Sexual Violence in Religious Communities

Aug 21st, 1970

Summer Torres, MCASA, Program Coordinator (Underserved Populations)   The Washington Post recently reported a story on a Georgetown rabbi who was arrested and charged with six misdemeanor counts of voyeurism after allegedly planting multiple video cameras to secretly record at least six women in ritual baths, called mikvah. The rabbi was found in possession of multiple micro-cameras with accompanying flash drives in his Towson University office where he also worked as a professor.[1] This story is one we hear so often splashed on the cover of American newspapers: a religious community rocked by scandal as adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse come forward to recount their stories. The Vatican and many Roman Catholic churches have become unwillingly linked to the phrase “sex abuse scandal.” Although they are not the only religious community haunted by sexual violence (as evident from the aforementioned news story), the Catholic Church receives the majority of the public’s attention and scorn. There has been no formal comparative study to explore childhood sexual abuse across different religious denominations or statistical data on rates of assaults inside religious communities.[2] Sexual abuse is not merely a Catholic issue or a Jewish one, rather it is an issue that effects all aspects of society.  Despite this, we must understand the barriers effecting religious communities in reporting instances of sex assault and seeking services.  While the media breaks the silence on the taboo issue of sexual abuse inside religious communities, the media repeatedly embraces the sensational, focusing on the accused, rabbis, priests and other religious leaders, instead of the survivors. Effects on Survivors in Faith-based Communities As reported by the World Health Organization, many survivors worldwide experience a wide range of psychological, emotional, and physical disorders. These experiences can include depression, self-blame, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, loss of self-esteem, sexual dysfunction, headaches, higher likelihood of  HIV/AIDS and STIs, digestive problems, self-injury, suicidal ideation, flashbacks, disturbed sleep, weight loss/gain, and memory loss as some examples.[3] In religious communities, the effects on survivors are compounded with religious notions of purity, privacy, and community. Those affected by sexual assault often have nowhere to turn when their own religious community shuns and disbelieves them. In instances of sexual assault in Jewish communities, shanda, or shame, prevents many from reaching out to community members for help as many believe “that abuse does not happen in the Jewish community and if abuse does happen in the community, it happens to someone else.”[4] Compounding a survivor’s challenges, in smaller religious communities, survivors and offenders may share the same social networks and communal bonds. Service providers, while well-intentioned, might be unfamiliar with religious practices and this can unintentionally harm the relationship between client and provider. Prevention in Faith-based Communities Breaking the silence, although a vital component to prevention, can only go so far. Fortunately, there are sexual violence prevention programs and techniques that are helpful in religious communities. Religious leaders can be encouraged to address sexual assault in their sermons in a way that creates support, honesty, and safety in their community. Invite religious groups to work with local rape crisis and recovery centers (RCRCs) to bring technical assistance to faith based groups. Make sure resources on sexual assault are made available in public spaces. Encourage faith based groups are encouraged to help educate RCRC staff on working with survivors in unfamiliar communities of faith. This will help eliminate stereotypes and assumptions and create accessible, compassionate care for all. Create educational curriculum in religious institutions around sexual assault and prevention. Finally, work to make shelters more accommodating to survivors of all religious backgrounds (such as having kosher food available).To future assist in prevention efforts, national and statewide programs exist to address sexual violence in religious communities and to provide technical assistance. FaithTrust Institute is a national, multi-faith, multicultural training and education organization that equips communities and advocates with the tools and knowledge they need to address the religious and cultural issues related to sexual violence. Within the state, the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault (MCASA) provides technical assistance and training for professionals working within the field of anti-sexual violence, such as counselors, advocates, medical personnel, law enforcement, and court personnel. The Sexual Assault Legal Institute (SALI) is a program of MCASA that provides direct legal services for survivors of sexual violence. SALI also provides technical assistance and training for attorneys, rape crisis and recovery center staff and volunteers, and other professionals working on the law and the legal options available for survivors.
  [1] Peter Hermann, “Police find micro cameras, lists of names in search of rabbi’s Towson University office,” The Washington Post, October 24, 2014, [2] Pat Wingert, “Priests Commit No More Abuse Than Other Males,” Newsweek, April 7, 2010, [3] Krug EG et al., eds, “World report on violence and health,” World Health Organization, 2002. [4] Jewish Coalition Against Domestic Abuse, “Abuse Facts,”

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