Samantha Nelson is a pastor’s wife and co-founder/CEO of The Hope of Survivors, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting victims of clergy sexual abuse and educating clergy and congregations. She is also the author of Reaching the Hurting—A Biblical Guide for Helping Abuse Victims. In her limited free time, she enjoys traveling with her husband, the beauty of God’s creation, and spending time with her furry children—two horses, two dogs and one cat.
Some time ago, you experienced abuse first-hand as a church congregant and years later, here you are, advocating for abuse victims through your organization The Hope of Survivors. Can you walk me through the process of how you were able to move forward from a period of such trauma to get to this later point in your life?
Well, when the clergy sexual abuse ended, I spent two years studying my Bible and reading through divinely-inspired books by a woman named Ellen White (her writings are known as the “Spirit of Prophecy” to practising Seventh-day Adventists everywhere.) I was also taking Biblical Counselling courses to obtain my degree and becoming certified as a Biblical Counsellor and Certified Belief Therapist (similar to cognitive behavioural therapy, but Bible-based). It wasn’t because I was planning to go into the counselling field at all—I wasn’t. It was because I had originally gone to my pastor to find out what the Bible had to say about abuse and, unfortunately, my pastor did not teach me anything about what the Bible had to say about it at all!
After those two years, my husband Steve and I were sitting in the living room one night discussing my desire to get involved in the church again. I was thinking about community service-type options. He felt impressed that God was calling us to develop a website to help other people who had been victims of clergy sexual abuse. After all, when we experienced it, we thought we were the only ones. If we could develop a website that would share the truth about clergy sexual abuse, then others would know they were not alone. We never imagined The Hope of Survivors would become a global organization assisting thousands of victims of all denominations and faith communities! We had simply thought, “If we could help just one…”
Does The Hope of Survivors offer any form of counselling to survivors of clergy abuse? What are some ways that you currently work to speak out about the issue of clergy abuse?
Yes! The Hope of Survivors provides one-on-one spiritual and emotional support to victims of clergy sexual abuse through email, phone, a private online support group, and in-person when possible. For two years, we had a Renewal Center where victims could come for a three-day or five-day intensive, however, it was very cost-prohibitive, and we sold the building when we relocated for my husband’s call to pastor in Wyoming.
Additionally, we conduct seminars for pastors and church leaders, for congregations, and for victims of clergy sexual abuse. We have several resources we developed (DVDs, books, etc.) that are available on our website and the website itself is a vast resource of information that victims find very helpful. We also have the annual Clergy Sexual Abuse Awareness & Prevention Campaign® that runs throughout the month of August each year.
What might be the barriers unique to a woman of faith who has been sexually assaulted when it comes to reporting? What are some of the reasons a survivor may choose not to report?
One of the biggest barriers to reporting is that clergy sexual abuse is only illegal in a handful of states. If it were illegal in every state, and if women understood that what they experienced was abuse at the time, then I believe more would report it. Many simply do not understand what is happening to them at the time. They know they didn’t want the sexual relationship, but they are confused because often the pastor will say it was “God’s will” for them to be together, that “God ordained it,” and similar statements. No one wants to believe a “man of God”—a pastor or clergy member—would do anything wrong, especially not commit sexual abuse with a congregant.
Another significant barrier to reporting to church leadership is that some churches are autonomous and there is no one to report to who is above the pastor. There is always a fear of not being believed, of being blamed for the mislabeled “affair,” of being threatened by the abusive pastor, and so on. Some pastors tell their victims that no one will believe them if they tell because the pastor is too powerful and the victim will be blamed for “seducing” the pastor instead. Victims believe these things. They are frightened and confused.
“Both females and males need to be treated with respect and dignity as children of God, and not like objects to be used for one’s sexual gratification.”
Many will choose not to report for those reasons and for the reason that they may lose their job (especially if employed by the church), may lose their spouse (some men never understand the abuse and believe their wives wanted to have an affair), and the overall shame they feel about the situation.
Again, can you share some practical ways that would be helpful for a woman of faith who is seeking emotional and at times, perhaps even spiritual recovery?
I just wrote an article published in the July/August issue of Message Magazine about this very topic! Here are the main points:
- Acknowledge the wrongs committed against you.
- Educate yourself.
- Seek counselling.
- Remind yourself of the truth
- Work through the triggers to overcome.
- Allow yourself to forgive those who hurt you.
