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Believing the ‘Unbelievable’

This blog has references to sexual assault and trauma. 

Have you ever heard a story or seen something that seemed impossible, unimaginable, or incomprehensible to fathom even though you are told it is true? Perhaps you watched the video of the child who made their violin debut performance at the age of 3 or you heard the news story of the baby who was swept up in a tornado and survived. Perhaps over the Easter season, you are overcome again with wonder and puzzlement over the miracle of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ! 

It can be difficult to believe things that seem unbelievable at the time. Disbelieving some stories, however, can have devastating and traumatic effects on everyone involved. If someone disbelieves the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, it changes their entire spiritual life. That truth is at the heart of faith for all Christians. There are other stories that can also devastate not only our spiritual lives, but our entire psychological and physical well-being, particularly for the person whose story isn’t believed.  Think about when something traumatic happens to someone and no one believes them when they try to reach out for help. What happens when these stories involve allegations of abuse? What happens when survivors of abuse aren’t believed? 

Right now, you might be thinking about how terrible and tragic this story is but aren’t sure how it relates to you and your church

This is what happened to Marie, an 18-year-old woman whose story of sexual assault is reflected in the online streaming miniseries, “Unbelievable”, based upon true accounts. After being physically, emotionally, and psychologically traumatized from a sexual assault, Marie had the courage to tell the police. What ensues is two male police officers with little to no trauma or sexual assault training retraumatizing her by forcing her to recount her assault over and over again. These two police officers then coerce Marie to recant her statement after police zero in on some inconsistencies in her story, as well as after receiving doubting opinions from one of her ex-boyfriends and former foster mother. To make matters ever more tragic, these police officers then charge her for making a false report. This inevitably leads Marie to lose her support system, her living arrangements, and takes a gigantic toll on her psychological and emotional well-being. Years later, evidence surfaces from two new female detectives who, after linking several sexual assault cases, proved that this courageous and traumatized young woman was telling the truth from the very beginning. Marie later sued the county and settled for $150,000. 

In this true story, this young woman was charged with falsely reporting her sexual assault, despite the fact that she was actually telling the truth. According to statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), the prevalence of false reporting of sexual assaults falls between as low as 2% - 10%. The data implies that if 100 sexual assault allegations come forward, only 2-10 of those allegations are false, while 90-98 of those reports are actual victims of sexual assault. The NSVRC (2012) also published an Overview of False Reporting that highlighted how practices in many police departments lead to overinflation of false reporting rates. 

The Review of research in the overview highlights that although the FBI and International Associations of Chief of Police (IACP) have guidelines that exclude individual components from forming a false report such as: “insufficient evidence for prosecution, delayed reporting, unwillingness of victims to cooperate with investigators, and inconsistencies in victim statements”, these guidelines aren’t mandatory. The data on false reporting often has unclear definitions and can include information outside of accepted parameters for a false allegation which can lead people to inaccurately categorize a report as false. In the case of “Unbelievable”, her inconsistent victim statement, coupled with the doubtful opinion of her ex-boyfriend and foster mother led the police to their verdict of a false report. However, had the police department followed the recommended guidelines, and had they had a proper understanding of sexual assault and trauma, this may have led them to take her allegations seriously. I think it is also important to note these statistics don’t take into account the many and oftentimes unreported sexual assaults that occur. Unfortunately, when a victim comes forward with abuse allegations, many people automatically focus on a false allegation instead of the high likelihood that the sexual assault occurred. 

Do we have a safe and supportive space where these stories can be told?

Right now, you might be thinking about how terrible and tragic this story is but aren’t sure how it relates to you and your church. Perhaps, like many people, you’re not associating the reality and prevalence of abuse directly with your faith community. Perhaps you never imagined abuse could happen in your rural church, or your beloved community church where everyone knows everyone. Perhaps the idea of abuse occurring among church leadership has never entered your mind, but let’s go there. Let’s imagine this scenario in a church setting. What happens when the unbelievable story comes from a member of our church, and what happens when that story involves allegations of abuse against one of the trusted leaders of the church? 

No one, including myself, wants to imagine a trusted church leader abusing their position of power. Unfortunately, the presence of abuse can and has affected trusted church leaders and our congregations. When this is the case, it’s our spiritual, moral, and legal responsibility to be able to respond well to these situations with love, compassion, and justice in mind. We have to be willing to ask ourselves, if someone comes forward with an allegation of abuse against a church leader, are we ready to listen? Are we ready to believe them or will we focus on the possibility of a false allegation? Do we have a safe and supportive space where these stories can be told? Do we know how to handle this situation? Are we ready to accept these types of “unbelievable” stories in our church? 

Regardless of if your church has an active safe church team or knowledge of abuse awareness and prevention, if a member from your congregation or community comes forward with allegations of abuse against a church leader, I encourage you, I urge you, I plead with you to

Believe them! Be willing to believe the unbelievable!

Remember the courage it takes for survivors to come forward and keep in mind that while false allegations can occur, it is more likely for them to be true. Be willing and ready to take allegations seriously while the investigative process unfolds, whatever the process may be. 

If you or someone from your congregation have questions or concerns, please contact your local Safe Church Team, your Classis Safe Church Coordinator, or contact the denominational Thrive: Safe Church Ministry at 

Photo by Ran Berkovich on Unsplash

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