Forgiveness and Survivors

All_Graphic500x437Forgiveness of the abuser is not a requirement for healing for survivors of childhood sexual abuse (CSA).  The most important step in healing for CSA survivors is SAFETY.  Do you feel like hurting yourself or someone else?   What will you do when you feel suicidal or doing self-harm?   Create a safety plan first (create one even if it feels silly).  There are many hotlines available 24 hours a day to listen.  Have the hotline numbers and/or the numbers of friends or family that you trust will listen.  The downward spiral of harmful negative thoughts can be overwhelming for survivors and having someone to talk to can be beneficial in turning around that type of thinking.  Be prepared to take yourself to the emergency room or seek medical help if a phone call or talking to someone does not provide help and you still want to hurt yourself or others.  Safety First and then all the rest can follow …

In the USA:  or call 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-273-TALK

Worldwide Hotlines:

Worldwide Hotlines:

The next important step would be admitting and accepting the sexual abuse did happen, has had an impact on your life, and then make a decision to heal.  Acceptance, like healing, is an evolving process and can take a life time for some survivors as significant life events bring new understands of memories.

I don’t think that forgiveness of the abuser is a requirement for healing.  Some survivors have found forgiving the abuser helpful.  This is a common topic I think most survivors struggle with because it seems like society expects us to forgive our abusers.  But are we forgiving just to make others feel more comfortable?

for·give  1. to cease to blame or hold anger/resentment against (someone or something)  2. to grant pardon for (a mistake, wrongdoing, etc)  3. (tr) to free or pardon (someone) from penalty  4. (tr) to free from the obligation of (a debt, payment, etc)

In general, for me, forgiveness is coming to a place of peace and compassion with myself and others.   It is not the same as condoning.

I tend to go back and forth with the topic of forgiveness when it comes to my own past childhood sexual abuse.  There are many things to consider in the realm of forgiveness and child sexual abuse.  Anger and fear are not good things for anyone to hold on to.  However, forgiveness needs to be defined because forgiveness means different things to different people.   How can you forgive your abuser if you still blame yourself for the abuse?  Does forgiving your abuser mean that your relationship is restored to how things were before you were abused? Most likely not, the abuse changed your relationship and the abuser is still not safe to have around children.

If the topic of forgiveness is that important to the individual survivor then I think the following prerequisites should be considered. The following is a list I came up with …

Forgiveness prerequisites for Child Sexual Abuse (CSA) survivors:

  • The survivor no longer feels shame, guilt, and/or blame surrounding the past CSA.
  • The survivor feels some sense of justice surrounding the past CSA.
  • The survivor feels self-forgiveness.
  • The survivor redefines forgiveness in a way that is healthy and realistic for the survivor’s healing.
  • The survivor has allowed themselves time to grieve their losses due to the abuse and each relationship surrounding the abuse.   Grief has no time limit.
  • The survivor is NOT confusing forgiveness with minimizing trauma.
  • The survivor is NOT using forgiveness as a shortcut to emotional healing or as a guarantee against further abuse or to gain family support.

Other questions to consider when considering forgiveness:

What are your motives surrounding forgiveness?

Who is the focus of your forgiveness?

Yourself:  You are innocent!  Always start with yourself because you did nothing wrong.  You should not feel guilty for the abuse done to you.  It was not your fault.  Self-forgiveness is more important than forgiving others involved in the abuse … It is your choice alone if you choice to forgive others involved and to what extent.  For me, forgiveness of the primary abuser/s of sexual assault is not a requirement for healing.  But if you choose to go there then make sure you have forgiven yourself first and considered the other prerequisites.

Secondary Abuser:  Those who did not abuse you directly but did not believe you or defended or protected the abuser from consequences or justice.  This could be a parent or guardian, grandparent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or other relative or friend of the family.   Again follow the prerequisites and check your motives.

Forgiveness should not be an overwhelming burdensome process that brings you to a point of despair.  If it feels forced or if you feel like you are doing it to please someone else then maybe this is not the right time and should be revisited later.  You may still need to grieve more for this relationship or express anger.  Expressing anger is part of the grieving process.  It is okay to be angry with someone that should have protected you and failed to help you or protected the abuser from justice.  These topics can be overwhelming so remember safety for yourself and others comes first.  Things to remember about grief and mourning …

The following are myths about grief and mourning:

  • Grief and mourning decline in a steadily decreasing fashion over time.
  • All losses prompt the same type of mourning.
  • Bereaved individuals need only express their feelings in order to resolve their mourning.
  • To be healthy after the death of a loved one, the mourner must put that person out of mind.
  • Grief will affect the mourner psychologically but will not interfere in other ways.
  • Intensity and length of mourning are a testimony to love for the deceased.
  • When one mourns a death, one mourns only the loss of that person and nothing else.
  • Losing someone to a sudden, unexpected death is the same as losing someone to an anticipated death.
  • Mourning is over in a year.
  • Time heals all wounds.

From Therese A. Rando, Treatment of Complicated Mourning (1993), Research Press, Champaign, IL, p. 27–28.

