The recent news cycle has increased the frequency with which I am asked, “Where do I start?” by colleagues, parents, and pastors. Sexual harassment, violence and abuse is not only at the forefront of our national conversation, but a recurring issue in our faith communities. We have yet to adequately responded.
On Tuesday, September 25th, I was with a gathering of the Seventh Day Adventist Church for a global summit to #EndItNow. Just days before Dr. Blasey Ford testified, this church-wide body was hosting its annual educational summit on ending all forms of abuse in its faith communities and schools. In that talk, I lifted up the work of the FaithTrust Institute and their three pronged approach to ending sexual and domestic violence in faith communities: 1. Recognition, 2. Prevention, 3. Intervention.
When so many are wondering “where do I start”, here are resources so each of us can take a step toward ending sexual violence, harassment, and abuse in our context.
We need to be better informed about the prevalence and impact of sexual harassment, violence and abuse. We don’t need to wait for an allegation to surface in our context or jarred by major news headlines. Sexual violence is personal, routine and epidemic. Unfortunately, it is always a relevant and needed area of education and activism. Check out these resources for up-to-date data: RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network provides comprehensive information as does the National Center on Domestic and Sexual Violence. For global information, review programs with the World Health Organization and the UN- Ending violence against women campaign. For specific information on dating violence related to teens, check out Love is Respect.
Data on sexual abuse and misconduct in faith communities is sorely lacking. A recent study by the Baylor School of Social Work provides information on Clergy Sexual Misconduct as do some recent reports by insurance companies related to child sexual abuse in Protestant faith communities.
Many faith communities in the past twenty years have put child sexual abuse prevention policies and practices into place. Most denominations provide resources for these policies as well as requiring various forms of sexual misconduct and harassment prevention training for clergy and some staff and volunteers. The foremost leader in policy development and education is the FaithTrust Institute started by Rev. Marie Fortune some 40 years ago. They provide in-person and online trainings as well as resources for all aspects of faith life.
There may be denominational differences in programs and policies. All faith communities, regardless of religious tradition, need to examine how their theology and its lived practice may contribute to or be used to justify sexual violence and abuse, protect the abuser, and silence victim/survivors. Shared theological commitments to equality, compassion, and justice can be a resource for healing and wholeness as well as a moral charge to end sexual and domestic violence. I do not have space here to address theology at length, but hope to in future posts.
Race and ethnicity and sexual and gender identity impact how one experiences violence and abuse and what resources are most useful in responding to such violence. Partnering with secular organizations in your local area that provide services and education is an important part of any prevention strategy. They often know the local community as well as which resources are most helpful in different circumstances. For those in our Drew community who are United Methodist, a ministry of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women created a “one-stop shop” website with denomination specific resources.
A side note: Sexual abuse and violence prevention education is necessary and important. Faith communities that set such education in the context of holistic and comprehensive sexuality education equip their young people and older people to see the connections between their faith and their sexuality, their values and their relationships, their behaviors and the dignity of each person. Sexuality education is an integral part of faith formation. For more on this conversation, see Sex + Faith: Talking with your Child from Birth to Adolescence and related curricular material as well as initiatives by the Religious Institute.
Hopefully, policies and practices are in place prior to a reported incident so that those responding can be clear about their roles and responsibilities. The initial conversation may be difficult and awareness of tips for talking to a survivor are helpful. If such policies are not in place, consult denominational resources for guidelines and partner with local organizations. Having immediate access to support is critical: have the national sexual assault hotline number or other related abuse and violence hotline numbers at the ready. These numbers put you in contact with local agencies that are able to walk victim/survivors as well as allies through next steps.
Dr. Kate Ott is a feminist, catholic scholar addressing the formation of moral communities with specializations in technology, youth and young adults, sexuality, pedagogy and professional ethics. She is Associate Professor of Christian Social Ethics at Drew Theological School. In addition to numerous articles, chapters, and two co-edited books, she is author of Sex and the Seminary: Preparing Ministers for Sexual Health and Justice, Sex + Faith: Talking with Your Child from Birth to Adolescence, and the forthcoming, Christian Ethics for a Digital Society. To find out more, visit www.kateott.org.