Professor Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University recently asked a question on Facebook: “What do you wish people knew/understood about experiencing sexual assault?”
From the flood of responses, Dr. Prior gleaned ten lessons. We need to know that sexual assault can happen in families, in church, and in public places; to young children, adults, and men. Women or children may be the abusers. Healing can take a lifetime. Finally — and this is why I’m sharing the article here — the church has the power to heal or harm in its response to survivors.
I know this to be true: my churchmates shunned me after I reported the misconduct, my offender told lies about me, and the bishop tried his hardest to silence me. But I received healing from the good people at my new church, and through the work of the brave priest who led the effort to create a healing service at St Paul’s. I’ve seen this harm/help duality in the lives of other survivors as well.
The first nine lessons in Prior’s article contain the actual words of survivors, describing their experiences. Readers still dealing with this trauma may want to skip straight to lesson ten. I’ll put that lesson in my own words. For churches to be a place of healing for survivors of sexual assault, they must:
1. Listen. Take the survivor seriously. Don’t discount her words. Let the survivor tell his story as many times as he needs to.
2. Don’t blame the survivor. Don’t ask what she was wearing, what he’d been drinking, whether she resisted, whether he reported the assault, or any question that might hint it was the survivor’s fault. Tell the survivor directly, as many times as she or he needs to hear it, “What happened to you was not your fault.”
3. Develop resources for survivors who approach the church for help: counseling or referrals, Bible studies for healing, preaching and teaching on ethics of sex and sexuality.
4. Most important, churches need to create a culture in which full respect is given to people often marginalized by society: children, women, the elderly, the disabled, the poor, immigrants, people of color, queer people, and so on. The church needs to see God in the face of everyone who walks in the door. This vision needs to be lived fully and clearly by church leaders.
You can find the full article here. Thanks to the survivor who shared it with me. Thanks to my readers who will share it with their church leaders.