'I Believe You:' The Silence and the Shame of Sexual Violence in Church | Sojourners

'I Believe You:' The Silence and the Shame of Sexual Violence in Church

Young woman alone on stairs. Photo courtesy Kati Neudert/shutterstock.com

Several years ago, Amee Paparella was an eager student at a state university in Ohio. A conservative Christian, she quickly signed up to join the campus ministry. What she found in the group surprised her.

“It was so misogynistic,” Paparella recalled. “My leaders perpetuated this hyper-masculinized idea of God as physically a man.”

Over the years, Paparella wrestled to reconcile this image of God with her own faith, often to the discomfort of her peers. But an incident of sexual abuse within the ministry proved the breaking point. When it was discovered that a young man had been abusing his female partner, also in the group, the campus minister and student leaders responded by encouraging the young woman to stand by her man and to pray with the other students for his healing.

Paparella was horrified. “I realized, they don’t want me to think. After that, I just didn’t see how faith and women’s empowerment could be reconciled.”

From that point on, she said, “the women’s movement really became my new church.”

Several months ago, a young woman in Steubenville, Ohio, suffered a series of horrific, and horrifically public, violations. After being raped by two classmates, her abuse continued as photos of the incident were spread throughout social networks and ultimately to the national media. Not only did she suffer violations of her body, of her dignity, and of her privacy, she later suffered skepticism and blame from victim-shamers both online and in her community, and had her identity broadcast on cable news.

As aggressive and hurtful commentary raced through the airwaves, few sought out faith leaders for their response. When members of clergy gathered in Steubenville for a prayer service, they urged those gathered to “bring unity to our community … and show we are a better place,” through “self-reflection and prayer," but failed to directly condemn the rape as a crime.

In fact, the purest public extension of grace towards the victim — the words “I believe you” — came not from a pastor, but a host on MSNBC.

What has changed, from Amee’s experience twenty years ago to Jane Doe’s earlier this year? In many respects, very little. Unfortunately, stories of abuse even within the faith community are rampant. The church — society’s moral heartbeat and compass for centuries — too often has been hopelessly irrelevant at best and damnably complicit at worst. Surveys show more than half of women who experience sexual violence are churchgoers.

But as gender equality transforms the workplace, the government, and the home, the church stands apart as a largely closed system to reform. For decades, abortion and homosexuality have been the political tentpoles of sexual controversy within Christian communities, built on an established undercurrent of premarital purity and abstinence. Discussion about sexual violence among Christians is rare. When it does happen, it is akin to AIDS and human trafficking in its “otherization” — it is a tragedy that happens “somewhere else.”

In the dirty swampland of human sexuality, sexual violence — rape, abuse, and the behaviors that lead there — remains the darkest, most shameful stain.

Todd Akin’s imbecilic comment last August that when raped, women’s bodies have “ways to just shut that whole thing down” revealed his deep misunderstanding of women’s anatomy and a tone-deafness to the trauma of rape. As a former divinity student from a theological seminary in the Presbyterian tradition, his statements also shed light on a particularly potent combination of male-centric theology, patriarchal culture, and a fixation on prudishness.

This strain persists in various articulations across denominations, from the numerous abuse scandals in the Catholic Church to popular Mars Hill pastor Mark Driscoll’s cringe-inducing “sexposés” and tips for wives pleasuring husbands.

The bad apples in leadership, distressingly, are plentiful enough. What’s arguably more distressing is the vast relative silence of otherwise-trustworthy faith leaders on this front.

What explains their reluctance? According to sexual violence advocates, activists, and clergy members themselves, there is extreme pressure in church leadership against calling out sexual violence in their own communities.

“Many just don’t want to believe it happens,” said Paparella, now Director & Organizer for Women’s Advocacy at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society in Washington, D.C.

Reverend Harry Knox, President of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, agreed.

“It’s real for the pastor. We know when preaching whom we are preaching to, or about. It’s easy for clergy to don clerical garb and make speeches — it’s much harder to talk with our own congregants about our children, our norms; whether our practices make churches places of safety. Many do not feel equipped to properly take on the weight of these questions for their parishes. And well, if we can’t do it — who can?”

