What do you do when a friend says, “I was abused as a child”

Stephen Collins, TV star and (alleged) admitted child predator
Stephen Collins, TV star and (alleged) admitted child predator

With the recent news about 7th Heaven star Stephen Collins, everyone is talking a little bit more than usual about child sexual abuse. As the Collins story is unveiled and we learn more details, chances are that many adult victims of child sexual abuse—victims who were too scared or ashamed to come forward earlier—may confide in you or someone you know that they have been abused.

What do you do? 

1) Tell the person that you are sorry and that the abuse was NOT his or her fault.

2) Openly acknowledge that what happened was a crime.

3) Do NOT say things like:

“Why didn’t you tell earlier?”

“You WERE 16. You should have known better.”

“Where were your parents?”

“But you were a boy and she was a woman. That’s not abuse.” (Note: IT IS)

“Why didn’t you fight/say no?”

“But you DID have a crush on the teacher/coach/priest.”

“Are you just after the big payout?”

4) Do not blame the victim for coming forward, breaking down, or triggering at big events (such as weddings or parties) or at a time that is inconvenient for you. It’s not because the victim is being manipulative or trying to “ruin things” for everyone else. Usually, it’s because the person finally feels safe enough to talk. Embrace the victim, tell him or her that s/he has your support, and work on finding a time that you can really devote your attention to the survivor.

5) Set boundaries. Tell the survivor you can help him or her get treatment, find support groups, and/or call the police and report the crime. But remember that you cannot “save” or “cure” the victim.

6) If the crime is recent or a child tells you he or she has been sexually abused, dial 911. If the crime is not recent, but you suspect that children are still in danger of abuse, report to law enforcement. The best places to start are ChildHelp and the National Child Abuse Helpline and the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN). They will ask you questions about what you know, guide you through the process, and help you report the crime to the right authorities. You may also want to research the criminal and civil statutes of limitations for child sex crimes in your state. There may be a possibility that you can help expose a predator and/or put him or her behind bars. If other victims of the predator have come forward, call the law enforcement agency that has been investigating the crimes.

7) Understand that you may also need to talk to someone. Vicarious trauma (the pain you feel when you deal with others who are hurting) is real. If you find that you need to, talk to a counselor.

8) Finally, tell the survivor that he or she is brave and that you are proud of him/her. I know of men and women who did not disclose their abuse until they were in their 60s and 70s, because they were wracked with shame, self-hatred, fear, and guilt. Other victims wait for their parents to die because they don’t want to be the one to tell that a beloved priest, friend, sister, or uncle was an abuser. Affirm that the victim is a good person and that you are happy that they are talking.

This list is not complete, but it is a good start. For more information, visit RAINNMaleSurvivor, SNAP – The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, The National Center for Victims of Crime, or other groups that focus on survivor healing and justice. And consider donating to these groups, so that they can continue their wonderful work.

3 thoughts on “What do you do when a friend says, “I was abused as a child”

  1. Do not tell the person, “You must forgive him/her.” Forgiveness is not the only path to healing. It puts an unnecessary burden on the crime victim.

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