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A Charge for Church Leadership: Speaking Out Against Sexual Abuse and Ministering to Survivors, Part 1

Clergy Addressing Issues of Sexual Abuse

By and large a “holy hush” permeates religious congregations and their leadership when it comes to the issue of violence in general in the domestic setting. For many years, our research team has claimed that Christian family life can be dangerous to the physical, emotional, or sexual well-being of its members.3 So much can happen behind the closed doors of the family home. There are often tears held back behind the sweet Sunday smiles of parishioners. While it may be sacred, Christian family life is hardly safe at times. It is time for the faith community to wake up from its slumber and for pastors and religious leaders to sound out a call for action. But, like the priest and the Levite in the story of the Good Samaritan, it is so much easier to look the other way. Biblical love, however, looks past social class, ethnicity, and professional image.

Employing a variety of research strategies over the years—including questionnaires, interviews, *focus groups, and *community consultations—with pastors and church peo­ple from a variety of denominational affiliations, we have learned a great deal about *do­mestic violence in families of faith.4 We have heard of the desire of victims and survivors that their faith leaders address these issues head on—learning themselves, and then teach­ing others, to recognize its prevalence and severity in their midst. We have also documented the disappointment of those who look to the church for help only to have their pain dismissed, minimized or handled with disregard by well-meaning but poorly prepared spiritual leaders. While our focus has been firmly rooted in the broad area of domestic violence, there is much overlap in what we have learned about the “sacred silence” that pertains as well to sexual abuse.

Lessons Learned Along the Way

Below, we have identified some of the key findings to emerge from our studies. These provide a context for us to discuss why we believe pastors are a central component in any community-based response to sexual abuse. Observe the following.

  • The majority of clergy are called upon several times a year to respond to a man or a woman who is coping with issues of abuse from their childhood;5
  • Victims of abuse who look to their pastors for assistance are often unhappy with the help they receive. In particular, they are disappointed to find that there is limited awareness and understanding of the issues surrounding abuse and often a reluc­tance to provide help of an explicitly spiritual nature (such as prayer, Bible readings, or spiritual counsel);6
  • Less than one in ten pastors report that they feel well equipped to assist victims and *perpetrators in the aftermath of abuse in the home;7
  • Many clergy are reluctant to refer those who come to them for help to other professionals in the community or to community-based agencies where the therapists and advocates are employed. Where referrals are most urgently needed (among those religious leaders with little or no training) they are least likely to occur;8
  • The informal support network that operates in many faith communities—especially where women reach out to other women in need—is one way that congregations put into practice the notion that “they will know we are believers by our love for one another;”9
  • Mistrust between churches and community agencies poses a real challenge for those workers who desire cooperation and collaboration between congregations and the neighborhoods where they feel called to minister. Yet, there is evidence that initiatives to foster collaboration can be successful;10
  • When clergy take seriously their responsibility to speak out against violence in all its many manifestations, offer support and referral suggestions, and hold those who act abusively accountable for their actions, the impact can be profound.11

The message for clergy is three-fold: (1) the need is great, (2) many men and women look to religious leaders for help in the aftermath of violence or sexual abuse, (3) and it is imperative to pair spiritual resources with practical help.

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Category: Ministry, Pneuma Review, Winter 2014

About the Author: Nancy Nason–Clark is Professor (and Chair) of Sociology and Director of the RAVE Project University of New Brunswick (Fredericton, New Brunswick, Canada).

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