It may be an emotional challenge for clergy to tackle, but a degree of professional loyalty also contributes to systemic inertia.

“Most [denominations] don’t want to open their congregations up because of the Catholic Church’s horrific track record,” Paparella said. “They don’t want to be seen the same way. But this silence is what’s killing the church.”

Indeed, issues like sexual violence can be “so fraught with moral and emotional tension” in congregations, Knox said, that church leaders tend to choose the path of least resistance. “What can our congregation do that won’t be controversial?”

What’s taught from the pulpit extends to the pews, and stories of sexual violence within a faith community often feature the silence or tepid response of fellow parishioners.

“Survivors don’t tend to go to faith communities for help,” Victoria Ferguson, founder of Kindred Moxie, a faith-based domestic violence advocacy network in Atlanta, Ga., said. “Clergy have not been their allies. There’s not a history of support. Where else do they go?” 

In a culture that emphasizes victim-skepticism and self-doubt (“I always thought the victims of domestic violence were people who struggled with low self-esteem,” Ferguson said. “I had no idea it was happening to women just like me”), speaking up requires not only gumption, but education. “There is just a tremendous amount of information that faith communities do not have,” Ferguson noted.

In many communities, the same skittish blueprint for sex (to wit: don’t do it until you’re married, and then all sex is good) is applied without much nuance or elaboration to youth, young adults, and 30-somethings alike. In others, factual misconceptions, even well-meaning, are promulgated in youth group culture and last well into adulthood.

For example, the myth that rape is what happens when you make bad choices — the logical consequence of walking home alone, or showing too much skin, or hanging around the wrong friends — is pervasive, but incorrect. In reality, abuse is widespread across all demographic lines: 1 in 6 women will experience sexual assault. And the vast majority of abuse comes at the hand of acquaintance: 60 percent of rapes and 73 percent of sexual assaults are committed by someone known to the victim.

More broadly at issue is how churches understand rape. In public society and secular institutions, rape is talked about as a power issue, more than a sexual one. Rape, intimate partner abuse, and other forms of sexual violence are couched in the language of distorted masculinity, or entrenched hierarchy, or domination and control, or creating healthy gender empowerment. When it comes to Christian institutions, however, rape tends to fall into the ample “sex is sin” bin, and gets swept away from conversation.

Without mentorship or honest conversation about sex, generations of Christians are growing up with no guidance for engaging others with frankness and compassion in the inevitable complexities and compromises of real life. Combine a proclivity for silence about sexual contact with a belief system that has yet to reconcile men and women as fully equal, and what results is a church struggling with abuse, sexual intimidation, and rape.

But the winds are starting to change. And it is lay people, along with church leaders, who are driving this change. Movements like Kindred Moxie are gaining steam within faith communities, and advocacy initiatives from groups within denominations (like Paparella’s) and from without (like Knox’s) are beginning to demonstrate long-term impact. Increasingly, where clergy are silent, individuals like Rachel Held Evans and Ann Voskamp have used their influence to share stories and begin speaking into the void.

Platforms like these, to share stories and support, help survivors find each other and their own voice, Knox said. “Women and young adults are feeling more empowered. They’re not in isolation the way they used to be.”

What’s needed to further nurture these voices?

“Diligence and creativity,” Paparella said. “That’s the nature of social justice work. It’s not sexy. It’s a tedious ongoing effort to change culture.”

For Ferguson, the best thing is encouragement. “Community leaders respond when we talk positively about what we want to happen; what healing looks like and how to get there. We [have to] ask, ‘How do we create what’s positive and right?’”

After Steubenville, Christians within the church asked: When a young girl gets raped at a party, where are the faith leaders? But we cannot ask that question without its partner: When a woman in our faith community is abused and told by fellow believers to stay with her partner but pray for his recovery — where, too, are the faith leaders?

“We just have to be there, and keep putting one foot in front of the other,“ Paparella said. “We’re moving. Slowly — but this change has roots. And I believe in resurrection.”


This is the first in a Sojourners series on sexual violence in Christian communities. 


Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter at @chwoodiwiss.

for more info