The Abuse of Forgiveness

According to mental health experts, forgiving someone who has wronged us can improve our emotional well-being. Acts of forgiveness can have even more far-ranging societal benefits. For example, the Rwandan gacaca genocide trials have relied on a system of forgiveness, allowing defendants who confess to receive lighter sentences. Part of the reason for adopting this system is to help victimized communities heal.

Forgiveness is a particularly important tenet of religions. In Matthew 18:21–22, Jesus says it’s not enough to forgive a sinner seven times, but “seventy times seven.”

“For a long time, forgiveness has been a mantra of religious people,” writes psychologist Katheryn Rhoads Meek in a paper published by the Center for Christian Ethics at Baylor University. Rhoads Meek adds that forgiveness is “the most crucial concept” in the Bible. Furthermore, she says,

Historically, the study of forgiveness fell under the purview of pastors and other religious leaders, who have long known the powerful healing benefits that come with both giving and receiving forgiveness. Lives are transformed, as hope takes the place of guilt, anger, loneliness, and fear, as relationships are restored, and the love of God transforms a life. [p. 89]

boy at windowBut the practice of forgiveness can be abused, and nowhere is this more apparent than in cases of religious child maltreatment. All too often, pious adults who learn that a child has been abused fail to do the right thing. That is, instead of reporting the incident or getting the victim counseling, they urge the child to forgive the perpetrator.

An example of such insensitivity was brought to light in a recent criminal trial. While testifying as a witness, a woman who identified herself as Cheryl said she had been molested by her stepfather from 1994 to 1996, when she was 17. Cheryl said she told her mother about the abuse when it first began, but the woman “acted like it was my fault.” So the teenager confided in the pastor of her New Hampshire fundamentalist Baptist church, Chuck Phelps. According to the witness, Phelps told her she needed “to forgive and forget about it.” Speaking through his attorney, Phelps has said he believed that the victim was 18 when the assaults began and that police and child protective services were notified.

As I note in my book, Breaking Their Will: Shedding Light on Religious Child Maltreatment, Episcopal priest and pastoral psychotherapist Sarah Rieth states that, instead of supporting victims and reporting abusers, cases get swept under the rug. Rieth believes that the “seventy times seven” biblical mandate has, indeed, been abused. “Forgiveness has been confused with accountability,” she told me.

Restorative justice pioneer Howard Zehr criticizes faith communities for failing victims of all kinds. In his chapter “Restorative Justice” that appears in God and the Victim (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999), Zehr explains,

The church should be a place of refuge, but often we have not known how to listen, how to be present to victims. We have told them that their anger is wrong, that they need to move on, to forgive, to forget. We have denied their right to mourn and, instead, have laid new burdens on them. All this is understandable—as part of our effort to distance ourselves from pain and vulnerability—but not at all helpful. [p. 150]

Children are not the only ones who are expected to forgive abusers. Religious institutions and communities routinely carry out the practice, a point I make in Breaking Their Will. Why? Because many of the pious are convinced that they are in the business of forgiving wrongdoers, even when those wrongdoers have harmed children.

Tina Anderson

Tina Anderson

The above mentioned trial, in which Cheryl testified, is a flagrant example. The case involved a defendant named Ernest Willis, who twice sexually assaulted 15-year-old Tina Anderson in 1997. As has been widely reported in the media, Anderson became pregnant from the rapes, after which Anderson’s mother sought counsel with Phelps. He reported the incident to police, but he also made Anderson publicly confess her “sin” of getting pregnant to the congregation. During the same church service, Willis stood up and confessed to adultery. At the time, those sitting in the pews had no idea that the two confessions were related.

Following the double mea culpa, the teenage Anderson was virtually shunned, sent out of state to have her baby in secret. Willis was not picked up by police back then—investigators say the trail went cold, as they could not locate the victim. Furthermore, since Willis had repented, he was permitted to remain a member of the church. (The case was recently reopened; this month, Willis was convicted of multiple counts of statutory and forcible rape.)

The problem of abusing forgiveness was recently highlighted in a New York Times article that reported on the Roman Catholic Church’s adoption of child sexual abuse guidelines. During negotiations, one archbishop stated that he wanted the church to remove its “zero tolerance” provision that forbids priests who had abused minors from returning to the ministry. Instead, the prelate said that some abusive priests should be allowed to serve in a limited capacity. One of his reasons had to do with the fact that the policy, as the Times reported, “contradicted the church’s teachings on reconciliation and forgiveness.”

