Abused in Church? Know Your Rights

One of my policies, generally speaking, is to avoid politics. While I make no apology for being progressive, I also feel that it is best to focus on abuse on church, versus larger political issues.

That said, the recent wave of sexual abuse claims directed at politicians and public figures, combined with the #emptythepews and #churchtoo Twitter discussions, gives me hope. Hope that we are finally beginning to take sexual harassment and abuse seriously. And hope that this increased awareness will also result in additional attention to spiritual and emotional abuse in houses of worship.

At the same time, I was impressed with the number of people who have complained of abuse in church via various Twitter hashtags. Clearly, many have suffered in church, and the damage, as I have seen firsthand, can be devastating.

So, in an effort to help those who have experienced any sort of abuse in church, following are my thoughts on your rights, your responsibilities, and related issues.

Your rights:

  • You have the right to be heard and believed.
  • You have the right to be treated with respect.
  • You have the right to have your concerns understood, including the effect that abuse has had on you.
  • You have the right to have your concerns addressed in a meaningful way.
  • You have the right to have irrelevant factors omitted from discussions about abuse, including your gender, your age, your income, your sexual orientation or your gender identity.
  • You have the right to move on when you’re ready, in the manner that works for you.
  • You have the right to refuse anyone who tries to force you to move on before you’re ready.
  • You have the right to publicly share your story.
  • You have the right to blog, post to social media, go to the news media, picket, or do whatever you believe will help you heal if church officials are not responsive, or if you are not comfortable going to church officials, or if you simply feel it will help you move on.
  • You have the right to a prompt, effective response from church officials.
  • You have the right to have all forms of abuse treated as abuse, and treated with equal respect: Spiritual, emotional, relational, financial, sexual, physical or any other form of abuse is just that, abuse.
  • You have the right to file civil suit, or criminal charges, if appropriate.
  • You have the right to an apology.
  • You have the right to restitution.
  • You have the right to appropriate pastoral care and/or counseling.
  • You have the right to be in s safe environment.
  • You have the right to be treated with respect by fellow church members for complaining of abuse.
  • You are right to be free of smear campaigns or other bad behavior that may be used in an effort to discredit you.
  • You have the right to be free of retaliation.
  • You have the right to “wander with intention,” attending church or not, as may work for you, and without being criticized for your decisions.
  • You have the right to be angry.
  • You have the right to make mistakes in how you respond to abuse, without being criticized for those mistakes, or having them used as an excuse to avoid dealing with the abuse.
  • You have the right to be loved.

Your obligations:

  • You are obligated to avoid acting in a way that results in harm to yourself due to possible defamation, harassment, or other civil or criminal charges.
  • You are obligated to do everything you can to heal, recover, and bounce back.
  • You are obligated to get adequate foot, rest, and nutrition.
  • You are obligated to seek immediate help if you are suicidal, dealing with PTSD, or facing other major psychological issues.

Note a pattern here? Your only obligations are to yourself. You owe your abuser nothing.

Things you might want to do:

  • Be careful around persons who may be mutual friends with your abuser. They may face issues of divided loyalties, or may be under the sway of your abuser in ways you don’t fully recognize.
  • Keep a journal, so you can reflect more fully on your progress as you regroup.
  • Avoid or limit alcohol or other substances/behaviors that may have harmful effects over time.
  • Take steps to ensure your personal safety, if appropriate.
  • Consider, when the time is right, whether you could help other victims of abuse.
  • Identify others who have had similar experiences who can offer you unconditional love and support.

Things you’re not obligated to do:

  • Agree to reconciliation or a ceasefire.
  • Trade silence for an end to abuse.
  • Worry about the wellbeing of your abuser or his or her family, including over threats to commit suicide or to otherwise engage in self-harm.
  • Spend time in any situation, or with any person, who makes you uncomfortable.
  • Forgive before you’re ready.
  • Worry about the effects of your accusation on your church.
  • Honor your pledge or other financial commitments to your church if doing so would make you uncomfortable, or make it financially unfeasible to get needed psychological or pastoral care.
  • Accept any responsibility for abuse. Clergy and other persons in positions of power have total responsibility for maintaining boundaries in any and all cases. No excuses, no exceptions.
  • Meet with your abuser.
  • Engage in mediation if doing so would be traumatic for you.
  • Sit in silence if your abuser lies about what happened, disclaims responsibility, or denies everything.
  • Assist church officials in ending public criticism of your abuser.

One final thought: If you have been abused, you are not alone. There are many out there who will pray for you, care for you, and do everything they can to help you.

About Eric Bonetti

I'm a cradle Episcopalian, living in Northern Virginia. My interests include writing, policy, sports, cooking, volunteer work, good food and wine, and teaching kids' cooking classes. I retired in 2017 and now just work for fun. I'm also a regular contributor to Episcopal Cafe, and have been published at HuffPo and other major sites and publications.
This entry was posted in Abuse in the church, church health, clergy predators, harassment, healing after clergy misconduct, Healthy relationships, wholeness. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Abused in Church? Know Your Rights

  1. Deborah says:

    Is there any organization or company that helps people where these rights have been deliberately violated repeatedly over a long period of time? My pastor is recorded in 2 separate meetings slandering, lying, and breaking clergy confidentiality. The elders do not even respond to me but are also recorded slandering and lying. I know that sounds bizarre but it is true. I have so much evidence but no voice. People who have questioned this behavior have been encouraged to leave.
    Is anything helpful-journalistic exposure, law suits, etc.? It seems they can spin anything and facts and evidence really are irrelevant. I’ve never seen anything like it-except the 31 years of marital abuse. Same man is pulling the strings in this situation.

    • Eric Bonetti says:

      Deborah, I encourage you to reach out to Dee Parsons at the Wartburg Watch. She is a caring, decent person who can help tell your story.

      I also am willing to do so. If you give me a number to call, we can talk about your experiences.



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