Kimi Harris: How Churches Can Help Victims Years After Sexual Assault

Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony added fuel to an already heated discussion on how we should respond to abuse allegations. Regardless of politics, pastor and author Ed Stetzer called for caution in how we speak about abuse so that we don’t harm victims within our own communities. Research confirms that victims stay silent because of a negative community culture toward abuse and often don’t receive emotional support. According to therapist Connie Baker, herself a sexual abuse survivor, our response as a church community can make tragic situations worse or they can help with the healing process.

Rachael Denhollander, the attorney who spearheaded the fight to take down Larry Nassar for sexually abusing hundreds of young female gymnasts, experienced both damaging and healing responses from her church communities. Before she came forward, she recalled the kind of church culture that had previously silenced her.

During a youth group discussion, Denhollander remembers a student asking whether they could consider King David’s misuse of power toward Bathsheba as sexual assault, and their teacher said no, opening the floor for others to give their opinions. (You can read why it is assault from a theological viewpoint here.) A friend of Denhollander’s raised his hand to share: “I think it had to have been her fault, because she could have chosen to die rather than have sex with him.”

“This immediately told me I would be better off dead than a rape victim. And if I didn’t fight to my death, it’s my fault,” Denhollander recalled.

The Impact of Silencing

Research indicates that when abuse victims feel like they can’t or shouldn’t talk about their experiences, their trauma can worsen.

“It does appear that withholding disclosure, or not telling about abuse or assault when one wants to tell is related to worse psychological symptoms, as is delayed disclosure,” according to University of Chicago criminology professor Sarah E. Ullman, in her book, Talking about Sexual Assault: Society’s Response to Survivors.

Indeed, many victims suffer in silence, since “studies indicate that only one half to two-thirds of adult women disclose their sexual assault experience to someone at some point in their lives.”

Baker, who has worked with sexual and spiritual abuse victims for many years in her private practice, told me that when victims are silenced, “The horrible impact cannot be overstated. [The silencing] is the majority of the [long-term] trauma most of the time.”

Baker underwent her own healing journey years ago after her pastor abused her when she was a young adult and used threats of suicide to keep her silent. When the pastor finally confessed, Baker hoped other church leadership would give her protection and support. Instead, she learned, “I was to be the brunt and focal point of their anger, their hurt, their outrage. I was it.” She was forced to confess her “sin” to her church and leave the area so that the church could eventually restore her abuser to ministry.

“Part of why silence is so bad for us is because we’re not made to do trauma in isolation.” Those in pain should be surrounded with support by their communities, the way they do when death or other tragedies strike.

This community support, she said, “is good for our brain and neurology. It’s how we cope.” Unfortunately, most victims don’t get support, and that “isolation brings continued shame and confusion.”

When We Blame the Victim

Ullman’s research also shows that 80 percent of victims report some form of blaming.

Baker pointed out, along with problematic views about women and a history of blaming women in general, the power structure of many communities makes it risky for congregations to side with victims. Frankly, she said, “It’s easier to dismiss or blame the person with less power.”

“It’s essential to view this problem as a systemic problem. A leader or congregation that blames a victim does not happen in a vacuum.” When the abuser is a respected person in the community, such as a pastor, the community’s knee-jerk response can be, “Is she lying? Please tell me she is lying,” because the stakes are so high for the community if it were true.

This can lead to interrogating the victim with questions that imply guilt or cast suspicion onto the victim. She gave examples of minimizing comments often made to victims, such as the victim “took it wrong,” was “too sensitive,” they are “reading into things,” or “they are exaggerating.” Other blaming responses can include comments such as “they don’t dress modestly enough,” “they tend to flirt,” or “it takes two to tango.”

Both Christians and non-Christians questioned Denhollander: “Why didn’t you fight back?” and “How could you not know?”

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Source: Christianity Today