Faith Based Issues and Sexual Assault
The vast majority of victims of sexual assault are abused by someone they know, often someone they trust. This betrayal coupled with the assault is especially devastating, whether the abuser is a member of their religious community, family member, friend, or other trusted person. If you have experienced abuse, non-denominational services are available to you. You may choose to report the abuse to your place of worship, and to legal authorities, but even if you don't, you can obtain support, information, and referrals through your local crisis center.
Note: Under New Hampshire law, any suspected abuse of a child under 18 must be reported to the Division for Children, Youth, and Families. Failure to report such abuse is a crime.
Faith can play an important healing role for some victims. It is not uncommon for victims of sexual assault to ask the questions, “Why did this happen to me?” or “Is God punishing me for something I did (or didn’t) do?” These are universal questions that are met differently depending on a victim’s spiritual convictions and beliefs, and cultural values. It is important that religious leaders educate themselves on sexual assault in order to provide the support these victims need.
Role of leaders
Two out of every three Americans are affiliated with a religious, spiritual, or faith-based group or organization, and approximately one out of every four Americans is an active member of such a community. Therefore it is not surprising that many victims of sexual assault turn to religious leaders for guidance in dealing with violence. Some religious, spiritual, and faith-based organizations provide victims with well-informed, practical, and spiritual guidance, including referrals to other organizations. However sexual violence isn’t always a crime discussed in religious settings. This is despite the fact that there are victims, survivors, and perpetrators who likely worship in every community of faith. The silence contributes to misunderstandings and myths that blame the victims. A lack of understanding can also lead to the misuse of sacred texts to justify sexually abusive behavior.
Leaders in religious communities are in a powerful position with a great deal of trust. They have the ability to positively or negatively shape their memberships attitudes about sexual violence and its impact on victims. Unfortunately there are many myths and stereotypes that are entrenched in some faith communities which can make victims feel like what happened to them was their own fault, or something they have to “put up with.”
- Support victims who come to you.
- Establish a policy that has a clear statement about understanding of and intolerance for sexual violence and procedures for reporting possible abuse.
- Talk with your congregation about services that are available for victims.
- Display information about local victim services (posters, brochures) where meetings and worship take place.
- Learn about the underlying causes of sexual violence as a social problem.
- Offer training for community leaders on issues of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, including laws on mandatory reporting of suspected child sexual abuse.
- Sponsor and support activities that demonstrate appreciation for diversity and encourage family traditions that build respect.
- Donate money and volunteer at local sexual assault programs.
- FaithTrust Institute : FaithTrust Institute is an international, multifaith organization working to end sexual and domestic violence. They provide communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to abuse.
Articles and Publications:
- When the Abuser is Among Us: One Church’s Response to a Perpetrator, by Carol J. Adams
- Speaking Out: Faith Communities and Sexual Assault, by The Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs (Spring/Summer 2004.) A compilation of articles dealing with the faith community's response to sexual assault, representing views from various faith perspectives, including Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Jewish and Native American.
- Violence Against Women and the Role of Religion, by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune and Rabbi Cindy Enger (March 2005)