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Survivors of clergy sexual abuse are often criticised for speaking out about their experience, more especially since a disclosure of abuse can result in the minister's removal from job and house, estrangement of his family, and destruction of an apparently successful ministry. Victims are exhorted to forgive, often more out of the church's desire for them to keep silent than for any other reason. But forgiveness can mean many things. What are victims being asked to do?

It can mean "I seek to resolve my feelings of resentment or revenge, and to encourage what emotions would be present if you had never hurt me.

It can mean "The relationship between us has changed because of your wrong action. I chose to put aside that past wrong and base the relationship on other things."

It can mean "I have the right to act in this situation, but I have chosen not to make use of that right."

It can mean "I refuse to pursue legal action against you, hence you do not have to answer to anyone, or be judged for, an action you have performed."

It can mean "You owe me a debt, and I have decided that you don’t have to repay it."

It is important to realise that options 1 and 2 can ONLY come when a victim is healed to the point where such a choice is possible. Even then, option 1 is extremely hard for victims, while option 2 is difficult to achieve because of the kind of change abuse causes. Option 3 is unwise for the same reason. Both options 3 and 4 would allow the abuser to continue his (or her) abusive actions with nothing to stop them (see the issues of forgiveness and trust, and forgiveness and punishment, below). Option 5 is often apparently offered long before the others, but in many cases before the victim has realised the full extent of the damage done by the abuser, therefore can be rescinded once the victim understands fully.

As someone else said: It doesn’t seem to make sense if all an abuser has to say is "I’m sorry" and then it’s as if he had never abused anyone. It’s doesn’t seem to fit when there is such a struggle toward healing, over such a long time, for those who have been abused.

Yet victims are made to feel more sinful by being told to "forgive, as Christ forgave you". They are told that God forgave them unconditionally, and they should therefore forgive the perpetrator unconditionally. This is false theology. God does not forgive unconditionally. God's forgiveness is dependent on four things:

1. Recognition of the sin. Without recognition of sin by the sinner, there is no forgiveness.

2. Repentance of the sin. Without repentance by the sinner, and a firm intention to change, there is no forgiveness.

3. Recompense for the sin. In other words: payment, or punishment. Whatever word you use, there is clear evidence that God's forgiveness is dependent on someone paying the price for sin before forgiveness is possible.

4. Restitution for the sin. Sinners in the Bible who recognised their sin tried to restore the situation to a "pre-sin" state (eg. Zacchaeus paying back four times what he stole). This was the action which authenticated their claim of repentance.

When the church demands these four things of perpetrators of sexual abuse, before requesting that the victim forgives, then they will be acting in line with Scriptural patterns. Until and unless the Church requires these things of perpetrators, victims will only be forced into a false forgiveness, which hinders their and the affected congregation's full healing.

Other problems that often arise for victims are the issues of forgiving and forgetting, forgiveness and trust, forgiveness and punishment, forgiveness and reconciliation, and repentance and remorse

Forgive and forget We are often told to "forgive and forget", and we assume it is Scriptural. It isn't. The phrase "forgive and forget" comes from Shakespeare's King Lear. While God may forget, at no time does God require humans to do so. In fact, requiring victims of abuse to forget is the worst thing possible. It is the exact opposite of the healing process. Healing requires integration, not repression, of the memories.

Forgiveness and trust Forgiveness is often confused with trust. This confusion ignores the fact that forgiveness is about past events, while trust is about the future. Even when a perpetrator has truly repented, it is still the only responsible course to ensure that they are kept out of situations that may cause temptation.

Forgiveness and punishment Many believe that forgiveness and punishment are opposites - that forgiveness negates the need for punishment. This is not so. The opposite of forgiveness is revenge. Punishment, on the other hand, is society's means of enforcing moral standards and the offender's personal responsibility.

Forgiveness and reconciliation Often victims are expected to be reconciled to the offender, especially after they claim to have forgiven. Forgiveness, however, only says that there is no continuing bitterness. It does not, and cannot necessarily, mean that the relationship can be restored, as if the abuse had never happened. Sins may be forgiven, but their consequences may be permanent. Letting go of the past does not mean altering it.

Repentance and remorse Remorse is not repentance, although is often mistaken for it. Remorse focuses on the possible consequences of discovery for the offender, rather than focussing on recognition and restitution. Repentance is about taking responsibility; remorse is about avoiding it.  An easy way to determine whether an offender is remorseful or repentant is to ask what they plan to do in restitution.
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