4 Ways to Create an Unwelcome Space for Abusers

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

This article was originally published on

The Institute for Collective Trauma and Growth website.

The last season has confirmed that the abuse that resulted in the #metoo movement is not isolated to secular communities. In response to the #metoo movement, Christians – mostly women – began to publically disclose their own abuse with #churchtoo. This has highlighted how prevalent the issue is and how deep it goes.

Now abuse is a complex issue, but beyond the abuses themselves, religious communities often respond to disclosures, and even admissions of abuse, in ways that further abuse victims, survivors and their family members.

For example, Rachael Denhollander, the tenacious attorney that brought prolific abuser Larry Nassar to justice, stated that her advocacy for abuse victims caused her to lose her Christian community. Another example involves Andy Savage’s Highpoint Church congregation. After publically confessing that he had been sexual with a teen under his spiritual authority twenty years prior, his congregation responded by giving him a standing ovation. This reveals not only an ignorance of what constitutes sexual abuse and the devastating harm it causes, but it also welcomes abusers and communicates that they are safe and free to abuse with impunity in such a community.

So, what are some concrete behaviors we can practice to make sure that victims, survivors, their families, and advocates feel welcome, protected and supported? Plus, what can we do to make sure that abusers do not feel welcome, or safe to groom and abuse potential victims, in our sacred spaces?

We can learn much from the wisdom displayed by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina during the sentencing of Larry Nassar. Let’s take a look at what she did:

1. Give Victim/Survivors a Platform

The lawyers that offered Nassar a plea deal made sure to include the requirement that his victims be permitted to read aloud a statement in the courtroom in his presence. Judge Aquilina welcomed many of Nassar's victims and provided them a platform to speak about their experiences of abuse and the harm he caused. She created a safe supportive space within her courtroom for victims to be heard without fear of retaliation from their abuser.

2. Restrict the Abuser's Voice

At the same time, she limited Nassar’s ability to respond to his victims. This is extremely important. Abusers’ communications with their victims overflow with rationalizations, blaming, shaming, and slander. To allow an abuser the opportunity to speak with their victim is to allow the victim to be re-abused. Plus, to allow an abuser to have a public platform is to allow them to recruit and maintain allies.

In fact, as expected of a serial abuser, Nassar did write a letter to the court complaining of his suffering. Judge Aquilina wisely read selected portions of the letter that highlighted Nassar's lack of repentance. The letter, not surprisingly, included shifting blame and other triggering accusatory spin meant to slander his victims. For example, he described his survivors as being women scorned, the kind that “hell hath no fury like.”

3. Empathize with Victim/Survivors

Another thing Judge Aquilina did was focus all her empathy on the victim/survivors. Make no mistake, listening to a week’s worth of statements communicating experiences of abuse and the long term devastating effects is not easy. Yet, Judge Aquilina encouraged this. She had the capacity to hear their suffering and to empathize with them through it.

4. Withhold Empathy from Abusers

Meanwhile she withheld her empathy from the abuser. This is a difficult truth for many Christians. We prefer to believe the best of people and we desire for even the worst abusers to have a redemption story. But the reality is that abusers use our empathy to manipulate us. It is symptomatic of their abusiveness. To show an abuser empathy is to help entrench them deeper into their delusions of entitlement. In addition, it causes great pain and grief for victims, and in many cases, it re-victimizes the victim. I am not suggesting that you can never have compassion for someone who is an abuser. But, you must not express or reveal it to them. Remember it makes you vulnerable to their spin, it can re-victimize a survivor, and it affirms the abuser’s right to abuse.

These four things: giving victims/survivors a platform to share their experiences, restricting an abuser’s voice, empathizing with victims, and withholding empathy from abusers, will help foster a community that is safe and healing for victims/survivors as well as for recovering abusers. All these behaviors, so perfectly exhibited by Judge Rosemarie Aquilina, will also strongly signal to abusers that they are not safe to abuse in this community, and that if they do, their victims will be believed and supported and the abuser will be reported and held accountable.


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