The Complicated Question of Forgiveness After Sexual Abuse

Forgiveness is central to Christianity. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter to forgive, “not seven times, but 77 times.” And in the letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul instructs the early Christians, “Be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven you in Christ.”

Yet victim-survivors and advocates report that the holy concept of forgiveness is sometimes used against people who have been abused. Some Church leaders and parishioners insist that victim-survivors must forgive their abusers. This can be a way of misusing Christian theology to push survivors to “get over it,” “quiet down,” or “move on” from their abuse, advocates say.

“I do think that people have weaponized forgiveness,” explains David Pooler, PhD, LCSW, associate professor of social work at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, who conducted one of the largest studies of women abused by church leaders. “It’s a form of gaslighting, protecting the institution, and protecting perpetrators.”

He sees this as a method of using biblical ideas and language to control survivors, noting that it repeats a familiar pattern. “It’s continuing to let the perpetrator off the hook and blame the victim,” he says. “It’s a continuing narrative in the saga of how institutions tend to respond.”

“It’s another form of evil that’s disguised as good,” he adds.

For abuse survivors, this can create additional injury on top of the deep wounds left by sexual abuse, complicating the healing process. Paula Kaempffer, Outreach Coordinator for Restorative Justice and Abuse Prevention for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is herself a survivor of clerical sexual abuse as a young adult, says that in her work with victim-survivors she has heard many stories of priests and other Catholics telling survivors that they must forgive. 

One survivor revealed that a priest told him in confession to pray for his abuser every day for two years as a form of penance. This story horrified Kaempffer. “If only they knew how detrimental that was, to say that so flippantly,” she says. “It’s horrible. That’s abusive.”

Esther Harber, who was raped by a priest in October 2010 when she was 28, says that when Church leaders suggest that survivors must simply forgive their abusers, “That is not mercy,” she explains. “It’s a perversion of mercy.” Among the people she knows who were sexually abused in the Church as adults, Harber says many have shared accounts of abusers and the people around them “misusing the Divine Mercy message … as a means to escape accountability.”

“Mercy and justice do not contradict each other,” Harber says. “True mercy from God cannot be attained without repentance. We all must be careful not to use forgiveness and mercy to absolve ourselves from action.”

Forgiveness Can’t Be Forced

In her work walking with victim-survivors of abuse in the Church, Kaempffer says she never brings up the topic of forgiveness, unless the survivor raises the issue herself and wants to discuss it. The act of forgiving is “not something that we can force out of other people,” she stresses.  

Pooler notes that social science research about forgiveness shows that it is a highly individual process. “It’s your own journey,” he says. “It’s in your own time, in your own way. No one gets to tell you when, where, or how forgiveness should look.” The work of forgiveness takes place in the victim-survivor’s mind and heart, and rarely involves a conversation with the abuser, Pooler emphasizes. “It’s not required to publicly say, ‘I forgive you for what you did.’”

Kaempffer encourages victim-survivors to let go of the self-blame and shame that are so common after sexual abuse. As victims, “we didn’t cause this, we couldn’t stop it,” she offers. “It happened, and we can learn from it.” Shedding shame and self-blame is essential for healing, Kaempffer says, “because shame is paralyzing.”

Be Gentle With Yourself

Kaempffer, who was abused in three different situations as an employee of the Catholic Church, admits that she has struggled at times with the idea of forgiving her abusers. She regularly takes this to God in prayer.

“I believe in the Gospel, I believe what Jesus said, that you have to forgive everyone,” Kaempffer says. “But there are limits that I have as a human being. So I end up saying, ‘God, I can’t. You’re going to have to do it for me,’ and then I just leave it in God’s hands.”

“That’s easier said than done,” she acknowledges, “but if you put it in God’s hands, it takes a lot of the burden off.”

The directive to forgive “is probably the hardest mandate that Christ gave us as Christians,” Harber adds. “Be gentle with yourself in the forgiveness process. If you’re a survivor and you’re struggling to forgive your abuser, keep on that noble road… but know that you have a tender Father in heaven who loves you where you’re at. Be gentle with yourself.”

—Erin O’Donnell, Editor, Awake Blog

Hear More from Esther, Paula, and David
Esther Harber, Paula Kaempffer, and David Pooler took part in Awake Milwaukee’s Courageous Conversation about the sexual abuse of adults in the Catholic Church, held in March 2021. A recording of this powerful event is available on Awake’s YouTube channel. The event included moving personal stories, words of support for survivors, and research findings about the abuse of adults by church leaders.

2 thoughts on “The Complicated Question of Forgiveness After Sexual Abuse

  1. With abuse and similar wrongs, the contemporary church places far too much priority on the idea of forgiveness. So, as a gentle example, this blog starts by saying that “forgiveness is central to Christianity.” Both pastorally and doctrinally the priority placed on forgiveness should be reduced. The experts’ remarks in the column are on target. Forgiveness can be used to gaslight; it can revictimize; it allows perpetrators and institutions to dodge accountability. As Esther Harber says, “Mercy and justice do not contradict each other.”

    Perhaps a pastoral starting-point could be not to speak about coming to forgiveness, but rather coming to healing. Often forgiveness is framed both psychologically and spiritually as a medicine to heal the abused. Although it may do so, this idea too often becomes an “ought” or a “should.” One can easily see how. The Matthean text cited up top precedes the parable of the unforgiving servant. The master forgave the servant but the servant punished his debtors and was in turn punished by the master. So we come to a popular idea that “God forgave me, so I ‘have to forgive everyone’ (to quote Paula).” What if I told you it ain’t necessarily so?

    In Luke’s text on forgiveness (Lk 17:3-4), Jesus says that If your brother or sister repents, forgive. There is no get out of jail free card. And in the first centuries of the Church, public penance became so onerous that the practice of Irish monks of confessing their sins privately to each other became what we know as confession today. Forgiveness does not come easily.

    Better to begin with justice, not forgiveness. As Paula implies, God’s infinite capacity to forgive cannot be reached by finite humans. It is unfair, a violation of justice, to counsel victims toward forgiveness rather than healing.

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