Combatting Sexual Assault in Communities of Faith
Why is it important?
Sexual assault is epidemic in the United States. About 1 in 5 women (18.3%) and 1 in 71 men (1.4%) in the U.S. have been raped at some time in their lives (NISVS, pg. 1). Often the perpetrator is someone the victim knows. According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, in 8 out of 10 cases of rape, the victim knew the person who sexually assaulted them. More than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime (NISVS, pg. 2).
Given the prevalence of sexual assault, it is undeniable that communities of faith contain both survivors and perpetrators. These communities are often hotspots for abuse and negligence, but they also have the potential to be safe spaces of prevention and restoration.
How are religious leaders and faith communities to prevent sexual assault and to react when survivors or perpetrators come forth? Different faith communities may have different values and standards of action that are important to them. However, despite their unique values and beliefs, all faith communities should be prepared to support people in need of healing following sexual assault. Community leaders, including spiritual leaders, should be educated about sexual assault and develop partnerships with organizations and experts in the field who can help them to cultivate a community of safety and accountability.
Common Challenges in Faith Communities
- A culture of silence around sexual violence. Many faith communities avoid talking openly about sexual assault and abuse. Naming and discussing the issue encourages survivors to come forward and to leave abusive environments.
- Absence of sexual violence counseling from pastoral care methods and training. Not all pathways of pastoral education touch on these issues, and individuals pursuing leadership positions within their faith communities may have varied backgrounds with regards to understanding the dynamics of violence.
- Emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness. Pushing the survivor into forgiving the perpetrator makes the survivor feel at fault.
- Inadequate counseling resources. Healing from sexual trauma is an intensive process, and may require assistance from specialized mental health professionals. While faith leaders are a critical support system for their communities, it is also important that they cultivate relationships with local resources such as Rape Crisis Centers in order to refer survivors to expert care.
- Minimizing the abusers’ accountability or the role of the criminal justice system. Holding the perpetrator accountable protects the survivor and the community from further abuse.
- Violation of the victim’s confidentiality. This puts the victim in danger and vulnerable to retaliation, either from the perpetrator or from other community members.
- Emphasis on “keeping the peace” or on not “rocking the boat.” These approaches can uphold the status quo and allow abuse to continue, rather than helping the survivor seek healing and justice.
- Confusing sexual abuse with adultery. Calling sexual violence “adultery” erroneously suggests that the abuse was consensual. This places the victim in a position of blame and ignores the exploitive and criminal nature of sexual assault or abuse.
Survivors of sexual assault need whole-person healing, including emotional, physical, and spiritual support. While seeking such support, survivors may ask for guidance from a spiritual leader or faith community following their assault. A spiritual leader might be the first person that a survivor confides in about their assault. It is important to listen to the survivor and their needs. Leaders should let the survivor know that their assault was not their fault and that they are not to blame. Clergy can also help the survivor to seek resources outside of the faith community such as counseling, health, and legal services at a local Rape Crisis Center.
Spiritual leaders need to be equipped to provide counseling to survivors as well as to point survivors to other pertinent resources. It is important for faith leaders and counselors to know their limits and refer survivors to sexual violence experts. Faith communities should develop an arsenal of local resources and services to offer as referrals to survivors of abuse.
Perpetrators also attend places of worship. Many faith communities have an atmosphere of transparency and vulnerability. Congregation members may confess that they have previously assaulted another person or feel like they want to. Faith is a way that these individuals may seek to change their behaviors, thoughts, or feelings. It is important for churches to prevent sexual assault by offering counseling, accountability relationships, and programs to these individuals. Additionally, faith communities can help these individuals to seek counseling and resources outside of the faith community because the person may need professional medical or psychological treatment. However, if and when sexual assault occurs, the community must hold perpetrators accountable for their actions and encourage survivors to seek justice and healing.
Faith community leaders should also be aware of Maryland’s legal requirements for reporting child sexual abuse. For more questions related to reporting, please contact the Sexual Assault Legal Institute at 301-565-2277.
Do not wait until sexual abuse occurs to take action. Faith communities can take steps to prevent sexual assault. The following action steps will help any faith community to prevent and respond to sexual assault in an effective manner.
- Talk about sexual abuse and sexual misconduct in existing activities like sermons, presentations, and events.
- Educate spiritual leaders, youth workers, volunteers, and congregation members on sexual assault and prevention.
- Host community events and trainings on sexual assault to reach those outside your faith organization.
- Educate leaders about child abuse reporting requirements, the importance of confidentiality, misconduct by clergy or spiritual leaders, and other safety issues.
- Establish a code of conduct and safety prevention procedures for youth workers and volunteers.
- Develop policies to respond to clergy or member misconduct or abuse.
- Train youth workers on child assault prevention and response.
- Conduct background checks on youth workers and volunteers.
- Partner with organizations that specialize in sexual abuse and victimization to provide trainings and resources to your community.
- Create a list of referral resources for survivors of sexual assault that includes counseling, advocacy, legal, and health services.
- Invite sexual assault experts to speak at events.
- Encourage community members to volunteer with prevention, education, and advocacy organizations and/or donate.
- Ensure that the physical organization of rooms and structures does not allow for perpetrators to hide or isolate their victims. Monitor spaces that may be of concern.
- Post sexual assault information and hotline numbers around the building or out in your community.
- Respond with caring concern for the survivor.
- Ensure that the survivor is safe.
- Empower the survivor by letting them know that they have choices, resources, and a caring community.
- Develop support groups for survivors of sexual assault and a separate support group for perpetrators of sexual assault.
The following organizations are working with faith communities to combat sexual assault:
- Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse: http://jcada.org/
- CHANA: http://chanabaltimore.org/
- Enditnow: http://www.enditnow.org/
- FaithTrust Institute: http://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/
- Heart Women & Girls: http://heartwomenandgirls.org/sexual-violence-resources/
- Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking: http://faastinternational.org/
The following documents will help spiritual leaders and communities to begin combatting sexual assault:
- A Guide to Working with Survivors of Sexual Violence for faith-based organizations and religious institutions (The Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape):
- A Case Study of Child Sexual Abuse Within a Church Community (Daryl J. Higgins, Journal of Religion and Abuse): https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232993411_A_Case_Study_of_Child_Sexual_Abuse_Within_a_Church_Community
Black, M.C., Basile, K.C., Breiding, M.J., Smith, S.G., Walters, M.L., Merrick, M.T., Chen, J., & Stevens, M.R. (2011). The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey (NISVS): 2010 Summary Report. Atlanta, GA: National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: http://www.cdc.gov/ViolencePrevention/pdf/NISVS_Report2010-a.pdf
National Sexual Violence Resource Center (2015). Statistics About Sexual Violence. National Sexual Violence Resource Center: http://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/publications_nsvrc_factsheet_media-packet_statistics-about-sexual-violence_0.pdf
The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (2004). Speaking out: Faith communities and sexual assault. Connections, 5(2). Retrieved from http://www.nhcadsv.org/uploads/Connections%20Faith.pdf