What's the Church to do with SAAM?

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Bonnie Nicholas, Interim Director of Safe Church Ministry, was a collaborator on this blog.

In the late 1970’s women in England organized protests around the problem of sexual assaults. Take Back the Night marches were the beginning of sexual assault awareness activities which today have evolved into various programs and initiatives designed to educate the public on this serious issue. In 2001, April was established as Sexual Assault Awareness Month (SAAM).

Why should the problem of sexual assault concern the church? The fact is, many people in our churches have been hurt by sexual assault and the results are devastating to individuals and families. Churches can become safe places for healing, rediscovering a sense of self, and for learning to trust again. Churches can also be places where those who have perpetrated sexual assault can be held accountable and learn new ways of thinking and treating people with dignity. True transformation is possible through our Lord, Jesus Christ. Unfortunately, churches can also be places where the powerful love of Jesus is hidden behind a veil of silence and shame. Instead of a being a safe place, our churches can sometimes become a partner with the darkness when sexual assault involves a church leader.

Sexual assault is especially damaging when perpetrated by someone who has a strong association with the Lord and acts in his name. In the 2001 article “When CRC Ministers Abuse” Karen De Vries stated: “Since 1994, when the CRC established its office of Abuse Prevention, there have been about 150 reports of clergy abuse (not all involve active pastors), with only one proven false. Most involve repeat offenders, but about 10 new perpetrators surface each year.” This statistic includes both women and children and indicates that our churches are not immune to this problem.

Although many people would prefer not to talk about it, that doesn’t help the victims whose faith and trust has been shattered as a result of sexual assault. Congregations suffer, too, when allegations surface that a church leader may have committed such an offense. SAAM is a good reminder that being prepared and implementing policies and procedures before a church finds out about allegations of assault or misconduct, can help mitigate the pain and distress for all involved in the healing and resolution process.

When CRC Ministers Abuse Part II: Shattered Faith provides several guidelines for churches who want to be proactive for preventing and dealing with sexual assault by a church leader. The straightforward tips about establishing Abuse Response Teams, helping victims, instructions for removing clergy credentials, and creating policies will help your church deal with this difficult issue head on.

The story of the rape of Tamar in 2 Samuel 13:1-22 is an old story that unfortunately gets repeated far too often. Today, as then, rape most often occurs by someone who is known by the victim. It’s not passion out of control, but has been planned ahead of time by the perpetrator (studies show that those who rape ‘groom’ their victims and have a plan). The loss is devastating to the survivor; but is often minimized by others (see Absolom’s response to Tamar). Often there is no justice by those who have power (note King David’s lack of response). Part of being a Safe Church is becoming a place where truth about sexual assault can be found and where it can be responded to with justice and compassion.

It’s April and SAAM is here. What steps can your church take to respond and to become a safer place for everyone? 

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