Providing Pastoral Care to Survivors of Child Abuse

 “Why did God let me suffer the agonies of [child abuse]? Why did God not intervene when I cried out to him night after night for relief? I have imagined at times my guardian angel pulling on God’s sleeve and saying ‘Don’t you hear little Wesley? Don’t you see his pitiful tears? Can’t you do something to deliver him from this monstrous evil?’”

–Dr Wess Stafford[1]


[1] While children who are abused are at increased risk to suffer from numerous medical and mental health conditions,[2] we also know from a large and growing body of research that many maltreated children also suffer spiritually.[3] Moreover, when the spiritual wounds of abuse are addressed, religiosity can be a significant source of resilience which improves the physical and emotional health of survivors.[4]

[2] Unfortunately, very few clergy receive seminary or other education on addressing the spiritual needs of maltreated children. Although this paper serves as a primer for pastors in providing spiritual care for survivors of abuse, it is not a substitute for comprehensive education on this subject. At least two ELCA seminaries have implemented rigorous training on child abuse[5] and other seminaries should follow suit.[6] Pastors who did not receive seminary education on this subject should avail themselves of intensive training available for clergy in the field.[7]

Recognizing and responding to the spiritual needs of survivors of abuse  

[3] In working with survivors of abuse, clergy providing pastoral care should adhere to the following guidelines.

  1. Familiarize yourself with basic trauma research

[4] At a minimum, acquaint yourself with Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE) research in order to understand the impact of trauma on a victim’s medical and mental health. Quality information about the ACE studies can be found on the website of the Centers for Disease Control.[8] In addition read one or more literature reviews about the spiritual impact of child abuse.[9] Lastly, clergy should acquaint themselves with widely accepted concepts of trauma-informed care and be able to apply them in the context of pastoral care.[10] Without a base understanding of trauma research, a pastor may unwittingly make an error that results in additional harm to a survivor.

  1. Know in advance who to make a referral to

[5] There are over 900 accredited Children’s Advocacy Centers (CAC) in the United States serving every state and nearly every community.[11] These facilities provide medical care, mental health care, victim advocacy and other services to maltreated children. Make an effort to develop a relationship with your local CAC[12] and learn from them which doctors and therapists they recommend for survivors of abuse. The CAC can also be a critical resource in advising your church on policies for preventing abuse. Some CACs even have chaplains who can assist in addressing the spiritual needs of maltreated children.[13]

  1. Remind the victim of the limits of confidentiality

[6] A pastor must inform the parishioner that mandated reporting laws and the clear commands of scripture[14] require us to break confidentiality if doing so is necessary to protect a child from abuse.[15] Informing the victim of this in advance will help the survivor determine what they wish to share with clergy.

  1. Stay within your lane

[7] Although pastoral care can supplement mental health care, it should not replace it. If a parishioner has an anxiety disorder, eating disorder, suicidal ideations, or other mental health challenges, licensed medical or mental health providers should be enlisted to help. When Martin Luther was asked whether Christians can avail themselves of secular medical providers, the Reformer said:

Our burgomaster here at Wittenberg lately asked me, if it were against God’s will to use [a physician]? For, said he, Doctor Carlstad has preached that whoso falls sick, shall use no [physician], but commit his case to God, praying that His will be done. I asked him: Did he eat when he was hungry? He answered, yes. Then, said I, even so you may use [a physician], which is God’s creature, as well as meat and drink, or whatever else we use for the preservation of life.[16]

[8] Although modern psychological treatments were not available in Luther’s day, clinicians recognize that Luther’s approach to pastoral care for those suffering from depression or other mental health conditions reflects the modern concept of cognitive-behavioral therapy.[17] If a victim believes that modern therapy is not a Christian response to mental illness, it may be helpful to point out that Luther used similar approaches in pastoral care. You may also want to remind the parishioner that Jesus instructed his followers to love God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind (Mark 12:30). To the extent mental health care reduces a harmful mindset, we are better equipped to love God with all our being.

[9] Since only a medical provider can prescribe medications to address some mental health conditions, and since only licensed mental health clinicians can provide evidence-based therapy to treat many conditions, pastors should not assume a role outside their expertise. Instead, pastors should focus on their unique skill of addressing the spiritual questions and needs of someone in distress.

  1. Replace bad theology with good theology

[10] In many cases, a perpetrator incorporates a religious theme or concept into the abuse of a child. For instance, if a child has a biological reaction to sexual touching an offender may say.  “Look, you enjoyed this as much as I did. You are equally to blame, equally sinful. We both must pray to God for forgiveness.”

[11] In other cases, a victim’s own interpretation of scripture may cause extreme distress. I’ve spoken to survivors who told me the pastor or priest who baptized them was also the person who sexually abused them. Accordingly, they worry their baptism is invalid and their soul is imperiled. In one case, a father sexually abused his daughter the night before her first communion. The next day, the victim spit in the communion cup and said “I hate you, Jesus, and within an hour I’ll be pooping you into the toilet and flushing you out of my life.” Years later, the survivor told her therapist of this incident and said she was destined for hell because she had been disrespectful of the body of Christ. The therapist appropriately made a referral to a pastor who shared the victim’s faith tradition and could address her spiritual distress.

[12] When working with a victim of abuse, listen closely to how religion may have been used in the abuse or how a religious concept is resulting in ongoing suffering. Rather than giving the victim answers, lead the victim to possibilities and trust the Holy Spirit to help the victim find what is of most comfort.

[13] In the case of the survivor worried about damnation because of how she responded to the sacrament, a pastor noted that Roman soldiers spit on the body of the Lord (Mark 15:19) and tortured Jesus to death, but Christ nonetheless offered forgiveness (Luke 23:24). The pastor then asked the victim “If Jesus could forgive the solders for mutilating the Lord’s body, do you think he could forgive you for spitting in the communion cup?”

[14] When a toxic theological concept is challenged with lessons from texts the victim regards as sacred, clinicians have found the spiritual damage can be “powerfully undone.”[18] In some instances, a victim of abuse may find comfort in passages that previously troubled them. A victim of abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) said “I used to have a hard time reconciling the God of the Old Testament—all that doom and gloom and anger—with the idea of a loving God. But now, having lived this hell with the SBC, I like God’s anger and judgment. I understand it. I relate to it. I can see how betrayed God must have felt watching people mock His name with the way they treated each other.”[19]

  1. Have a realistic view of recovery

[15] Some pastors mistakenly believe that after two or three conversations and a well-placed reference to a Bible passage, a survivor should be able to “get over it.” In reality, a survivor may never be fully healed this side of heaven. Although significant progress can be made, there may always be those moments where a survivor is triggered by something they see on television or hear at church. They may always struggle with forgiveness of an offender or have a level of distrust of the church. This simply means the survivor is human. Ministry is for life and some survivors may need pastoral care throughout their earthly pilgrimage.

  1. Don’t require forgiveness

[16] An adult survivor of child torture once told me his Lutheran pastor said he had to forgive his father. The pastor cited Peter’s boastful belief forgiving seven times is sufficient and the Lord’s response that not only must we forgive an infinite number of times (Matt. 18:22), but God will not forgive us unless we do the same for others (Matt. 18:35). This lesson from scripture deeply troubled the survivor. “Try as I might,” the survivor said, “I can’t forgive my father. Why do I have to go to hell?”

[17] In commenting on the obligation in the Lord’s prayer to forgive others, Martin Luther noted that humans cannot forgive in the way God can and that forgiveness is never a good work we must complete in order to be saved but is instead a fruit of the Holy Spirit.[20] Specifically, Luther said the devil lies to us when he says “You must forgive or you will not be forgiven; you have not forgiven; therefor despair.”[21] Luther retorted that through faith we will want to forgive but may not be able to fully do so this side of heaven.[22]

[18] When pastors or other Christians focus too quickly on forgiveness, they unwittingly sound like offenders who often demand forgiveness from their victims in order to silence them and avoid accountability. Instead of jumping to forgiveness, pastors may want to focus on other teachings of the Bible including justice, mercy, and righteous indignation.

  1. Make a concerted effort to apply the Gospel and not the Law

[19] As a result of trauma, a victim may have turned to alcohol, drugs, and sexual behavior in order to cope. When a survivor has abused their body, been unfaithful to a spouse, or is in jail for having committed a crime, it is tempting to focus on the survivor’s wrongdoing. When, though, we realize the conduct is often a result of trauma, we shift from asking the survivor “what’s wrong with you” to “what happened to you?” If we focus only on the victim’s sins, we are treating the smoke and ignoring the underlying fire. This doesn’t mean we neglect a parishioner’s need to address chemical dependency or other concerning behaviors. It simply means we are trying to understand and respond to the underlying factors that are contributing to the behavior. In Lutheran terms, very few survivors need an application of the Law, but all of them need the balm of the Gospel.[23]

  1. Cautiously respond when a victim wants to confront an offender

[20] As a good Catholic, Martin Moran thought he had to reconcile with the man who sexually abused him as a child. When he confronted the man, he was taken aback by the offender’s continued justifying of the sexual abuse. Moran recalls the offender saying “I wanted to help you. You were such a gentle soul…Mentally, you were way ahead of the other boys. You were special…There were others, I admit. But not like you. You were so curious about things…you were shy and I wanted to teach you about the land and animals and help you gain confidence. And you did.”[24]

[21] This is not an isolated anecdote. Most offenders have cognitive distortions by which they justify their crimes against children.[25] Even if an offender admits the crime, the cognitive distortions will remain. Accordingly, any meeting between the victim and the offender will likely result in the emotional abuse of the survivor.

[22] Should an adult survivor express a desire to meet with an offender, encourage them to explore this with their mental health provider. Make sure they understand the meeting may not go as they hope. Ask them what their goals are for the meeting and help them determine if the goals are realistic. If the victim is going to go through with the meeting, develop a game plan for the conversation. The meeting should take place in a safe location, with rules governing the conversation. Moreover, the victim should not have the meeting alone. One or more support persons should be present who can help stop the meeting if the victim is being harmed emotionally and who can help the survivor process their feelings and thoughts after the conversation.

  1. Connect the survivor to the church in a trauma-informed manner

[23] Many survivors of abuse struggle to return to church because they were abused within God’s house or at the hands of a church leader. I have worked with victims sexually abused on church altars, penetrated with crosses, fondled in baptismal pools, assaulted in confessional booths, or otherwise violated surrounded by the symbols and trappings of the church.

[24] When victims have raised their voices about abuse within the church they have often been shunned or otherwise treated cruelly. Understandably, this creates significant distance between the victim and the church. A victim of abuse within the Southern Baptist Convention told a journalist “I’ve come to realize that the Jesus I know is not the Jesus of the Church anymore. The Christ that has loved me at my most broken and most vulnerable, is not the Christ that is demonstrated by the Church. So, my faith used to be very outward facing, but now it’s very private. I still identify as a Christian, but I find it very hard to identify with the Church.”[26]

[25] Another survivor of abuse within the SBC said “I still love corporate worship. Being in there, even though it’s painful, it was beautiful. I still love the singing and worshipping. I would love to trust the Church again. But we’ve been hurt so many times, so many different ways. And at a certain point, I just can’t risk going—I can’t afford to lose my faith.”[27]

[26] When a survivor struggles to re-connect with the church, allow them to do so at a pace and in a manner that is not traumatic. The early church did not have lofty steeples, stained glass windows, or massive pipe organs. Instead, Christians gathered in homes or on hillsides.[28]

[27] For some survivors, it may be easier to watch services online or to find a church with a layout that doesn’t remind them of the setting in which they were abused. Perhaps a gathering at a cafe or worshipping outside feels safer. In some cases, simple modifications are all that is needed. When a woman told a pastor that her father hummed a certain hymn when he sexually touched her, the pastor promised never to play that hymn, and this is all the victim needed to return to church.


[28] Jesus was a victim of multiple forms of abuse. Our Savior was beaten, spit on, emotionally abused, and tortured to death. Since he was likely crucified naked, some scholars conclude our Lord was also sexually exploited.[29] As he was being crucified, Jesus must have found comfort in the presence of the women who did not leave him. As worshipers of a God who was a victim of abuse, Christians should care for the victims sitting in our pews. Instead, child abuse scandals have pushed many victims away from church and, in some cases, away from Jesus.[30]

[29] God has given us the power to change this pattern. Our seminaries can implement courses to better prepare clergy to minister to maltreated children and adult survivors. Every church can implement child protection policies that meet or even exceed widely accepted best practices.[31] We can conduct Bible studies and preach sermons[32] that draw from the sacred texts all that God has to say to those who are abused. Through these and other actions we can demonstrate to hurting children everywhere that they are no longer alone.



[1] Wess Stafford, Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of these Matter Most (Colorado Springs, CO: Waterbrook Press 2007), 158.

[2] Vincent J. Filetti & Robert F. Anda, The Relationship of Adverse Childhood Experiences to Adult Medical Disease, Psychiatric Disorders, and Sexual Behavior: Implications for Healthcare, Impact of Early Life Trauma on Health and Disease: The Hidden Epidemic 77-87 (Ruth A. Lanius et al., eds., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 2010).

[3] Victor I. Vieth & Pete Singer, Wounded Souls: The Need for Child Protection Professionals and Faith Leaders to Recognize and Respond to the Spiritual Impact of Child Abuse, 45(4) Mitchell Hamline Law Review 1213-1234 (2019); Donald F. Walker et al, Changes in Personal Religion/Spirituality During and After Childhood Abuse: A Review and Synthesis, 1 Psychology & Trauma: Theory, Practice & Policy 130 (2009); Amy Russell, The Spiritual Impact of Child Abuse & Exploitation: What the Research Tells Us, 45 Currents in Theology & Mission 14 (2018).

[4] Thema Bryant Davis et al., Religiosity, Spirituality, and Trauma Recovery in the Lives of Children and Adolescents, 43 Prof. Psych. Res. & Rev. 306 (2012); Terry Lynn Gall, Spirituality and Coping with Life Stress Among Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse, 30 Child Abuse & Neglect 829 (2006); Jungmeen Kim, 32 Child Abuse & Neglect 711 (2008); Katie G. Reinhert et al., The Role of Religious Involvement in the Relationship Between Early Trauma and Health Outcomes Among Adult Survivors, 9 J. Child & Adolescent Trauma 231 (2016); Ernest N. Jouriles et al., Divine Spiritual Struggles and Psychological Adjustment Among Adolescents Who Have Been Sexually Abused, 10(3) Psychology of Violence 334 (2019); Tricia Gower, Caregiver and Divine Support: Associations with Resilience Among Adolescents Following Disclosure of Sexual Abuse, 109 Child Abuse & Neglect (November 2020).

[5] Wartburg Theological Seminary and United Lutheran Seminary Gettysburg have stand alone child abuse courses.

[6] Victor I. Vieth, “The Least of These: the Urgent need for ELCA Seminaries to Prepare Called Workers to Minister to Survivors of Abuse and Develop Trauma-Informed Congregations,” 23(6) Journal of Lutheran Ethics (December 2023/January 2024)

[7] For example, Zero Abuse Project offers a virtual, intensive training called Keeping Faith:


[9] See endnotes 3 and 4 for references to research on the spiritual impact of child abuse.

[10] Pete Singer, Toward a More Trauma-Informed Church: Equipping Faith Communities to Prevent and Respond to Abuse, 51(1) Currents in Theology and Mission (2024): 62-76.

[11] Nancy Chandler, “Children’s Advocacy Centers: Making a Difference One Child at a Time,” Hamline Journal of Public Law & Policy, 28:1 (2006):315.

[12] To find the CAC closest to you, visit the website of the National Children’s Alliance:

[13] Victor I. Vieth, Mark D. Everson, Viola Vaughan-Eden, Suzanna Tiapula, Shauna Galloway-Williams, Rev. Carrie Nettles, “Keeping Faith: The Potential Role of a Chaplain to Address the Spiritual Needs of Maltreated Children and Advise Child Abuse Multi-Disciplinary Teams,” Liberty University Law Review 14:2 (2020): 351-380.

[14] Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary professor John Schuetze writes “whether or not the law requires a pastor to intervene in such a situation should not be the deciding factor. It is God and his Word that ultimately give pastors the right and responsibility to break confidence and protect the welfare of the person involved.” John D. Schuetze, Doctor of Souls: The Art of Pastoral Theology (Milwaukee, WI: Northwestern Publishing House 2017), 272-273.

[15] Victor I. Vieth, Child Abuse & the Lutheran Confessional: A Call to Elevate Christ’s Teachings on Children Above Church Traditions, 46 Currents in Theology & Mission 50 (2019).

[16] Stephen Saunders, Martin Luther on Mental Health (St. Louis: Concordia 2023), p. 47.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Donald F. Walker, Sameera Ahmed, Avidan Milevsky, Heather Lewis Quagliana, and Anisah Bagasra, “Sacred Texts” in Donald F. Walker & William L. Hathaway, Spiritual Interventions in Child & Adolescent Therapy (American Psychological Association 2014), 155, 175.

[19] Tim Alberta, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins 2023), 369.

[20] Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s Catechisms: Forming the Faith (2009), 95.

[21] Ibid., 94.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Victor I. Vieth, “What Would Walther Do? Applying Law and Gospel to Victims and Perpetrators of Child Sexual Abuse,” Journal of Psychology & Theology 40:4 (2012): 255-273.

[24] Martin Moran, The Tricky Part: One Boy’s Fall from Trespass into Grace (Boston, MA: Beacon Press 2005), p. 274.

[25] Theodore P. Cross, Victor I. Vieth, Amy Russell, and Cory Jewell Jensen, “Adult Sex Offenders Against Children: Etiology, Typologies, Investigation, Treatment, Monitoring, and Recidivism,” in Robert Geffner, et al, Eds, Handbook of Interpersonal Violence and Abuse Across the Lifespan (Springer Nature: Switzerland 2022), 857-883.

[26] Tim Alberta, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory (New York, NY: HarperCollins 2023), 367-368.

[27] Ibid. at 368.

[28] Troy M. Troftgruben, Rooted and Renewing: Imagining the Church’s Future in Light of Its New Testament Origins (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press (2019).  

[29] Jayme R. Reaves, David Tombs and Rocio Figueroa (Eds), When Did We See You Naked? Jesus as a Victim of Sexual Abuse (London, UK: 2SCM Press 2021).

[30] Victor I. Vieth, “Lessons from the SBC Sexual Abuse Crisis, Family & Intimate Partner Violence Quarterly 15:3 (2023): 61

[31] Basyle Tchividjian and Shira M. Berkovits, The Child Safeguarding Policy Guide for Churches and Ministries (Greensboro, NC: New Growth Press 2017).

[32] Timothy C. Bourman, “Trauma Sensitivity as a Heuristic for the Lutheran Preacher,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 118:3 (2021): 199-221.

Victor I. Vieth

Victor Vieth is the Director of the Center for Faith & Child Protection at Zero Abuse Project. He is a recipient of the Victims Rights Legend Award from the United States Department of Justice for the national impact of his work to improve the lives of maltreated children. He is the author of On this Rock: A Call to Center the Christian Response to Child Abuse on the Life and Words of Jesus and teaches a class on child abuse at his alma mater, Wartburg Theological Seminary.