SHOULD YOU FORGIVE THE PERPETRATOR OF YOUR SEXUAL ASSAULT?
Whether speaking with survivors of sexual assault or therapists who endeavor to assist in their recovery, the issue of forgiveness raises intense opinions. Some religious entities and abusers have used forgiveness as a tool for ensuring victims’ silence, minimizing the short- and long-term impact of the crime, or releasing perpetrators from responsibility or the punishment they deserve. If you have been a victim of child sexual assault or experienced assault as an adult, you need no reminder of the range of consequences: anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, revictimization, eating disorders, self-harm, addiction, traumatic sexualization, shame, low self-esteem, helplessness, suicidal ideation, auto-immune disorders, high blood pressure, and post-traumatic stress disorder. If your abuser was a member of the clergy, you may have additionally suffered “spiritual devastation” or “the death of the soul.”1
Merriam Webster defines forgiveness as giving up resentment. Megan Feldman Bettencourt, a victim of date rape, says that survivors can give up resentment and hold the abuser accountable. You can forgive, yet never reestablish a relationship. In researching her book, Triumph of the Heart: Forgiveness in an Unforgiving World, she interviewed assault survivors who granted forgiveness after various betrayals and offenses, including sexual assault. She wrote about the pervasive misconception that confuses forgiveness with pardon and reconciliation. “If you forgive, this misguided thinking goes, you refrain from reporting the offender.” She claims that this confusion has created a minefield of “musts” for survivors: they must either forgive and stay silent or stay angry and press charges. “If you forgive someone, you must be happy to have that person in your life. What a toxic brew of nonsense.”2
Feldman Bettencourt cited a case in a Mennonite community in Bolivia where dozens of women who reported being raped were told by church leaders that in order to enter heaven, they must forgive. The first of those victims who filed a rape complaint in 2016, the first who refused to keep the secret, did not receive the support of her church family. Feldman Bettencourt calls out such “weaponized forgiveness” as fueling women’s participation in their own oppression. She says that women remaining silent, sometimes due to a virtuous capacity for forgiveness, shows how indoctrinated they have been with the idea that to be forgiving, we must refuse to hold men accountable for their abuse.
Filing sexual assault charges, whether the abuse occurred decades ago when we were children or recently, can be an overwhelming ordeal. Doing so may result in justice for the survivor in the form of punishment for the abuser and financial compensation (for suffering, funds spent on therapy or lost wages due to psychological or physical disorders). However, the risks of filing charges are considerable for the survivor: s/he will have to tell the account of the assault multiple times, the process could take months or years, it will take an emotional toll, and s/he may not receive an admission of responsibility or an apology from the perpetrator, even if the abuser is found guilty and some compensation is made.
According to Feldman Bettencourt, assault survivors must realize that forgiveness and justice are not mutually exclusive—that this belief robs assault survivors of dignity, empowerment, and healing. “To recover from trauma and change the culture that enables sexual abuse, we must be free to tell the truth, protect our safety, seek justice, and release our bitterness.”
Feldman Bettencourt didn’t report her own assault; she shared/processed her experience with close friends and let it go. She has no contact with the abuser but bears no resentment toward him. She found that some assault survivors, though, remain victims of their own anger. “Being angry is a natural response to injustice, an important aspect of grief, and a powerful motivator for change. . .To be healthy and happy, we must forgive ourselves and those who hurt us. We can, and must, both demand justice and release resentment.” Self-preservation was the motivation for forgiveness cited by several women she interviewed. They sought not merely to survive, but to enjoy a quality of life that hatred would never allow.
Driven by what Feldman Bettencourt calls righteous rage and demands for dignity, she views the #MeToo movement as a chance to upgrade the antiquated definition of forgiveness that deprives women of empowerment and healing. She believes that seeing forgiveness as a process of releasing resentment rather than one that overlooks justice (implying silence or reconciliation) will be most helpful to survivors. In her novel, The Storyteller, Jodi Picoult wrote, “Forgiving is something you do for yourself. It’s saying, ‘You’re not important enough to have a stranglehold on me. You don’t get to trap me in the past. I am worthy of a future.’”3 This resonates with me as a survivor.
Lysa Terkeurst, in Forgiving What You Can’t Forget, agrees that forgiveness and reconciliation are not a package deal. “Forgiveness is the very thing God designed to help heal the hurting human heart. When we refuse to let God’s forgiveness flow through us to other people, it becomes a heavy weight that can cause anxiety, fear, depression, and angst that no human should have to bear. Forgiveness isn’t dependent on another person making the situation right. It’s between me and God. The more we focus on God, the more focused we are on His peace. The more we focus on His peace, the more we’ll feel His peace. When I only think I need a little bit of God’s forgiveness flowing to me, then I’m only willing to let very little forgiveness flow through me. Forgiveness is a complicated grace that uncomplicates my anger and helps me see beautiful again.”4
Aware of her own sinfulness and need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, Mother Teresa advised forgiving all who have harmed us. “Whether the offense was small or great, Mother Teresa was willing to overlook it, rather than seek revenge or distance herself from the offender; she likewise refused to harbor resentment or keep a grudge. She went even further: she was concerned for the one who hurt her, for their emotional and spiritual well-being, which had been compromised because of the wrong they had done.”5
Pope Francis, also an advocate for forgiveness, said, “Mercy creates joy, because our hearts open up to the hope of a new life. The joy of forgiveness is unmistakable; it radiates all around us whenever we experience it. Its source is God’s love as He comes to meet us, breaking down the walls of selfishness that surround us and turning us into instruments of mercy.”6
I don’t know about you, but as a survivor of multiple childhood sexual assaults, I cringe when reading about concern for the social-emotional well-being of the offender or breaking down the walls of selfishness that surround us. These religious perspectives ring paternalistic and heavy-handed to my ear. Although I confronted the brother who molested me over a period of three years, accepted his apology, and forgave him, I maintained a safe distance between us. And as for selfishness, except for not liking to share my food, there is no wall between me and others. Over the days of writing this blog, it occurs to me that I told my brother I forgave him, but I’m my resentment and bitterness weren’t entirely alleviated.