Common Misconceptions about Healing –  by Dee Ann Miller, RN, BS

The 5 Stages of Loss and Grief  By JULIE AXELROD

When it comes to the stages of grief, for CSA survivors, the process is often evolving and repeats.

Abusers/Perpetrators/Sexual Predators:  Call them what you like but they are guilty of sexual crimes against a child. Weather this person is a hands-on or hands-off abuser, either type is a crime and harms the victim and leaves a lifelong impact.  Forgiveness is a choice and not a requirement to heal.

Often family, friends, community, and society in general pressure CSA survivors to forgive the abuser without allowing the survivor time to grieve or heal and many times when no justice has been dealt to the abuser.  They also expect if the survivor has forgiven then the survivor will never bring up the topic again.  Do they want us to forgive because the topic is too uncomfortable to listen to?  “You should be over this by now!”  “If you forgave him/her (the abuser) then you would not be having all these problems” Insisting a survivor forgive someone just so you can feel more comfortable does not help the survivor.  The survivor’s memories are not erased because they choose to forgive.  There may still be PTSD triggers that bring back unpleasant events surrounding the abuse.  Insisting the survivor forgives places guilt and shame back on the survivor for crimes that were committed against them.  Somehow it is now the survivor’s fault because if they just forgave the abuser then there would be no problem.  Why don’t our families, friends, community, society ask the question/s:

  • Did our abusers accept responsibility for their crimes?
  • Did the abuser seek help to prevent future abuse?
  • Did our abusers show remorse and offer financial amends to the survivor/s?
  • Did our abusers respect our boundaries and expect NOTHING in return regardless of whether we choose to grant forgiveness or not?
  • How many other children were abused by this person?
  • Is our abuser currently abusing a child?  Does our abuser have access to other children that he/she may be abusing?

If the abuser wants forgiveness then they should accept being held accountable for their crimes and accepting they could still be a threat to other children.

To report abuse happening to a child (17 and under) call:

In the USA: 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453) or

Child helpline international:

“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, it’s accepting the past for what it was, and using this moment and this time to help yourself move forward.”-Oprah Winfrey

One Survivor’s quote: “I don’t care about my abuser. It is not my job to forgive him. He can ask for his own forgiveness when he is in prayer. I don’t have the power to forgive him. But I do deserve to forgive myself and create a life for myself.”

Forgiving an abuser or secondary abuser is second to forgiving ourselves. Until we heal, until we live a life worth living, how do we have the energy to forgive another? For me forgiveness is about accepting the past and forgiving ourselves. It is pointless to forgive another human being when we cannot forgive ourselves.

Other things to consider that forgiveness does not automatically change:

  • Forgiveness is not a cure all for the survivor.  Forgiveness does not delete or erase memories or remove aftereffects such as PTSD.  The survivor will still have to process and continue in their cycle of healing.  Forgiveness, like healing, is an evolutionary process when it comes to child sexual abuse. The survivor has the right to change their mind if they choice to forgive the abuser one day and not forgive the next day.
  • Forgiveness does not delete or erase the guilt, shame, accountability, consequences of the crimes committed by the abuser.  The shame and the guilt should be sitting squarely on the shoulders of the abuser NOT the victim even if the victim choices not to forgive the abuser.
  • Forgiveness does not restore broken relationships.  Forgiveness is not the same as reunification.  Reunification is typically unhealthy with a child sex offender or with a family that does not support the survivor in their recovery.
  • Forgiveness does not restore the abuser to a status where they should be trusted around children.  Boundaries and safety should still be maintained for the victim if they choice to be around their abuser.  Children should never be left alone with a child predator and it would be best to avoid taking children around a child predator regardless of family connection or how special the family occasion (ie weddings, funerals, holidays, etc).
  • Forgiveness does not protect the abuser from being exposed as sexual predator to family, friends, and the community.  Forgiveness does not mean that you keep this person in the shadows and the sexual abuse a secret for the rest of your life.  This is how more children get hurt … this is how denial continues.  No more secrets.  Other children need to be protected from this person.

For some survivors, forgiveness lightens their conscience, while for other survivors it places an unnecessary burden on them.  Forgiveness should not be a burden, it is a choice.  The burden should be on the abuser not the victim.  If a survivor is struggling with the need to forgive their abuser and are considering suicide or self-harm as the only alternative if they are unable to forgive then this is not the right time to work on forgiveness of the abuser (if ever).  If a survivor is even entertaining thoughts of self-harm or suicide then they need to return to a safety plan and focus on forgiving and being gentle with themselves.  The shame and the guilt of what happen should be squarely on the shoulders of the abuser not the victim.  Forgive yourself before all others.  You are innocent!


2 Comments on “Forgiveness and Survivors”

  1. John Miller says:

    My friend,

    Your post is without any doubt, the most informative and intelligent on the subject of “forgiveness”, that I have read.

    I agree with your conclusions completely.


  2. jordanclary says:

    This is an excellent piece, and one I’ll bookmark for future reference. I also struggle with forgiveness over past CSA. I especially liked your section on secondary abusers, which is almost more difficult for me. It really is a lifetime process.

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