Responding to reports of abuse: Who’s getting it right? And where does theology come in?

by | Jan 26, 2018 | 0 comments


by Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Director of Theological Integrity

The other day, my colleagues and I were reflecting on the sense of angst we have when folks in communities of faith ask us for examples of people getting it right when it comes to responding to abuse.

It’s a perfectly fantastic question. Who is not making a mess of sexual violence reports, and how can we hold up these instances of success as models for others to follow?

The problem is, we don’t know of many success stories to tell. Partly, that’s because they’re shockingly uncommon. In my years of talking and hanging out and working with survivors of sexual violence, I can count on one hand the number who have been satisfied with the way their reports of violence were handled.

Just kidding! I can count them on no hands, because zero is the number of sexual violence survivors who have ever said to me anything remotely close to that.

Even so, one would think it has got to be true that some survivor somewhere has had a good experience reporting abuse to the appropriate religious institution. If such a person exists, it would be unlikely for their story to reach our or anyone else’s ears, because people tend to call us or speak publicly as a last resort when all other options for addressing the problem within their community have failed. Survivors whose communities step successfully up to the task of confronting abuse do not need advocates or the news media because they have an army of support in their own friends and family and in their communities of faith.

For these reasons – because success stories are precious few, and because those few are unlikely to be told publicly – I tend to become wide-eyed and awkwardly speechless when asked by sincere inquirers for models of success to study and follow.

But, not today. This week, we have all been witness to a powerful example of what it can look like for an institution to get it right in at least one smallish, gigantic way. I’m talking about the way Judge Aquilina and her courtroom handled the testimony of survivors at Larry Nassar’s sentencing hearing.

maxresdefaultJudge Aquilina opened her courtroom to any and all who called in and reported to have been abused by Nassar. To every person who came forward as a victim, she offered an opportunity to speak. She invited secondarily impacted family members of survivors to speak as well.

Did the court definitively investigate each survivors’ claim to be a victim before welcoming her to the podium?

It did not.

Those who spoke were not asked to run the words they planned to say by a committee first. As far as we know, they were not cautioned or discouraged or reminded to keep the feelings of Nassar and his family in mind as they prepared to speak. Judge Aquilina invited them to bring all of the pain they wished to speak into the courtroom, to speak it boldly, and to leave it there for Nassar and the public to hold.

When Nassar protested that listening to the testimony of the people he harmed would be too taxing for him, Aquilina decided he ought to do it anyway. When the survivors spoke, Aquilina affirmed every one of them. When Nassar apologized, Aquilina called his bluff.

Because Judge Aquilina created an environment of respect that affirmed survivors’ speech as truthful and warranted, the testimony of 88 survivors brought over 62 more out of silence in the course of just one week.

This ought to serve as a model for religious communities and institutions wanting to prioritize right relationships when confronting abuse.

  1. Believe victims.
  2. Do not be manipulated by perpetrators of abuse.
  3. Do not use concern for a perpetrator’s feelings or the feelings of his family to manipulate or silence victims.
  4. Create space for victims to speak without trying to control what or how they speak.
  5. Listen.
  6. Listen again.
  7. Respect and affirm.
  8. Learn from what you’ve heard.
  9. Require accountability for the perpetrator.

Repeat as necessary.

It’s time that Christian theology and practice declare that Christians who might be called upon to respond to survivors reporting abuse have an ethical responsibility not to allow themselves to be manipulated by perpetrators of abuse. We need theologies that make it a priority of Christian discipleship to develop the ability to detect and resist manipulation by people who are using Christian tendencies toward enemy love, forgiveness, and reconciliation to get away with hurting others.

By now, we could fill an auditorium in a megachurch with the number of studies and books and articles that have been written on the manipulative tactics that perpetrators of sexual violence use to blame victims and avoid accountability. Analyses of the ways that Christian thought and practice are particularly vulnerable to exploitation by these tactics abound. In 2018, the church has no excuse for failing to understand and actively resist this vulnerability.

We can make headway by constructing theologies that interpret each of the ten points in the process above as mandates of Christian living. For example, starting with numbers 1, 2, and 3:

    1. We need theologies that describe the process of attuning ourselves to the truth proclaimed in sexual violence survivors’ speech as a process of attuning ourselves to the presence of the Spirit. We need a concept of Christian living that values making ourselves into a people who expect truth in survivors’ speech, who look for that truth, recognize it, and affirm it in word and action.
    2. In the same way that Christians must not allow themselves to be manipulated by the false promises of dominating wealth and power, we need theologies that insist Christians must not allow ourselves to be manipulated by lies told by perpetrators of abuse. We need theologies that require us to become wise to the false claims of every form of violence and oppression, including false claims spoken from the lips of people we know and care for who are revealed to have perpetrated or enabled sexual violence.
    3. We must not allow concern for a perpetrator’s feelings or the feelings of their family to cause us to manipulate or deter the speech of victims. Especially in the moments of fear and confusion that are sure to come as we confront any particular instance of abuse, we need theologies and practiced habits that stop us from urging the injured to be quiet.

Here’s how I see it.

That podium where Nassar’s victims spoke in Aquilina’s courtroom was a communion table. Each one of the women who spoke gave and received the kind of sustenance that makes life livable. They gave truth and voice that gift other survivors and the rest of the nation with presence and knowledge that saves – literally saves other survivors from the commonly lethal threat of isolation and gives everyone the opportunity to learn something about what it takes to stop sexual violence and its repercussions. In turn, they received affirmation, gratitude, respect, and freedom to be themselves in full.

I’m not saying that what happened in Judge Aquilina’s courtroom was perfect. The courts themselves are, in a systemic sense, upholders of white supremacy and sexism and wider patterns of thought and action that regularly silence lower profile survivors of sexual violence all across the country. There are a few criticisms of Aquilina that warrant some reflection. But in a world that is hard pressed to deliver examples of success when it comes to responding to abuse transformatively and well, this is one to hold up for what it does get right.

If you’re uncomfortable, like I am, that this example comes from a courtroom and not a sanctuary or community of activists, that’s a good thing. Discomfort motivates change.

Communities and institutions of Christian faith, there is theological work to be done. With this model offered as inspiration, what can you find in your traditions of faith and care that will enable your response to sexual violence to be as nourishing and transformative as the one we witnessed this week in court? I want to hear from you.

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