Compassion: the needed Christian response

To many Christians, the church and related institutions are thought of as safe places. But for others, that isn’t the case.

Victims of sexual assault that occurs within Christian establishments often don’t report their abuse because these communities, unfortunately, aren’t seen as a refuge, according to Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), a faith-based organization that provides education and training for Christians to recognize, prevent and respond to child abuse.

Certain aspects of Christian culture cause some victims of sexual assault to hide their abuse. Christian teachings of purity promote abstaining from sexual behavior of any kind before marriage. The church’s emphasis on sexual purity, while Biblical, is sometimes misconstrued by both victims and their communities, and can incorrectly paint rape victims as guilty of sin.

A 13-year-old victim told a member of GRACE that she never disclosed her abuse because her only knowledge of sex outside of marriage was that it was sinful. Other victims have similar experiences, and experience tremendous guilt as a result. In the worst cases, other members of Christian communities will go so far as to condemn victims, saying sexual contact of any kind, even involuntary sex, is a sin.

When the church’s teachings on purity are misconstrued or incomplete, victims are unable to receive proper healing and counseling. GRACE suggests that church leaders actively address issues of sexual assault and incest when teaching on sexual purity. Speakers should be careful to point out that victims of these things are not guilty of the sins of their attackers. This helps to increase victims’ chances of not seeing themselves as guilty of a sin in the wake of an attack, as well as silence ignorant Christians who might try to bring shame on victims with incorrect applications of scripture.

In December 2014, an independent investigation conducted at Bob Jones University, a non-denominational Christian institution, revealed disturbing facts about the treatment of rape victims on its campus, according to an article by the New York Times. A confidential survey was given to 381 current and former students and employees who said they had knowledge of how the university handled abuse cases. Fifty-six percent of these people said the university treated assault victims with a “blaming and disparaging” attitude. Of those surveyed, 166 identified as victims of abuse, and almost half of these people said they were pressured by the university to not report the incident to police.

Several participants said Bob Jones university staff told victims they were guilty of various sins in the wake of their abuse. One recounted being told he or she was harboring bitterness against the abuser, which was deemed a sin, and was told not to report the incident. Another person claimed a university official said the victim was responsible for “[tearing] your family apart” after reporting abuse at the hands of his or her grandfather, and even told the victim “you love yourself more than you love God.”

Assault in faith-based environments can be particularly difficult for female victims to deal with. Christian teachings on purity emphasize the woman’s responsibility of warding off male attention by watching how she dresses and not spending time alone with men. This weight placed on women can foster environments where female victims are shamed for their situation; improper dress and behavior are cited as reasons for assault, rather than just blaming her abuser for the attack.

The practice of placing the guilt on victims is even more magnified in instances when victims are intoxicated at the time of the assault. Christians will sometimes downplay the fact that a victim was wrongly violated and instead focus on a sin that preceded the incident. Regardless of whether a person is drunk or involved in some other sin at the time, being sexually assaulted should not be lumped in with those transgressions. No one would suggest a murder victim is sinful for being killed by someone else; being the victim of someone else’s sin is not a sin in itself. Even if an assault is perceived as the result of a sinful situation, victims need to be protected by their Christian community, not shamed.

In some instances, Christian leaders may ignore or diminish claims of sexual abuse in an attempt to save the reputation of their institutions. The lack of punishment for Christian leaders committing sexual abuse does nothing to curb assaults or encourage victims to report the incidents. The Catholic Church is a prime example. Over the last decade, it has been forced to deal with a disturbing number of clergymen abusing children. Statistics released in 2014 showed that more than 3,400 cases of child abuse at the hands of priests had been reported to the Vatican in the previous decade. Of the accused priests, more than 2,500 did not lose their positions in the church.

Church leaders in other denominations often don’t report suspected abuse to authorities, and try to deal with the problem in-house, according to GRACE. Victims facing abuse in environments where their abusers are not adequately punished often don’t see the merit in reporting abuse. Because being identified as a victim of abuse can be perceived as shameful, many victims would rather not risk their reputations on just the possibility of seeing their abuser punished.

For too long, Christian sexual assault victims have been silenced by shame. Churches and related communities should be fortresses for those who have been deeply hurt. Instead of fostering an environment where victims experience shame and guilt, Christians should create safe spaces for victims to heal. Discussing the reality of sexual assault goes hand-in-hand with conversations about maintaining sexual purity. As Christian institutions around the country come to terms with the reality of sexual assault within their walls, it’s paramount that Christians welcome victims with love, compassion and an educated perspective, just as Christ would.