What to Do if You Suspect Abuse


[A large amount of the following material is derived from Barbara Chester’s article, ‘Recognizing the Symptoms and Consequences of Sexual Assault and Abuse’]

“We are often reluctant to ask about things like abuse … fearing that we are being impolite. Shame, fear, and embarrassment often inhibit us from asking directly for the information we need to help us [serve and help the folks around us]. When you observe symptoms or suspect abuse, ask.”

Here are seven items to bear in mind if you suspect abuse:

(1)  PRAY!  Even if you don’t have a lot of time, God never requires us to be so hasty that we don’t have a chance to pray for His guidance and help.

(2)  If the person you suspect has been molested wants to talk with you about a different problem in their life, be sure to let them speak about that problem. (We will call this problem the “presenting” issue, because it is the one they initially present to you.) Be sure not to respond in a dismissive way to the presenting issue, even if you know that its true cause is molestation, else the victim may not feel you are giving them adequate respect and they may be discouraged from opening up.  It is important to earn the victim’s trust and respect, and this is a good opportunity to do so. We need to be alert to the fact that the real problem may be “too frightening [for the victim] to discuss immediately” with us.

(3)  “Be aware of your own comfort level with the issues of sexual assault, abuse, and sexuality. We all have our own biases and prejudices, and certain types of people with whom we do not work well. Do not hesitate to refer people with whom you can’t work so that they may get help from a colleague”. It is obviously worth checking up on how the referral went.

(4)  Ask open questions and be sure not to put ideas in the victim’s head—or words in their mouth. You must, at all costs, avoid ‘leading the witness’. You can, however, remark that the symptoms the person is exhibiting are similar to those displayed by those who have been sexually abused.

(5)  “Ask your questions in a matter-of-fact, normal, respectful tone of voice. Your calmness and professional attitude can ease the feelings of shame and secrecy and may make disclosure possible at some future time. Some examples: 'A lot of people have experienced a situation in which someone has abused or assaulted them. Has that happened to you?';  'People troubled with anorexia (or some other symptom) have sometimes been sexually assaulted. I’m wondering if that’s the case with you'.  Take seriously any hint from the survivor that they have gone as far as they can for the time being in exploring what has happened.  Even though the molester might still be abusing children, it can be disastrous to pressurize the victim into going faster than they can comfortably manage, else they may curtail their relationship with you (and you are potentially the only person in a position to get them to the 'finishing post'), and they may retract whatever testimony they had previously given, (potentially ruining this opportunity to catch and stop the perpetrator).” 

(6)  Just because someone does not remember abuse does not mean it hasn't happened.  Just as a car accident can be so traumatic that the injured party cannot recall what took place (because the brain has suppressed it), so child molestation can be so traumatic that the survivor's subconscious buries it.  In this situation, I recommend pointing such a person to the material in this page of our site: Detailed List of Indicators of Possible Child Sexual Abuse and seeing how many indicators the person can relate to.  If abuse remains a definite possibility, it is a good idea to prayerfully chat with them (and anyone who knows them well) about the possibility of abuse having occurred and whether they can think of additional evidence, or any ways to try to spark memories.  However, be sensitive to the fact that, unless the survivor is old enough, is close enough to the Lord, and has an adequate set of people in their life to provide the necessary support, they may not be ready to cope with recalling what was done to them and who did it.  Be careful not to push the survivor beyond what they can cope with.  (If their memory does not return, the brain is holding it back for a reason!) 

(7)  In all cases, you should report the suspected abuse to the police. But the specific way you should talk with a victim is dependent on whether they are a child, adolescent, or adult:

When dealing with a child, it is “important to remain calm and to phrase questions in age-appropriate language. For example, a child can be asked if anyone has touched her, or forced her to touch them, in ways that make them feel bad or ashamed”. For further guidance, see the Appendix to the book ‘Preying on our Children’, reproduced at the end of this webpage.

