We believe that the vast majority of people of faith, if asked, would state a sincere desire to respond to sexual violence with wisdom, justice and support for victims. Numerous narratives from survivors, however, caution us to consider that we vastly overestimate our readiness to respond well, and underestimate the challenges involved in doing so.
Therefore, we do not place all our hopes in sharing a “to-do list” of strategies for churches. Clergy and leaders can have access to best practices, along with the resources to implement them, and still be stymied by powerful spiritual, psychological, and cultural influences.
These forces complicate and countervail against wise application of knowledge and effective implementation of safeguarding and response measures. In the third of our reflections, we identify and urge consideration of a few of these complicating forces.
1 – Human nature recoils from engagement with sexual violence.
The first may seem an obvious truth, but it is essential to this conversation. Human nature seeks comfort and stability, and resists distress and disequilibrium. Anguish and disruption, however, are unavoidable when sexual violation touches the lives of individuals and those called to act in response.
By their very nature, sexual violations, and their disclosures, throw individuals and systems into disarray. We are inclined to resist this level of disruption and recoil from coming into close contact with the physical, psychological, social and spiritual realities of sexual violence.
However, there is no way to respond to these experiences with justice and accountability without encountering profound disruptions and palpable distress. Avoidance and minimization may temporarily reestablish a sense of comfort and cohesion, but will do far greater damage to victims, and result in congregations and communities that are less safe and whole in the long run.
2 – The nature of many sexual violence situations makes judgments about them challenging.
Allegations of abuse that come to the attention of decision-makers in the church are often brought without “proof.” The reality of many sexual violations is that “evidence” may be difficult or impossible to obtain.
Such “proofs” would make decision-makers’ jobs easier, and provide a kind of unequivocal reassurance for the rightness of our judgments and responses. They might lighten the burden of being a responder in a messy and painful situation. But these expectations are often unrealistic. To expect victims of sexual violations to present us with incontrovertible proof is to misunderstand (either willfully or unintentionally) the nature of many of these kinds of violations and their impact on individuals.
3 – Disclosures of sexual violations are predictably followed by denials from the accused.
Not surprisingly, individuals who commit acts of sexual violence are unlikely to voluntarily report or admit to them. At times, a third party may witness or strongly suspect abuse and choose to confront or investigate it. But many sexual violations are orchestrated to occur in private. This leaves victims holding the heavy burden of revelation.
When violence is unveiled, denials by the accused predictably follow. Such accusations carry the potential for high stakes consequences, putting jobs, vocations, reputations and relationships on the line, and potentially resulting in criminal charges. Vehement refutations from the accused, therefore, are to be expected. Responders and decision-makers in churches are left to grapple with vastly differing accounts.
Adding further complexity is the phenomenon in which certain offenders do not perceive what they have done as violating or harmful. They may see themselves as acting out of a kind of caring or helpfulness, or convince themselves that their activities were consensual or benign.
Short of these beliefs, denials of the violating nature of their actions serve to preserve a positive sense of self in the offender. Acknowledging what they have done and sustaining a coherent and affirming sense of identity and integrity are incompatible. Therefore, disavowals can sound remarkably convincing.
These persuasive refutations can baffle responders and decision-makers, and muddle the process of determining just and effective responses. The difficulties compound when decision-makers have minimal knowledge or training in sexual violence.
Additionally challenging is that responders frequently have preexisting relationships with, or respect for, the accused, and/or the offender has made valuable contributions to the mission and life of the church.
4 – Offenders may be difficult to recognize.
People who commit sexual violations vary in type and approach, and can be hard to recognize. Many instances of sexual violence are carried out by known and trusted individuals, whose literal and figurative résumés are filled with apparently good things. They do not convey “evil” or “deviance” in ways we may expect. They are partners, parents, youth workers, teachers, and pastors.
Carrying the understanding that individuals in those roles can be sexual violators creates substantial cognitive dissonance. Such an awareness can be too disquieting for our sense of safety in the world to accept and maintain, which increases reluctance in those who could intervene.
Many survivors have shared with us their perception that others knew of, or suspected, the abuse but did little or nothing to intercede. Even when whispers of past violations are heard, or red flag behaviors are detected, disbelief, ambivalence, fear, and sympathy for the offender or their loved ones can contribute to inaction.
Loyalties may summon up strong defense in support of the accused person. These sentiments function as high barriers that must be surmounted if church members and leaders are to actually implement best practice response measures they may have in place. Otherwise, our policies and procedures remain words in a manual that not only fail to protect victims, but will be seen by them as hypocrisy and an abdication of love.
Make no mistake—improving our prevention and response to sexual violence will take sustained, significant efforts. It will require us to work against the wide array of barriers. However, the well-being of thousands of children and youth, women and men, is tied to our willingness to work for growth in this critical dimension of our communal lives.
In Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed that Christian community has not been achieved until we are willing to “suffer and endure” the pains of being close to the other. He writes “It is only when he is a burden that another person is really a brother and not merely an object to be manipulated.” One of the questions facing the church is whether or not we will take up that burden for our sisters and brothers living with or threatened by sexual violence.
Bonhoeffer points us to our God and Savior in this respect:
The burden of men was so heavy for God Himself that He had to endure the Cross. God verily bore the burden of men in the body of Jesus Christ. But He bore them as a mother carries her child, as a shepherd enfolds the lost lamb that has been found. God took men upon Himself and they weighted Him to the ground, but God remained with them and they with God. In bearing with men God maintained fellowship with them. It was the law of Christ that was fulfilled in the Cross. And Christians must share in this law.
Bonhoeffer, D. (1954) Life together: A discussion of Christian fellowship. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publisher.