Preventing and Responding to Sexual Abuse: Some Much-Needed Resources

by Krista Showalter Ehst

Most of us can agree that sexual abuse and violence are realities we would like to see eradicated from our communities, especially our faith communities. Yet at the end of the day, we often remain paralyzed by the difficulty of these issues and realities, failing to take proactive steps that might prevent or better equip us to respond to sexual abuse. We need, first and foremost, the courage to begin talking more openly about the presence of sexual abuse and violence in our Mennonite communities. But we also need resources to help us have conversations that are healing, and action that leads towards genuinely safe and whole communities.

The Conference Offices are building a small library of print and web resources intended specifically to foster safe and sexually healthy congregations and communities. Any congregation, Sunday School class, small group, or leadership team would be wise to delve into some of these resources, which can be found at the Franconia Conference website by clicking here. Two of these resources will be briefly reviewed here, and they are just a small sample of the other topics addressed, such as responding to clergy misconduct, exploring the gender and racialized elements of sexual violence, and creating safe churches for children and youth.

We are not very good at talking about the “shadow sides” of sexuality: sexual abuse and violence, pornography, sexual addiction, etc. But we’re also not very good at talking about healthy, whole expressions of sexuality. A curriculum produced by MennoMedia’s Faith & Life Resources seeks to encourage congregations to talk openly about and to celebrate sexuality. Entitled Body & Soul: Healthy Sexuality and the People of God, the curriculum is structured as a multi-faceted, intergenerational approach that incorporates both the worship and education aspects of congregational life. As the introduction states, Scripture makes it clear that “God is very interested in our sexual health. As male and female–as beings with strong desires and energy for sexual expression–we can’t ignore sexuality in our apprenticeship of faith in Jesus” (Coordinator Guide, pg 4).  With this foundational understanding, the curriculum offers a 4-week series of worship and education resources centered around the following themes: “Our Bodies, God’s Image”; “Created for Intimacy”; “Honoring the Gift of Sex;” “Holy Desires.” The fact that this series is intended to shape both worship and education means that, for an entire month, sex will be at the forefront of congregational life. And in fact, the authors hope that if the entire congregation is engaged in this conversation about healthy sexuality, these conversations will begin to flow over into other contexts, slowly making it easier to have open and frank discussions about sex.

The curriculum does well to provide specific resources for different groups within congregations. Included in the box set are a worship leader guide, an adult study guide, a youth leader guide, a book geared towards “tweens”, a book to help parents talk about sexuality at home with their young children, and a collection of essays that touches on topics such as sexuality & singleness, sexuality & aging, and sexuality after losing a spouse.

The curriculum also acknowledges its limits. For one, it is not primarily focused on same-sex orientation. The authors recognize that same-sex sexuality has been prominent in our churches of late, and they intentionally strive to talk about sexuality through a broader framework. This does not necessarily exclude conversations about healthy sexuality for LGBTQ persons, but leaders might want to be sensitive in intentionally making space for such conversations.

Additionally, the curriculum does not delve into broken areas of sexuality, although they do name things such as pornography and sexual abuse. The intent is to lay a foundation for further conversation and study, and there are suggested resources for further engagement with these “shadow sides” of sexuality.

The curriculum is quite involved, and would require intentional, long-range planning. That being said, some of the resources included could easily be studied on a smaller scale by individual classes or small groups. It is certainly worthwhile considering whether your congregation might take on the entire 4 week series, as it offers unique space and resourcing for learning to talk about and celebrate our sexuality. Such conversations and celebrations are imperative if we are also to begin acknowledging the broken, harmful expressions of sexuality present in our communities.

A second resource from the Conference library is geared specifically towards confronting the deeply broken reality of sexual abuse. The Little Book of Restorative Justice for Sexual Abuse, co-written by Judah Oudshoorn, Michelle Jacket, and Lorraine Stutzman Amstutz, applies the Restorative Justice framework specifically to situations of sexual abuse. Tragically, when sexual abuse occurs, we sometimes end up pitting the concerns of offenders and victims against one another. As communities of faith, we want to be a welcoming, redemptive place for offenders, but we also don’t want to intentionally harm victims. The Restorative Justice approach is an immense tool in that it explicitly prioritizes the healing and well-being of victims, but provides space in its framework for offenders to be held accountable and to be supported. The basic Restorative Justice approach is to begin by asking: “Who has been hurt?”, and then: “What do they need?”. While offenders may well have been hurt and traumatized in their own lives, this framework does not allow an offender’s own trauma to minimize a victim’s hurt or to derail the process away from the victim’s healing. Ultimately, of course, the goal is to restore communities, which include victims and offenders, to health and wholeness. But the journey towards that wholeness makes sure to value the stories and wounds of victims.

The Restorative Justice framework is helpfully concretized through several case studies, and by laying some basic groundwork. It includes some basics on the issue of sexual abuse, how it harms victims, why offenders perpetrate, and how it can be a cyclical occurrence. It then offers several case studies to demonstrate how the framework might be used when working with a victim, an offender, or an entire community.

The authors do not intend this to be an end-all, be-all approach. They highlight the real lack of creative frameworks for confronting sexual abuse outside of the criminal justice system, and they hope that this particular framework can help spark more imaginative, restorative ways of addressing sexual abuse and seeking restoration in its wake. While it’s obviously a good resource for a congregation that might be in the midst of a situation of sexual abuse, it would be an equally good study for classes or leadership teams or congregations who want to know how to relate to victims or offenders, and who want to prepare for dealing with sexual abuse if/when it occurs.

Just as both of these resources intend to be a starting point for more conversations and more creative approaches, the library of Conference resources is intended as just the beginning of the education and resourcing work we must do if we are to begin making our communities spaces of transparency, health, and wholeness. Check out the entire list of resources online, and consider how your congregation might become better equipped for this important work.