CHICAGO, IL (November 1, 2017) – The church can play a vital role in helping to change attitudes around sexual harassment by acknowledging the stories of people who have been victims and publicly addressing the issue of all types of sexual and physical abuse, says Elizabeth Pierre, professor of pastoral care for North Park Theological Seminary and University.
Pierre says she is hopeful that the recent strong public support shown women who have broken their silence about their experiences of harassment and abuse, as well as the firings of high-profile abusers, will be a watershed moment in our culture.
“Something is happening,” says Pierre. “It’s been so much a part of our society, so normalized, but now that it’s being brought out into the open, we’re starting to see a change.”
She notes the recent revelation and the release of a video showing Ben Affleck groping a reporter for MTV while she interviewed him on air. At the time no one reacted to his behavior.
The reporter, Hilarie Burton, laughed it off in the moment. “People will say why didn’t he or she say something, but it just renders you powerless at the time, especially when that person has power,” Pierre says. “They have the power to hire or fire you or damage your career.”
Victims may hesitate to tell their stories because their experience is trivialized or dismissed. “Women may be told they’re just overreacting to a comment,” says Covenanter Ross Peterson, director of Midwest Ministry Development which provides counseling as well as career development and other resources.
At other times, people who have been verbally harassed or inappropriately touched are told, “At least you weren’t raped,” says Pierre. “They don’t realize that it’s incredibly violating to be touched or have such comments made to you.”
The church must commit to an ongoing focus on the topic of harassment and other forms of abuse—and not just during Sexual Assault Awareness Month.
Often victims encounter disbelief. “One of the worst things about all trauma is when people don’t believe what you said,” Pierre says. “When that happens, someone is saying your story doesn’t really matter or that you are he lying to them. That can be even more traumatizing than the act itself.”
Too often the church has trivialized or avoided issues of abuse, says Yvonne DeVaughn, director of the Covenant’s Advocacy for Victims of Abuse ministry (AVA).
“Even if people do believe you, they don’t know what to do with it,” DeVaughn says, “so they would rather not talk about it, especially people of an older generation. They don’t want to be in a position of having to do something, so it’s easier to ignore a victim. Or they’ll say it’s wasn’t really egregious behavior.”
“I do feel like this is an opportunity for the church to bring healing and be a witness of the gospel,” Pierre says. “I think we can work to help people see the imago Dei—that each person is made in the image of God and not someone to abuse or objectify.”
She adds, “It’s a horrible thing to think, ‘That’s all I’m worth to you—a body for you to touch and abuse.’ That really stains who we are as people made in the image of God.”
The church needs to acknowledge the prevalence of abuse and be willing to talk about a variety of issues that contribute to the problem, Pierre says. “Very few women I interviewed for my research ever heard sermons about any of this, so the church became a very unsafe place for them to engage. That has been a poor witness.”
Pierre says the church must commit to an ongoing focus on the topic of harassment and other forms of abuse—and not just during Sexual Assault Awareness Month in April. “We can do this in our prayer time or in our liturgy. When you lift up in prayer all the people who have suffered this—it is huge! One out of four women and one out of six men have suffered some kind of abuse. Our churches are full of people who are waiting for their pastors to acknowledge them and to pray for them.”
People who haven’t experienced abuse or harassment need to be willing to let those who have suffered such assaults tell their stories—and tell them repeatedly, Pierre says. That can help begin to remove the sense of shame and provide the opportunity for them to learn they are not alone.
“What these public situations have shown is that women sharing their experiences with each other can be pretty powerful and empowering,” Peterson says.
Editor’s note: Representatives from AVA are available to come to local churches and provide training that will provide the language and vocabulary to orient them to the dynamics of abuse so they can work to prevent unhealthy behaviors.