Mic Hunter, Psy.D., a psychotherapist, described a ritual of reconciliation as an alternative to forgiveness or filing charges in cases of sexual abuse of a child by a member of the clergy. He believes that survivors taking part in such a ritual can be just as empowering and less emotionally costly than court proceedings.7
One of Hunter’s clients, after completing treatment for chemical dependency, engaging in individual therapy, and in a men’s group, considered suing the church that had employed his abuser. After discussing the matter with Hunter, the client wrote a letter to the church asking for compensation for treatments and wages lost due to his physical and mental disorders. A clergyman from the denomination met with Hunter and his client and asked if there was anything, beyond financial compensation, the church could do to atone for the sin that had been committed.
The survivor and Hunter developed a ritual of reconciliation which was carried out with the clergyman, the victim, his wife, mother, and the therapist at the church where the abuse had occurred. The minister, in the name of the church, accepted responsibility for the abuse and offered a blessing to the family. Afterward, all who’d been involved shared a meal and each participant stated that they had been changed in a positive way. The man had demanded justice, his pain was recognized, he was comforted, and the church paid for the wrongdoing. The survivor was listened to, was treated with respect, and he obtained justice.
In his Document on the Witnessing of Reconciliation, Hunter wrote that his client “has chosen to reach out in the spirit of justice and forgiveness to those who represent the one who harmed him. He has chosen to believe that there are some crimes which are better handled by the laws of God and morality than by the laws of human courts…As a member of the human family it is my sincere desire that my client will be, at last, freed of his painful burden by whatever psychological and spiritual means necessary…May his soul, sexuality, and mind be healed so that he lives a long life filled with serenity.”
In a review of research about forgiveness in cases of sexual abuse, Maria Prieto-Ursua recently wrote that “forgiveness is a complex concept with multiple dimensions and possibilities and can offer victims a valuable resource for overcoming their pain. Although forgiveness is not essential to a victim’s healing process, there are numerous studies that have discussed its positive effects.”8
“Forgiveness must be clearly differentiated from reconciliation. It is an individual process, a changing in the heart of the victim which leads to a reduction in discomfort, helping to mitigate or alleviate negative emotions… and thoughts… and reducing the tendency to use avoidance or revenge behavior.”9
“Forgiveness can be an exclusively individual process which the offended person goes through without the participation of the offender or be a two-person process, in which conditions must be established for the abuser so that forgiveness is possible (the admission of responsibility, demonstration of repentance, and some reparative behavior). This negotiated forgiveness has been advocated as appropriate for victims of child sexual assault.”10
Recommendations (from Prieto-Ursua, except 1 and 10 from Feldman Bettencourt):
- As loved ones, advocates of survivors, and communities, we must first listen to victims and secure their safety. Then we must focus on their needs (mental health support for processing grief and to promote recovery from the assault).
- Remember that forgiveness is a difficult, slow process, so it is advisable to take the necessary time and not rush it.
- Victims must accept that the offense occurred and is part of their lives; it isn’t about acting as if nothing happened and forgetting it but about finding a place for it and being able to continue living.
- It is important to overcome helplessness/lack of control and to facilitate responsibility for one’s life and for the future.
- It is essential for the victim to set boundaries, to decide on the people they want in their lives and how they want to be treated by those people.
- Self-forgiveness is a fundamental step in recovery; survivors must believe that they are not the problem. The problem is the grossly incorrect behavior of the abuser.
- If victims are considering the possibility of reconciliation, support people need to inquire whether this can realistically happen (expectations pertaining to the offender will have to be adjusted).
- Beware of social pressures and the existence of inflexible norms, and the expectations of victims that may have been communicated to them (such as, the abuse is unforgivable, that they must forgive, that they must not talk about the assault to protect the family or the community, or that they never forgive, in order to make the seriousness of the offense clear).
- Survivors should never be pressured to forgive their abusers. If they are not inclined to do so, that is their prerogative.
1Benkert, M., and Doyle, T. P. (2009). Clericalism, religious duress, and its psychological impact on victims of clergy sexual abuse. Pastoral Psychology. 58, 223-238. Doi: 10.1007/s11089-008-0188-0
2Feldman Bettencourt, M. (2018). How forgiveness has been weaponized against women. Harper’s Bazaar.
3Picoult, J. (2013). The Storyteller. New York: Washington Square Press.
4Terkeurst, L. (2020). Forgiving What You Can’t Forget. Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
5The Mother Teresa Center. (2016). A Call to Mercy: Hearts to Love, Hands to Serve. New York: Crown Publishing Group.
6Edizione P. S. (2017). Happiness in This Life. New York: Random House.
7Hunter, M. (2014). Ritual of reconciliation: an alternative to litigation. Help for Victims of Child Assault blog.
8Prieto-Ursua, M. (2021). Is is possible to forgive sexual abuse? Department of Psychology, Universidad Pontificia Comillas de Madrid, Madrid, Spain.
9McCullough, M.E. (2008). Beyond Revenge: The Evolution of the Forgiveness Instinct. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
10Casey, K.L. (1998). Surviving abuse: shame, anger, forgiveness. Pastoral Psychology, 46, 223-231, doi: 10.1023/A:1023093601201