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. ) Please also make certain to pray for God's guidance and help.
The authorities should be able to take the matter from here.
 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.