I have been involved in several counseling cases in which a grown woman reveals that she was sexually abused in her childhood. The circumstances were never reported to the authorities, nor had they been resolved in her own life. Typically, the perpetrator was a relative. When the abuse happened, the girl reported the incident to her mother. The mom then tried to protect her daughter from further abuse, but she would also tell the girl to remain quiet about the incident for fear of disrupting family harmony. Another common feature of these sad stories is that, as the girl grew up, she would hear about others who had also been molested by this same family member.
You may be the first person (other than her mother or husband) to hear the victim’s story. She may be dealing with many troubling issues, including feelings of false guilt, trouble in achieving sexual intimacy in her own marriage, anger at her relative for abusing her, anger at the family members who failed to expose the abuser and protect her, and confusion over whether she should act to report or expose the abuser. She might also be expected to continue interacting with this person at family gatherings. These situations are, at best, awkward and painful; at worst, they are frightening and potentially dangerous.
I believe that sexual predators must be exposed regardless of the amount of time that has elapsed since the woman’s assault. Even if the counselee is no longer at risk, there have likely been other victims; perhaps even to the present day. When the perpetrator’s abuse is exposed, other victims may come forward. We must also be concerned about future victims.1My wife counseled a 44-year-old woman who had been raped by a pastor when she was 16. She told her mother, who prevented a recurrence, but the pastor was never exposed. Decades later, the pastor was finally exposed as a lifelong sexual predator. The 44-year old woman wept saying, “Perhaps if I had done more to expose him so many years ago some of these girls could have been protected.” Statistics state that most predators commit many (even hundreds of) sexual assaults before they are caught. Perpetrators should be exposed for the protection of potential victims (Prov. 31:8-9; Ps. 82:3; Isa. 1:17). Jesus declares, “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12).
So what does this process look like? Briefly, I would like to suggest the following recommendations:
- The perpetrator’s crimes should be reported to the civil authorities. It is the government’s job to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute such matters (Rom. 13:1ff; 1 Pet. 2:14). The sex offender registry is also an effective way the civil authorities warn the public about predators.
- Other known victims might be sought out to make the case against him stronger because their voices of testimony could be added to that of the accuser (Deut. 19:15).
- In addition, the extended family should be warned about his abusive behavior for the protection of potential future victims.
- The family should be extremely wise when choosing to include the offender at gatherings. In order to protect prospective victims, it is best that he be excluded (1 Cor. 5:13).2If he were to confess his sins and repent, there may be a path for him to be at family gatherings under tight restrictions with constant surveillance. If he is truly repentant he would welcome this.
Unfortunately, sometimes the victim may pay a price for exposing the perpetrator. Scripture warns that we will sometimes suffer for doing what is right (1 Pet. 3:17). The following are potential outcomes in these situations:
- The perpetrator will deny everything and make counter-accusations against the victim(s).
- Family members may not believe the victim and/or they may blame the victim(s) for disturbing family peace. It may even be that the victim and her family will be shunned instead of the sexual predator facing consequences.
- The government may fail to execute justice. The statute of limitations may have run out. Often, those who are tasked to investigate do not find sufficient evidence to charge the perpetrator. Sometimes, the legal system simply fails.
Thankfully, the victim can trust that God’s justice will ultimately prevail even when human justice fails (Rom. 12:19). Fear of not being believed or mistreated should not stop a victim from doing what is right. We do this for the Lord’s sake, not because it is always pleasant. The victim must trust in God and His Word and not lean on her own understanding (Prov. 3:5-6). Regardless of the response of the extended family and the civil authorities, the victim and her immediate family would be wise to make it clear that they are not willing to participate in any family gathering where the unrepentant perpetrator is present.
For the other counseling issues mentioned above, I highly recommend that a counselee read (and be counseled through) Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault by Justin S. Holcomb and Lindsey A. Holcomb. It is an excellent resource that helps the victim of abuse process the emotions she experiences as a result of what was done to her. I also recommend Bob Kellemen’s booklet, Sexual Abuse: Beauty for Ashes, which masterfully applies the tragic story of Tamar from 2 Samuel 13 to the counseling case of a woman who was sexually abused by her husband.3I also recommend my mini-book, “Help! Someone I Love has Been Abused” (Shepherd Press).
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God (2 Cor. 1:3-4).
Questions for Reflection
How would you wisely help someone who was a victim of abuse many years ago to deal with what has happened to her in the past? Why is it important to report sexual abuse even if it happened a long time ago? How would you help a victim who feels guilt because others may have been victimized because she did not expose the predator long ago?