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Helping Survivors Recover

The following is an excerpt from my book Redeem The Silence; an Unintended Journey:

Within our faith communities, just because nothing is said opening about sexual violence from the pulpit, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.  After my rape, one church friend said, “I didn’t think Christians got raped.”  Did this imply that since I was raped I was not a Christian?  Another person said, “I know what I would have done if it had been me: I would have commanded the attacker to leave in the name of Jesus.”  Did this imply that I had not responded righteously, that my faith was weak, or that I did not measure up?  The only healthy reaction I received from the faith community was from a woman in a Bible study group whom I did not know: “Honey, that comment is absurd, no one knows what they would do in a situation like that, unless it has actually happened to them.”  What a sane comment!  What a relief!

Marie Marshall Fortune writes about a pastor who announced to his congregation that he would be attending a conference on sexual abuse.  When returned he was amazed at how many women came to him for help.  He had no idea there were so many survivors in his congregation.  By his public announcent about a sexual abuse conference, he had inadvertently given permission and safety for these survivors to speak up.  He had opened the possibility for a safe and healthy conversation [Marie Marshall Fortune, Sexual Violence, the Unmentionable Sin, New York: Pilgrim Press, 1983, 127]

In effect this pastor had hung up a sign: “I am learning about sexual abuse.  I know some of you have experienced this travesty, and I’m available to help.”  Those who were struggling came forth.  Another faith community demonstrated the same principle when declaring from the pulpit that there isn’t anything that cannot be talked about.  When topics like someones personal experience with abortion, pornography, divorce, domestic violence, homosexuality and sexual violence are openly addressed from pulpits, many unspoken family ‘rules’ are broken and some people will get upset.

In some of our faith communities, some crises are more acceptable than others.  In the event of a death, the church is more comfortable being the Good Samaritan.  People visit, send flowers, take in meals, and reach out.  In cases of sexual assault, all too often the role of the Levite is played by faith community leadership and therefore their congregations.  People might not know what to do so they do nothing ( no excuse by the way, more on that later).  The truth is, it’s more comfortable keeping a survivor at a distance because being with her (him) can be a painful reminder of our own vulnerability.

The recovery process will be facilitated by caring people who can assist in the aftermath of the trauma.  (This ‘aftermath’ as I call it might occur years after the event when she is going through recovery or is recalling buried memories).  The role of our faith communities is a vital part of the needed support system.  Sometimes, we are the only support she has.  She (and sometimes those around her) pays a heavy price for what is often perceived as an uncaring avoidance by her faith community.  We have been guilty of being insensitive and unavailable.  Instead of providing an oasis of safety. help resources and mercy, we unconsciously separate ourselves from her, providing opportunity for further trauma that may make her vulnerable to future attacks, relationship problems, and/or even separation form God.

More than anyone else, those closest to a survivor will affect how she deals with the aftermath.  In an incestuous family system no help or support should be expected.  She may or may not be able to reach out and ask for help.  We have a choice to both be the Good Samaritan and care for the bleeding unappealing victim, or collude with her own denial, passing the victim as if unaware.  With God’s help we can resist the temptation of denial, refuse to abandon her and instead learn how to move toward her in love.  It may require us to face ourselves in new ways that require commitment, pain, leadership and servant-hood. 

Anyone who claims to be a Christian is part of the faith community.  Even a survivor’s relatives have the same choices as they respond to her.  The affects of their choices will be discussed later.  We are all of the same family.

To be continued next time……


  1. Judy Menser says

    Sherrill: Not only sexual crisis but any type of “out of the ordinary” type of problem can isolate a person in the church. We have experienced that with our son who suffered a stroke at 14 months. It was not that people did not care, it was just that the occurrence was so foreign to the norm that they didn’t know what to do with us and our crippled child. Thank you for shedding light on this topic of sexual abuse in the church. The church does need to become more aware of the skeletons in their congregation’s closets and know how to deal with them.

  2. Bob Nielsen says

    I think that men can (and should) play a special role in the recovery process within the faith community. Survivors, especially those who are just beginning, need others to proactively seek out and support. This takes sacraficial serving attitudes, that I think God has called men to explicitly exemplify as the model of Christ. I think it’s also valuable to have men say publicly that sexual violence will not be tolerated. I think part of God’s call to men is protection and this needs to be a public message. The lack of male leadership in this is a huge and pervasive issue (one that I struggle with personally) in the church, but I think men need to take the lead in the communities to see this change.

  3. Well, it is sure fantanstic to get a comment from a man in this silent world of sexual violence. With all respect I would just like to add some emphasis to a couple of things.

    I believe it is a travesty beyond measure that there has been little or no male leadership in the Bride of Christ on this issue. Such leadership has the potential to not only begin protecting children, healing marriages, etc., but imagine the witness that would be to the world?

    In fact, this pervasive silence, especially from men, is a passive contributer to sexual violence itself. It is part of the problem.

    No faith community, organization, or indiviual man needs to be afraid of being overwhelmed by the need. It is true it is in an overwhelming need. But is that an excuse before Christ to ignore it? I will do a blog right now on how we can begin to think about the much needed role these organizations and indiviuals can do to begin to create a new, wonderful,healing and inviting movement that could impact our whole cuture.

    One of the organizations one can find online notes a group of men who have formed a group to change themselves and thier own personal thinking, behaviors, etc. I think they might still be in my book if my editor did not edit them out. I will find out who they are do a blog on them. I found it amazaing and encouraging.

  4. So, the organization is Men Against Sexual Violence, http:/ I put up a couple of blogs about them.

    How about groups like these in our faith communities? What would God think?

    MASV has the grand goal of having one million memebers. Imagine that!

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