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  • May30Wed

    Caring for Victims of Abuse

    Who do you reach out to when you need care and support? May 30, 2018 Melodie Bissell
    Filed Under:
    Abuse Awareness, Vulnerable Sector, Case Study

    Last week I was interviewed by a young journalist from Huffington Post and asked why victims of child abuse reached out to clergy to disclose their abuse. The interviewer was writing in response to recent disclosures of abuse: #MeTOO and #ChurchTOO.

    As I responded to the questions, I thought of many individual cases of abuse where each individual disclosed their abuse to someone they trusted. Some of the names have been changed to protect the victims.

    • Patricia tried to tell family and teachers about her abuse, but no one would believe her. Finally, her Sunday School teacher listened to her story and took great efforts to advocate for Patricia.
    • Edith was in her 40s when she remembered the abuse that happened to her as a child. She tried to tell those closest to her.  She found great solace when her adult daughter said, “Mom I’m so sorry this happened to you,” followed by her Pastor’s words, “Edith, I believe you!”
    • Marybeth and Elliott reached out to their Pastor when their nine-year-old son disclosed his abuse. They didn’t know where to turn and they found comfort within the church community who were with them every step of the way in rebuilding the walls of protection for their son.

    Don’t get me wrong, the church has not always been understanding about abuse. Sherry has found the response of the church more painful than the original abuse she experienced. When she finally found the courage to share with others about the abuse she experienced she found church leaders tried to silence her, disassociate themselves from the abuse, and challenged her to forgive the perpetrator and move on. Similarly, David writes, “As I was approaching the fifth grade, I came to the realization there is no god, for how could a god allow this to happen to me.”

    In a study conducted by Jane F. Gilgun, A Mother’s Experience with Pastoral Care in Cases of Child Sexual Abuse, only half of respondents (all mothers whose children were abused by a male family member) found their pastors receptive and helpful when they sought out care. These pastors reported abuse to professionals and also referred them to professional counsellors. The other half of respondents found their pastor ignorant to the issue of child sexual abuse, wanting to avoid the topic. One pastor was critical and judgmental to the point of calling the mother a mental case and indicating she was at blame for the sexual abuse.

    This points to the need for more training and education for those who are supporting victim-survivors of abuse.

    Education is an important element in caring for and responding to victims of abuse.  On-going education should include understanding the legal duty to report abuse, the importance to refer the victim to professional therapists, and guidance on how to walk with the victim on the long journey towards healing. I believe there is also a need for better recognition of the triggers that bring back painful memories of abuse and the coping strategies that many victims are using.  Recognizing both triggers and coping mechanisms is critical when caring for victims of child abuse, in order to avoid re-traumatizing the victim. Unfortunately, too often employers, family members and faith leaders are critical of the individual who walks out on family dinners, struggles with addictions, stares into space, breaks into tears, flies off in anger, and shuts down and is uncommunicative. It takes more than one strong person to bear the burdens of others, it really takes a community to rebuild the walls of protection. 

    But often victims are reluctant to share their stories of abuse. When teens were asked who they would reach out to disclose abuse, the answers varied:

    • Nobody
    • Friends
    • Parent
    • Teachers
    • Coaches
    • Friend’s parent
    • Neighbor
    • Pastor
    • Sunday School Teacher
    • Trusted adult
    • Stranger
    • Kid’s Help Line

    If you are a trusted friend to a victim, I encourage you to begin early on to provide self-care for yourself. For almost twenty years I have been working in abuse prevention and protection. Early on I realized I needed to ensure that I was protecting myself from vicarious trauma. The term vicarious traumatization is used to describe therapists' trauma reactions resulting from exposure to clients' traumatic experiences (Figley, 1995; Pearlman & Maclan, 1995; Trippany, White Kress, & Wilcoxon, 2004).

    Vicarious trauma recognizes that working with trauma survivors greatly affects the helper and that we must address the effects in order to protect both helper and clients. It is unavoidable and is the natural consequence of being human, connecting to and caring about others as we see the effects of trauma on their lives (Saakvitne, Gamble, Pearlman, & Tabor, 2000). We cannot meet the needs of our others when we are overriding our own.

    My self-care includes sharing Monday morning prayer requests with approximately 40 close friends and family members, connecting with nature, spontaneous dates with friends, long walks, and anticipating my next vacation. 

    It is a privilege and honor to walk with others through life’s challenges. Abuse is all around us, no segment of our society is immune to it. We can all call to mind the name of someone who is a victim of abuse. If you are a friend to a victim, I encourage you to sharpen your skills of care and ensure that the care you are providing is planting seeds of hope in the lives of those that struggle with hopelessness. 

    As a community we can bear witness through one’s suffering to assist with strengthening resiliency and discovering joy. We can demonstrate to others that our communities can be safe places aware of the realities that harm can come to vulnerable sectors and that we do not want history repeated. As you implement Plan to Protect® within your organization, you are creating a place that is a hospitable and a community where healing and hope become a reality.


    On Saturday, June 2, 2018, Marcia Higgins said:

    I like the term vicarious trauma. I know that oftentimes people are afraid to care, because they carry around the pain of the the victim's experience, and it becomes burdensome.It also creates cynicism and bitterness in their own lives. The group prayer is certainly a great way of coping and sharing the burden with others. This heals our own souls.



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