Recent news reports have revealed the sad reality of several adult women who were victims of sexual misconduct by a man in spiritual leadership. The following article offers suggestions for the counselor who has the opportunity to counsel women in similar situations.1Though this article addresses female victims, men can also be victims of sexual abuse, and their counselors could apply these ideas as well. This article is not intended to address childhood sexual abuse but situations where the victim is an adult. A previous counselee wrote to me last week to let me know how she has been affected after hearing about more victims of an apparent predatory Christian leader. I will call her Cindy.2The counselee’s name has been changed to protect her identity. I asked her to describe what a counselor should know in order to offer care to someone in her position. This blog is the result of our conversation.
Cindy came to my office to work through her past. As an adult, she fell into sexual immorality with the pastor of her church. It lasted for ten years. Her story came out slowly through tears and shame. She had not looked at her experience through the lens of Scripture and was glad to finally talk it out. Her feelings are expressed below.
She Felt Victimized
Cindy felt groomed by the pastor. She believes that he had taken advantage of her as a new believer who frequently relied on his counseling. She regarded him as a father figure. Looking back, she realized that he wouldn’t dare approach someone who would reject him. In 2 Samuel 12:3, Nathan described Bathsheba as the ewe lamb. David recognized the injustice, shown in his reaction to Nathan’s analogy: “He did this thing and had no pity.” Cindy urges counselors to realize that these women need compassion. When she was first approached, her reaction was, “What just happened? Why is this getting sexual? I don’t want this.” Her pastor deliberately led her into an evil situation.
Cindy has since researched why women fall into sexual involvement with their spiritual leaders. There are multiple reasons, including the following: Some are employees of the pastor and are financially dependent. Others might view the spiritual leader as a father figure or even the voice of God. Some may have been sexually abused as children or were emotionally fragile.
She Felt Shame
As her sexual involvement with the pastor continued, her feelings of helplessness, guilt, and shame increased. The counselor should gently come alongside the adult victim who feels damaged by her experience. She needs compassion. Help her by walking alongside her shame and grief. The verses which helped Cindy were Hebrews 12:1-2 and Isaiah 53:3-5, which teach that Jesus bore our shame on the cross. Cindy also wants counselors to know that she discovered freedom through repentance. Through counseling, she was able to sort out where she was sinned against (the abuse) and where she sinned in response to the abuse.
She Thought No One Would Believe Her
Her abuser repeatedly emphasized that if Cindy told the truth, people would think she was lying. She realized that was possible. Besides, they might say hurtful things, gossip about her, and even accuse her of being the aggressor. Our counseling emphasized that God desires us to tell the truth (Ex. 20:16; 23:1). She needed to be shown how to handle others’ misunderstandings about her (Ps. 26:1-2; 35:22-24; Prov. 29:25). Through this teaching, the Lord became foremost in her thinking, and Cindy concluded that “I don’t need to convince the world of what happened to me.”
She Thought Telling the Truth Would Hurt the Church
Cindy knew that if unbelievers heard of what happened, it would be a terrible testimony. She thought she needed to protect this man’s reputation. She was helped by the realization that the church belongs to Jesus. He loves her as His bride (Eph. 5:25-33; Rev. 19:6-9; 21:9). Thankfully, the predatory pastor in this incident stepped down from ministry, and the church dissolved. The members moved on, and the Bride of Christ has received care.
She Thought Revealing Her Situation Would Ruin Her Life
Even now, Cindy does not use her full name on social media for fear of victim shaming. She described the desire to protect her reputation, which prevented crying out for help. “Pride kept me silent,” she says. Her solution at the time was to make sure that others would never know. But she now wants to walk in the light (1 John 1:7). Cindy felt that her life was ruined by her past, and she couldn’t serve in the church. In truth, she is now equipped to help counselors and women in this situation. Second Corinthians 1:3-6 brought peace and purpose to my friend. The Lord has used her mightily in sharing her story with future spiritual leaders.
By God’s grace, Cindy was in a happy marriage when she came to me. She had worried that no man would have her, but the Lord was gracious to give her a husband who knew her story and loved her through it. She wants other women to have that hope. She also advises counselors to seek out the husband of the married victim. He will need help, as well.
Cindy asked me to warn men that they shouldn’t be alone when they counsel vulnerable women. Her situation is not rare. We hear of famous cases of sexual misconduct, but there are probably many more than we realize. I would add that when counseling a woman with feelings of depression, anger, suicide, or other struggles, we should ask difficult questions about her past. Her current problems could be related to mistreatment which has not been previously addressed.
Cindy recommends a book that helped her recognize she was both a sinner and had been sinned against. She carefully read Putting Your Past in Its Place3Stephen Viars, Putting Your Past in Its Place: Moving Forward in Freedom and Forgiveness (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2011). by Steve Viars and answered the questions at the end of the chapters. This book helped her to look through a biblical lens to sort out her troubling memories.
The Lord brings hope and help to the abused and suffering in our midst. The biblical counselor should be equipped to address the lies these victims believe and to offer healing that comes from God’s truth.
Questions for Reflection
- How will you protect vulnerable counselees from abuse by the counselor? Do changes need to be instituted?
- This article did not address the protocol to report and remove a sexual abuser in ministry. Matthew 18:15 confrontation is not advised in such cases. How would you help an adult woman report her abuse?
- What else does a counselor need to know in order to offer the best care to someone who has been taken advantage of as an adult?
Author’s Note: Special thanks to “Cindy,” who was the inspiration for this blog and took the time to accurately describe her story to me over a phone call and several emails.