When dealing with an adolescent, it is vital to get them to open up, so “[q]uestions should avoid implications of “good” or “bad,” especially as it relates to sexuality. Thus questions such as “I am surprised at your behavior considering the nice family you come from” should be avoided at all costs. One can say instead, “Sometimes a change in grades like this means that a person has some stressful things going on in their life. Is there anything distressing going on with you right now? Is anyone hurting or threatening to hurt you?””

Important Note: Much of the advice in the "Crucial Do's and Don'ts" material at the end of this page also applies to adolescents.

When dealing with an adult. “find out if she [or he] wishes to contact someone or to talk with you further about it. Respect [their] decision if [they’re] not ready but let [them] know that you, or other resources, are available”.


Vital Do's and Don'ts When a Child Reports Abuse

          There are some imperative practical things to bear in mind when a child reports abuse. (The following points were chiefly derived from the work of Keeble. [1]) Please also make certain to pray for God's guidance and help.

  • Ask open questions, and avoid any possible accusation that you've put ideas in the child’s head, or words in their mouth. You must, at all costs, avoid ‘leading' the witness. “If you ask: ‘So was it Uncle Billy who touched your privates?’ then you’ve probably blown the prosecution and hampered a chance to make the child safe. Instead, just ask ‘What happened? What are you worried about?’ Never, ever, suggest a name of an abuser or an act.”

  • Speak in age-appropriate language so as to ensure the child understands you correctly. And, “If you are not sure what’s been said [by the child], just ask the child to say it again.” Children possess limited vocabulary and experience, so they sometimes use the same word to mean multiple different things. “[B]y using the word ‘sex’ they may mean kissing, for example.” Just gently ask them to explain what they mean, if there is any ambiguity.

  • Be kind and very patient. Tell the child that they are definitely doing the right thing by reporting what has happened, and that everything will be okay. You need to encourage the (potentially very frightened) child to be open, to maximise the chances of stopping the abuser in his tracks.

  • Show the child you believe them, but try to remain calm—else they may clam up. Young children “react strongly to the distress of an adult, believing that they are at fault for causing this distress”. Try not to show too much anger about the abuse, else the child may worry that you won’t handle their information wisely.

  • Express empathy towards the child, and reassure them that they were not to blame for the abuse. But be careful about appearing to condemn the perpetrator, especially where there may be love or other attachment involved. (“Many children do not want the perpetrator harmed”.)

  • After speaking with you, the child will need to talk with a worker from the children’s protective services. The child may well be totally horrified at this prospect, either through fear of what the perpetrator will do on discovering they've told on him, or through fear of the effect on their circumstances if the authorities become involved. To stop the child retracting their report, ensure they understand that the perpetrator needs help and that, in order for the abuse to stop and for the perpetrator to get the necessary help, this step is vital. Reassure them that the authorities are experienced at preventing molesters from causing harm, and that the church will look after the child and its family. IMPORTANT: In certain circumstances, e.g. where a parent is committing the abuse, the authorities may try to take the child into ‘care’. Unless God clearly shows you otherwise, this must not be permitted, because such ‘care’ is VERY dangerous (see 'Q&A' section of this site).

  • Once you’ve finished speaking with the child, write down the day, date, time, place, and what you and the child said. It is generally best to contact the authorities personally, rather than raising the matter with anyone else. This is because people tend to talk, and the news might get back to the abuser and give him the chance to destroy vital forensic evidence—and even give him enough time and space to influence the child’s testimony.

  • Once you’ve written down the details of the conversation, you need to contact social services (or the police) as soon as humanly possible. Not after the child has left your company, but immediately. This is again critical for making the most of any forensic opportunities, but it also gives the police the best chance to keep the child (and other children) safe from further abuse.

The authorities should be able to take the matter from here.






[1] Some of the advice in this appendix was drawn from Sexual Assault and Abuse: A Handbook for Clergy and Religious Professionals, edited by Mary D. Pellauer et al, but for numerous theological reasons this is not a book I could ever recommend.