- Embrace your new freedom from abuse.
Obviously, one main thing to do would be to contact The Hope of Survivors where the woman will receive the help and encouragement she needs as she begins her healing journey.
What advice would you offer to friends/family members on how they can best support a sexual assault survivor?
Friends and family members can best support a victim of clergy sexual abuse by believing them and being there to listen to their story. Encourage the victim to seek help through contacting The Hope of Survivors, seeing a counsellor, reading books on the subject, etc. Too often, friends and even family members become divided when clergy sexual abuse is exposed because of the loyalty people have to their pastor and their church. This often leaves the victim feeling shamed and blamed for what happened and for “ruining the pastor’s ministry.”
How can the faith community specifically work to better address the needs of abuse victims in our congregations?
Local congregations, as well as Conferences and Unions (whatever the governing body of the denomination may be), can address the needs of victims and educate the congregation by sharing resources (The Hope of Survivors published a booklet called Understanding Sexual Misconduct Among Spiritual Leaders, which has been used extensively for this purpose); conducting seminars (we conduct a number of related seminars), preaching about the topic, referring victims to local counselors and to The Hope of Survivors, and so on. Talking about the issue is key. Abuse can only take place in secrecy. If it is spoken about from the pulpit and clearly stated that there is no tolerance for abuse, then many victims or potential victims will be relieved and feel safer in their congregations.
Sexual assault survivors come in all shapes, colours and forms. Yet, statistics show that children, youth and women are often among the higher groups to experience abuse. What might be the reasons behind this? How should this frame our discussions on the issue in our churches and communities?
Females are, generally speaking, the most vulnerable for various reasons. They are typically smaller in frame, have less physical strength, are the more emotion-oriented of the genders, are most often the peacekeepers in the family, and the most likely to try to “please” or appease those in positions of authority, whether it’s a husband or a pastor.
Boys and men are also abused. I do not want to negate or minimize that in any way at all. The Hope of Survivors has assisted many male victims of clergy sexual abuse as well. Boys and men generally do not talk about it or tell because they feel like something is wrong with them, like they are not “masculine” enough (especially if abused by a male), that perhaps they were supposed to “like it” or “brag about it”—this is particularly true if the abuser was a woman.
We need to frame our discussions about abuse in the church and community in a way that conveys the message that any individual, at any particular time, may be vulnerable for some reason and likely to be sexually abused and assaulted.
Both females and males need to be treated with respect and dignity as children of God, and not like objects to be used for one’s sexual gratification. This, sadly, happens more often to women, as research indicates.
On that note, what can we do to open up conversations in our faith communities about this issue?
Just start talking about it! Ask the pastor to preach a sermon on it or bring in a guest speaker if he is not comfortable preaching himself on the topic, bring in booklets or flyers from local organizations on abuse of various types and from The Hope of Survivors on clergy sexual abuse. Organize a seminar for the congregation or have a special women’s Bible study group. In fact, one of our volunteers, Gail Jenkins, has been conducting a women’s Bible study group for years using my book, Reaching the Hurting—A Biblical Guide for Helping Abuse Victims. It covers various types of abuse and has a Bible study at the end of each chapter. It has been very helpful for many victims of various types of abuse.
It is never easy to face the reality that abuse of such a degree can occur in a church setting, which we typically consider to be a safe environment. So, what are some recommendations you might offer to survivors and women all across the board about how to assert themselves even in a faith setting and maintain healthy boundaries?
One important way to protect yourself is to never meet with the pastor (or any male) alone. Make sure to bring your spouse, a friend or request that the pastor’s spouse be present if you need to meet with the pastor about something, whether counselling, Bible study, etc. Don’t accept any invitations for lunch or dinner or overnight trips, for whatever purpose, unless you will be with your spouse or keep a friend with you at all times. In a counselling setting, be sure to keep the desk between you and have your spouse or friend with you.
All this being said, there are predatory pastors who will find a way around many, if not most, safeguards. So, the most important thing is to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. If something in your gut tells you things are not right, if you see a red flag of some sort, pay attention and remove yourself from the situation. It is better to be embarrassed in the moment, than to ignore the red flags and end up a victim of clergy sexual abuse.
Faith-Based Resources on Abuse:
1. The Hope of Survivors website
No one should have to go through a battle alone. If you or someone you know has been a victim of abuse, we’ve compiled some more great resources here.
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