As Howard Zehr notes, it’s somewhat understandable that, when adults are faced with allegations of child abuse, many would simply like the problem to go away. Some worry about how reporting the abuse might reflect badly on their faith or religious organization. But, in addition, many see forgiveness as a cornerstone of religious doctrine.

Forgiveness is a tricky thing. Many adults find it to be an extremely difficult act. We can teach children about forgiveness in certain circumstances, but expecting them to forgive adults who have emotionally or physically harmed them—while failing to provide those victims adequate support—is, well, unforgivable.


  1. What this post describes happened to me. I came out with my abuse to my other family members when I was 15, and most of them would not believe me because I had kept quiet about it as a young child. And of course, my mother was the “perfect” mother and so religiously-founded. Her parents, however, believed me and took me to see their pastor. The pastor told me to forgive her and stay with her until I was of majority because no court was going to believe the word of a teenaged abuse victim. My grandparents sent me back home to be with my mother because they believed that God would perform a miracle and my mother would stop hurting me.

    I ended up running away a year later, and I haven’t contacted my mother since. I also haven’t forgiven her. Forgiveness is not required of anyone, and to this point, I don’t even know what it would mean to forgive my abuser. My mother caused me more pain that anyone else on the planet all in the name of God and good parenting – how could anyone expect a victim to forgive years of torture?

    As an aside, though I was a runaway, I am now a successful grad student. It is possible to thrive as a survivor of child abuse, with a lot of work and counseling.

    Thank you for writing this blog. This is an issue that people need to face up to.

    • Daedra,

      Thank you for expressing your thoughts on this subject and revealing some of your personal story. The kind of pressure to forgive that you experienced was manipulative, selfish, and insensitive. Congratulations on the work you have done to reach such clarity, as well as your scholarly accomplishments! But mostly, I want to thank you for trying to help others. Your words are invaluable to those who are struggling.

      Best to you,

    • whats sad is they want to ride you as a scapegoat.. a personal jesus.. because they want you to forgive and are angry if you don’t because theyre NOT sorry! it is yet another additional layer TO the abuse…we are allwising up to it.. because we need to PREVENT abuse too.. and how can we if we go around with rose colored glasses that religion instills in us.. when years later it hits us all at once as a lifetime of repair ? that’s not Godly.. that’s for them to use you still…

  2. I’m tired of people insisting that victims “have” to forgive in order to be Christians, and that they “have” to forgive in order to heal. No, we don’t, to both. The victim is the best judge of what they need to do in order to heal, and that should be respected.

    • Thank you, HH. The concept of forgiveness in faith circles is often abused as adults may quietly bully a victim into forgiving an abuser, even when the victims are children.

    • I’m really trying to “let it go:” for my own health I convinced myself :they the (parental units) did their best;given their circumstances. As an adult, I can see their own lives. My father had an alcohol……..I was the “selected one” for their hatred. So my sibs think
      I am over-reacting. I am the eldest, so they were too young to see and remember what was going on.

      Thank you for this article. I am RC and I feel a need to speak with a priest, privately. I will be re-abused. My mother is 84 now; clearly I am not going to confront her. But she calls me to accuse me of lying @ things that occurred decades before. She is at the basic lever of denial; It never happened. You lied. That day never occurred. Evidence of dementa; I wish she’d pick a different topic. But she is preparing for death; wants to clear her conscience.

      I never attached to her.But there were many female relatives.My first memory is an aunt changing my diaper and reciting “Twinke, twinkle litte star.: Maybe I was not the despicable person my mother hated so.I may try EMDR so I can stop ruminations. I am trying to replace negative memories with positive, Music is a great

      A priest would insist that I minimize the pain. Forgive her and move on. There would be judgement @ my inability to forgive her all these yrs. I cannot deny the pain.The horrific events make me feel sick

      • me too. I can feel all this. my situation is similar.we should be understood. abuse victims have ptsd and look everywhere and see the abuse or try to see why… so we read Bible verses too after our awakening.. and see abuse and then that adds another layer to OUR guilt.. like “foes of own household/mother father brothers etc.. all hate you…”
        it can come from all sides..not only the family but the Church we go to for help!

    • true


  1. Excellent article about forgiveness as it relates to victims of abuse.

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