a season of despair.
In the case of our survivor cited above, through a season of discussion and searching through the works of ancient to contemporary theologians she came to believe that perhaps God’s love was not only in the gift of freewill (including the choice offenders make to abuse) but also in Jesus’ absorption of sin. Earlier in our conversations, she struggled with the often indexed purpose of Jesus: to take on the sins of the world. She asked, what good does that do me? What happened to me wasn’t my sin. What good does it do me that Jesus died for the sins of my abusers? These are good questions.
She later posited: what if Jesus not only took on the sins people committed but also the resulting suffering of those sins? That would include me, too! God is not so distant when I think of what Jesus suffered. His crown of thorns? I know what it feels like to have picture frames shattered over my head, glass cutting into my scalp. He was stripped and mocked: my mother did this to me. Through realizing that she was not alone in that kind of suffering, that Jesus knew what it was like to live through some of that kind of torture, our client felt less isolated from God and others. In coming to understand Jesus as scapegoat in the cross event, she recognized her own experiences were best understood through the scapegoat archetype. Ultimately, she does not claim to understand why God allows some of the evil that occurs in this world, apart from the freewill choices people make. But she has come to believe that perhaps God isn’t cruel in his absence, but near and present especially in our suffering.
Had any of us professed to know the answers to her initial questions and offered up the very conclusions she came to, it would have been cold-comfort and perhaps additionally spiritually injurious. Accompanying her on her journey to those answers empowered her reconnection with the God of her religion and the stories of her faith in ways that led to some measure of balm for the spiritual injuries sustained in childhood, and later in the inadequate responses from well-meaning Christians.
This is why we offer our annual When Faith Hurts conference for area faith communities, victim service providers, and therapists to learn from our experience in the field of child abuse and sexual assault recovery. Beyond a mere safe sanctuaries or safe haven policy training, we discuss the ways a victim’s spirituality is impacted by abuse and by responses to abuse. We identify the ways faith community predators operate and exploit the veneer of religious piety to gain access and groom potential victims. We discuss trauma-informed pastoral care approaches and policy initiatives that seek to keep everyone safe and ministered to. We index power dynamics in abusive situations and in faith communities that can be exploited by offenders. We facilitate case studies to give participants the chance to practice thinking-through scenarios before finding themselves responding to a crisis in their congregation. We create connections among the faith communities and victims’ services workers to improve outcomes for everyone.
You are invited and we hope you will join us. Our training is open to anyone who seeks to better understand and advocate for survivors of sexual assault and give survivors a helpful and healing experience of their religious communities.
Reverend Carrie Walker Nettles, MDiv, VSP
Chaplain & Specialized Victim Advocate
Julie Valentine Center
Carrie Nettles is a pioneering professional in the field of child abuse and sexual assault as she became the country's first full- time chaplain hired by a child abuse and sexual assault center when she joined Julie Valentine Center in 2017. Carrie provides victim advocacy, spiritual care, and faith community education.