forgiveness in the context of abuse

Forgiveness in the Context of Abuse

Child abuse is an issue in just about every community, it would seem no-one can be complacent even faith communities, even Christian faith communities to which I belong. Everyone is aware of the highly publicised cases of child sexual exploitation (CSE) that have involved Muslim perpetrators, and Christian perpetrators. These are not the only Christian contexts where it is taking place. The decentralisation of evangelical churches means it is harder to know the extent of the problem, but there is a growing awareness that there is a serious problem here too. It has been reported that in 2016/17 there were 179 cases of child abuse involving pastors in the US.[1] As I say no-one can be complacent or say the problem is elsewhere.

A very real concern for Christian faith communities is not just the abuse but the high level of cover-up that has occurred.

“Stories of sexual abuse in Christian communities are all too often accompanied by equally distressing tales of how those communities themselves sided with the abuser, protecting them, returning them to positions of leadership and respect quickly and quietly, shielding them from consequences and traumatizing their victims in the process. This sometimes results from good old-fashioned cronyism and outright corruption – however, in many cases, abuse within the church is mishandled as a result of poor theology and misinformation about the dynamics of abuse. A poorly developed understanding of forgiveness can lead to victims being shamed for being “bitter” or “vindictive” – or pressured into premature forgiveness as a key to their healing.[2]

It is therefore essential that we have a full understanding of forgiveness as it applies in the context of abuse in a Christian community context.

Too often the victim is encouraged to forgive the perpetrator and for everyone to then be encouraged to move on. The problem then being assumed to have disappeared. It has not.

The problem with this approach is made with brutal clarity by Sister Dianna Ortiz, a nun who was kidnapped and raped in 1989 by Guatemalan forces under the command of Americans:

“I was asked by others, friends as well as strangers, not whether I was receiving any justice from my government but whether I had forgiven my torturers. I wanted the truth. I wanted justice. They wanted me to forgive, so that they could move on. I suppose, once I forgave, all would be well—for them. Christianity, it seemed, was concerned with individual forgiveness, not social justice. “

This left her feeling helpless, hopeless, abandoned:

“I lived in a world created by my torturers. They had told me, as so many other tortured persons have been told, “Even if you survive what we have done to you and tell the world, no one will believe you. No one will care.” That is the world I lived in: No one cared. No law, no God, no justice, no peace, no hope.”[3]

For Christians forgiveness cannot be separated from justice. When it does, forgiveness becomes another means of abuse. Ignoring evil, minimising its impact and granting evildoers impunity is not forgiveness. Forgiveness does not forego the claims of justice. For a Christian, forgiveness and justice are linked together. Forgiveness is possible because Christ, through the cross, fulfilled the ultimate claims of justice. Forgiveness is possible because the very real debt, which did exist, was paid.

Biblical justice compels us to move to uphold righteousness and see that sin is condemned and victims restored AND that we refrain from viewing abusers as different from ourselves because evil lies in the heart of us all. All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.

An attitude of justice longs for wrongs to be righted and wrongdoing punished; an attitude of forgiveness longs for the inclusion and restoration even of our enemies. The two go together, hatred, vengeance and revenge are excluded.

In the case of abuse in the church we need to recognise that human justice is not an instrument of revenge but is a way of the community siding with the victim, and God, in condemning evil, punishing the wrongdoer and defending the rights of the individual. There is also the need to protect other victims. The decision not to punish the abuser is not the victims to make, that is what police and prosecutors should do.

Victims are often the powerless in society, perpetrators the powerful. Coming alongside victims and prioritising them is to follow the example of Christ and to sacrificially pursue justice because it is right rather than because it is beneficial. It stops us hiding or minimising abuse for the sake of reputations, money, influence or pure apathy, which then causes us to repudiate the witness of Christ.

Human justice also allows the abuser to come to terms with the reality and severity of their sin. If they deny the evil they have done, they cut themselves off from true love and the joy of forgiveness. Truly repentant abusers’ side with both God and the victim, they do not use repentance as an excuse to evade justice but recognise the rightness of punishment.

Let us all be aware of the damage that abuse causes in any and every community, even ours. Let us also be aware of the additional and greater damage that covering it up causes. There is no excuse for such a cover-up.

Tony Thompson FACES co-chair

[1] Wade Mullen, “Impression Management Strategies Used by Evangelical Organizations in the Wake of an Image-Threatening Event” (Capital Seminary and Graduate School, 2018), 183–224.

[2] pg.1

[3] Ibid., pg. 11

faiths against child sexual exploitation
A Christian and Muslim collaboration
Annual report 2024 Annual report 2023
Registered charity number: 1188740 (England and Wales)
Top pages
Resources Training