Tag Archives: sexual abuse

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.

Understanding Symptoms of Sexual Abuse

By John Drescher-Lehman, LCSW

There are many reasons why sexual abuse survivors do not come forward, especially in their church communities. Many have noted that when they have shared their experience with their church, they are met by ignorance leading to a poor handling of the situation and a lack of support for them. The reality of sexual abuse is something most of us do our best not to think about, including many of the victims of sexual abuse; at times, especially the victims. There are many responses to being the victim of sexual abuse that may seem abnormal, are difficult to understand, or even frighten those who are unaware that they are normal responses/ symptoms of sexual abuse. Here we will discuss some of those things.

When someone is the victim of sexual abuse, they are not able to do anything to stop the abuse.  Therefore, sometimes the best way to deal with it is to try not to notice it is happening, or not to remember that it has happened.  We have many psychological defenses that help us deny, avoid, and reinterpret what has happened to us, especially when what happened was overwhelming and traumatic.  Often this is the best line of defense for a child who is being sexually abused, when no one except the abuser knows what is happening.

God has created our minds to be able to block out overwhelming information or pain that we aren’t prepared to deal with.  This helps us survive and go on living, yet the trauma and its impact do not go away. It is fairly common for adults to carry traumatic experiences out of their childhood, even without memory of the abuse.  Sometimes later in life, these memories can be triggered by life events, like having your own children, or having another traumatic experience that brings up the trauma from years ago; even something as simple as a smell can trigger memories.  Symptoms can then manifest themselves in the person in what to others may look like an over-reaction or hyperarousal of the nervous system, or an under-reaction or hypo arousal of the nervous system.

When a person is in the hyperarousal state, they can appear very anxious and vigilant, even in non-threatening situations. This is the state of increased stress we often refer to as fight or flight.  They may not be able to trust those they are the closest to, especially if their abuse was perpetrated by someone familiar to them.  According to a 2003 National Institute of Justice report, 3 out of 4 adolescents who were sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well.  In a hyperarousal state, a survivor may startle easily, become quickly irritated by small provocations, find it difficult to sleep, appear to be very defensive and angry, including  directing their anger at God.  They also can have thoughts of suicide and make suicide attempts as the constant anxiety and inability to rest becomes overwhelmingly painful and exhausting and death seems the only possible option remaining to have peace.

When a person is in the under reactive or hypo arousal state, they may appear calm and distant.  Inside they feel frozen, paralyzed and numb.  They often are detached from activities and relationships and can show symptoms of depression.  Sometimes during this state the use or abuse of alcohol and or drugs may also increase as the substance may provide some ability to feel alive and have the energy to be involved in life. Victims of sexual abuse also may partake in self-injuries behavior as reported by the National Center for PTSD reports, often as an attempt to feel something.

Some victims of sexual abuse will also have intrusive memories and body sensations of the abuse, sometimes through flashbacks and nightmares, where it feels like the trauma is happening in the present time.  It is also common at this stage for some individuals to take more risks, sometimes risks in the area of acting out sexually.  It is often an attempt to somehow confront the traumatic event, and hope this time they will not be harmed or overwhelmed by it. It can also be an attempt to normalize the abuse they once experienced. This is somewhat like a person going back through the intersection where they had a bad car accident months ago, as a way of not avoiding this route, and therefore not continuing to be affected by the accident.

When someone comes to you with memories of trauma it is important to simply listen. Next, acknowledge the trust they have placed in you with this painful story and ask them what would be helpful at that moment.  Providing resources available to survivors is important also, so that when the person is ready to engage in recovery, she or he will know how to proceed. Hearing about someone’s trauma is not something to be afraid of, especially if you are equipped with the tools needed to listen and offer support.

For a list of resources to assist you in understanding abuse and how to respond visit: http://franconiaconference.org/church-safety/.

For local support groups, search your local victim advocates office. In the Lansdale, PA area there is Survivors Safe Haven: a self-help group for survivors of sexual abuse that meets the 2nd Wednesday of every month at 6:30 pm in Lansdale. See the flier with contact information here.

The National Resources for Sexual Assault Survivors and their Loved Ones is full of helpful information and compiled by RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network).

John Drescher-Lehman, is a licensed clinical social worker, therapist,  and a member of Franconia Conference’s Addressing Abuse Taskforce.