Helping Families When Sexual Abuse Is Disclosed:

Recommendations for Ministry Leaders
by Dr. Joseph White

When sexual abuse is disclosed, either by a child or by an adult who was sexually abused as a child, there is always pain – first on the part of the victim of abuse, but also on the part of those who love him or her. For this reason, a disclosure of sexual abuse can be particularly devastating to families, whether the abuse occurred within or outside of the family context. As ministry professionals work with families in a variety of contexts, they might sometimes become aware of situations in which a disclosure of abuse has been made. The following are some suggestions for ministry leaders:

Listening is key. Sometimes when someone is dealing with a traumatic situation, we are at a loss for words. But persons facing difficult circumstances often need to be heard by us more than they need to hear something from us. Empathic reflection is most important initially. As difficult it may be to hear about someone else’s trauma, remember that as ministry professionals, we are the face of the Church. Make sure to send the message that we have time to listen, and we care about what they are going through.

Believe the disclosure and encourage parents and family members to do the same. Only an estimated 5% of allegations of sexual abuse are false, and these usually occur in very specific types of circumstances.

Reassure parents that what happened is not their fault. Because parents know that they are their child’s primary protector, parents often feel enormous guilt upon hearing that their child has been victimized. Tell the parents that you know how much they care for their child and that you are certain they would have done everything they could have to prevent the abuse if they had known.

Make sure the abuse has been reported. As professionals who work with children, we are
obligated to report abuse if we become aware of it. In most states, the criterion is “reasonable suspicion.” We don’t have to decide whether or not allegations of abuse are true. If we have cause to believe a child has been abused, we must report and leave it to the authorities to investigate as necessary. The obligation to report child abuse exists even if the abuse is reported after the victim has become an adult. We can never know if the perpetrator might still have access to children or might abuse a child in the future. For this reason, a report should always be made.

Advise parents to avoid leading questions and allow professionals to investigate the abuse.
There have been cases in which perpetrators have been acquitted because a child was
inappropriately questioned and asked leading questions when the allegations have been made. Encourage parents to listen emphatically and attentively and to reassure the child of their love and protection, but advise them not to ask questions about the abuse until a trained professional has all the facts.

Encourage parents and families to seek therapy. Sexual abuse can be extremely stressful for children and teens, and the emotional damage does not simply disappear when the abuse ends. To help prevent long-term negative consequences, encourage the parent to make an appointment with a counselor or psychologist who specializes in working with children (or, for adults remembering abuse, encourage them to see a therapist with experience in treating post-traumatic stress). Counseling can also be beneficial for parents coping with the stress and grief associated with their child’s victimization.

Dr. Joseph White is a Clinical Child Psychologist and is Board Certified in Sexual Abuse by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress.