Jane Chevous writes about how it feels to be a victim of abuse, and what we can do to understand and help those who have suffered abuse as children, both as their friends and as Christians.

This article was first published in the Spring 2006 number of Chrism. The author's profile below is from the same date

Jane Chevous is the part-time project director of Just42, a Christian charity working with children and young people in Suffolk. She is qualified in youth and social work and has over twenty-five years experience in the field. She has fostered abused teenagers and is a survivor of sexual, physical and pastoral abuse as a young person and an adult. She is a founding director of S:Vox, a new organisation offering self-help and support, advocacy, training and education for survivors and their supporters (see: www.svox.org.uk ). She is also a writer and remains a fieldwork tutor for the Centre for Youth Ministry, Ridley Hall, Cambridge, where she used to lecture. She offers freelance training, consultancy and workshops in youth and community work, all-age ministry, abuse-related issues and community arts, both independently and in collaboration with other freelance and voluntary educators and artists. Her book dealing with all kinds of abuse, ‘From Silence to Sanctuary’, was published by SPCK in 2004, and was reviewed in the Spring 2005 edition of Chrism.

© Guild of St Raphael

The Long Road to Freedom

We began the New Year with national public concern about the safety of children in school in relation to sex offenders. On the ground, local authorities and voluntary agencies are getting to grips with ‘joined-up’ services under the auspices of the new Children’s Trusts, and MAPPA (Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements) gets a largely positive report from a major strategic review. Those of us who have been involved in working with children and young people for some years, can recognise significant change in the last decade: child abuse and domestic violence are more widely recognised, agencies are getting better at partnership working and there are initiatives in place both to manage and rehabilitate offenders. There are still many areas for improvement, but we have made tangible progress.

In the midst of all this, what has happened for the child? As someone who has personal experience of abuse and of working with survivors, in this article I want to look at things from the victim’s perspective. What is there to help children and adult survivors on the long journey to freedom from abuse?

Research demonstrates that anything from one in nine to one in four children and young people will experience physical, emotional or sexual abuse or neglect. Each week in the UK at least one child will die as a result of an adult’s abuse and every ten seconds someone will be injured from domestic violence. There is growing recognition of the prevalence of abuse by women as well as by men, by young people as well as authority figures. In faith communities, we are beginning to recognise spiritual abuse although there is no comprehensive research into this area. We know that the majority of abuse is perpetrated by someone the victim knows and trusts, and takes place in the home or a familiar place.


How does it feel to be a victim of abuse? Of course each individual’s experience is unique. But there are many shared feelings and issues and understanding these can give us an insight into how best to support those who have been abused, through and beyond the abuse towards a life no longer lived as a victim. Samantha’s story is typical of many. Her mother remarried when Samantha was six years old and her brother was four. Keith was really friendly at first and played with the children. Then baby Holly arrived and everything changed—there was tension in the family, and suddenly Samantha was the eldest and had to help look after them all. It was during this time that Keith began sexually abusing Samantha.

‘Mum still had to work and she was always tired and she and Keith started arguing a lot. Keith didn’t want to play with us anymore—he had his little princess Holly instead. I always seemed to be getting into trouble and there was a lot of shouting. I felt upset—what had I done wrong? He said I wasn’t a little girl anymore and he deserved to be looked after in his own home. He got into bed and lay on top of me.

‘At the time I was really confused. He hurt me, but then afterwards he would cuddle me and say I was his princess again and I liked feeling special and close to him. Things got better with him—he’d play with me again, and sometimes he’d take me out shopping and buy me nice things, jewellery and clothes and stuff. I liked it that I could make him happy and I knew that while I did what he wanted, I was keeping the family together. Mum couldn’t manage on her own so as the eldest I had to help. To be honest I think she was jealous of the attention he gave me.

‘It wasn’t until I was fourteen that I really saw what he was doing was wrong. It had begun to change when I started my period; I think it suddenly struck him that I was growing up and he wanted a little princess again. Then I began to notice that he was being different with Holly; when he played with her, tickling or sitting her on his lap, he’d keep on cuddling her and stroke her hair and even touch her between the legs. I thought about how little she was and how much he’d hurt her if he did the things to her that he did to me. I tried to talk to Mum but it was like she didn’t want to listen. So I told Tracey at the youth club and then a social worker and a police officer came and talked to me and they arrested Keith. My Mum went mental. She said I was a liar and a slut and I’d tried to turn Keith against her. She told the policewoman that I made it up and swore that Keith slept with her all the time.

‘I had to go and live in a children’s home and I never went back home again. I was lucky; they took Keith to court and he was sent to prison. Other kids at the home it never got to court. There weren’t enough foster parents for me to find a new family, so I moved into this supported housing place. I’m doing my ‘AS’ levels now at the college. It’s hard; I get very dark moods and I have anorexia and sometimes I cut myself. I’ve just joined a group for self-harmers but I don’t know whether I can talk to them about stuff. I wasn’t allowed to talk to anyone while the case was going on and now I don’t know who to trust.’


Samantha’s story reveals some of the fundamental harm that abuse creates. What might be our response to the needs this creates?


Like Isaac trusting Abraham right up to the altar of sacrifice, it is hard for victims to see their abusers as perpetrators of evil. God created us with an amazing capacity to love and trust; when this is betrayed, denial is a less painful response than acceptance. Samantha wanted to hold on to a picture of her stepfather as loving and caring for his little princess; easier to deny there was anything wrong or to blame herself for being a ‘bad girl’. Her mother also avoided any responsibility by blaming her daughter. Keith’s behaviour compounded this confusion by rewarding compliance with gifts and attention. It is powerlessness and betrayal rather than sex that will leave Samantha with the most lasting and significant damage.


The first step towards healing is giving voice to the real story. Child Protection training now emphasises that we mustn’t tell a victim we believe what they are saying. To me this is the litigious Pharisaic response that was the frequent focus of Jesus’ criticism and anger. There was nothing more important for Samantha than to be able to tell the whole story to a sympathetic listener and to know that she was believed. Breaking the silence and secrecy of abuse takes an enormous amount of courage and the faith that it can lead to transformation. Samantha tells someone because she is frightened for her sister and she wants something to change. She needs to be heard with compassion and affirmed by the trust and belief of her listener. Together they can unravel her story and the tangled threads of secrecy, lies, manipulation and need can begin to be transformed into a liberating tapestry of truth.


Samantha also needs a listener who has the understanding and insight to help her recognise that truth. Abusers are often practiced at minimising the effects of their actions and blaming the victim. Victims are groomed to accept the abuse as inevitable, deserved or even that somehow they have ‘asked for it’. Certainly our desire for relationship can lead us to prefer abusive attention to none at all. None of this means it was Samantha’s fault, but she will find it hard to realise this. Alice Miller talks about an ‘enlightened witness’ someone who has the knowledge, experience and insight to help reframe the experience of abuse. Free of distortions, Samantha can begin to lay responsibility where it belongs, shed her undeserved feelings of guilt and shame and recognise the damage she has suffered. This witness need not always be a professional with expert training; it could be another survivor of abuse or a friend and supporter who is prepared to become more informed.


Abuse is characterised by separation from the people and values that encourage us to grow and flourish. Samantha felt that she alone was responsible for meeting Keith’s needs and keeping her family together. She was aware her relationship with Keith made her unusual, yet clearly desperately wanted to belong. She is likely to have felt different and isolated from her peers and may have found it hard to make friends. After she reported, the break up of the family fulfilled her worst fears and made her even more isolated. Many abuse survivors struggle with loneliness and relationship difficulties. Hard to trust, to let someone near, hard to judge who is safe and reliable, hard to move in from the margins and shed the shameful feelings of an outcast. Easier to escape from reality into dissociation, depression, even suicide. All the survivors I have met experience feelings of shame and worthlessness. After belief and understanding, the key to healing is the restoration of worth.


As Naomi found, we all need someone like Ruth to cling to. Ruth’s gift to Naomi was to stay faithful when life was bitter, to live out the tenacious commitment: ‘Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God.’ I believe this kind of companionship is more significant and more effective than professional therapeutic support. How profound a companion is, a relative or friend who can walk beside me on my healing journey, who is there for me after office hours and who doesn’t walk away when I test their resilience through the outworking of my trauma. Christianity offers survivors the amazing experience of a God of unconditional love. Samantha also needs to experience the emotional reward and physical closeness of a loving relationship, the presence and touch of a warm human being.


Samantha’s experiences turned upside down all the certainties of love and trust, of goodness and evil, of family and friendship, of self-worth and respect. Judith Herman has done much work to document the traumatic effects of abuse and how this needs to be addressed in the healing process. It is not unusual for the stress to work its way out over many years, involving flashbacks and night terrors, harmful coping strategies, distorted thinking and self-destructive behaviours. There are many obstacles to overcome in the process of dealing with these issues and moving from being a victim to a survivor. Without some anchorage points to hold on to, it is easy to get lost and ensnared.


A common result of this confusion is that survivors struggle to establish appropriate boundaries around themselves and their relationships. The boundary of self has been violated by the abuse and it is hard to learn how to re-draw and hold that personal space. Samantha may remain distant and aloof, afraid to risk trust and love again. Or she may be too open and vulnerable to further abuse, even promiscuous, making surface relationships too easily. Often this masks an inability to form lasting and secure attachments.

Samantha can be helped by supporters who hold her compassionately and firmly within appropriate boundaries while she learns how to create them for herself. She needs the discipline of love that challenges destructive behaviour and nurtures growth and healing. From a position of powerlessness and victim-hood, Samantha can learn to survive, overcome and ultimately thrive as someone free from the chains of abuse.


As Christians, are we called to make a particular response to the global injustice of abuse? I believe God does bring a profound message through the experience of survivors and supporters. Some significant ideas for me include:


It is challenging to recognise that the Church has a special attraction to both those who abuse and those who have been abused. Can we be both a place of sanctuary and healing; and of challenge and justice? It is particularly important that congregations and leaders are aware of the dynamics of abuse and how to support transformation and healing. We need a range of skills, from risk management and Child Protection to safe practice and informed pastoral care.


Many people look to faith leaders to provide a concept and model of forgiveness when faced with particularly testing crimes. I believe there is still much to debate and discern here. It is so important that we don’t force forgiveness from survivors and equally that we don’t give it away too thoughtlessly to perpetrators. I am still uncertain how essential it is for me personally to forgive the man that abused me or whether it is enough that I recognise he deserves to be forgiven by my neighbours and by God. So I can let go of any issues between us without wiping the slate clean—there is still a sin without atonement. What exactly does it mean to forgive someone who doesn’t even acknowledge he or she has done any wrong, never mind take responsibility for it and move through remorse to restitution? Where is our concept of forgiveness that combines justice with mercy and grace?


This is more instinct than researched evidence, but I have an idea that we have a particular problem with child abuse within British culture because children as children are not at the centre of our families. The symptoms range from the fact we donate more to animal charities than children’s welfare, to our tolerance of physical chastisement as an appropriate method of disciplining the young; from our criminalisation of the young through ASBOs and stereotypes of ‘yob’ culture to the lack of resources channelled into education and welfare services for children. Are the children central spiritual partners in your church or sidelined and silenced in the Sunday School? How do we, like Jesus, place the child in the middle of our communities?

Unconditional love

Like other people of suffering, I have found that survivors can bring amazing theological insights to God’s people, if we are prepared to listen. Forgiveness, atonement, justice, shalom, the body, suffering, well-being, sin, salvation, so many key questions that both survivors and theologians grapple with each day. Hearing a survivor’s perspective can open up new understandings. How do we affirm the idea of unconditional love in the way we present fundamentals of our faith? If Keith only loved Samantha when she did what he wanted, how awesome is a God who loves her as she is, no condition, catch, impediment? But if I have to fit a particular theological type, worship in a distinctive way, experience the Spirit through a special manifestation—this is not unconditional love. Ultimately worship and the model of Christian life must be born, not because of any ‘oughts’ imposed by other Christians, but from a freely given response to the experience of that amazing love and grace.