April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month
By Dcn. Rebecca Henderson, a Licensed Master Social Worker and ordained deacon in the Diocese of the South. She lives in Birmingham, AL where she works as a sexual assault counselor. Dcn. Rebecca serves on the ADOTS Sexual Misconduct Advisory Committee, which works to review policies and procedures surrounding sexual abuse and harassment.
April is the end of Lent, a time when we look at our own sinfulness and ways that we need Christ to redeem us as we prepare to celebrate his conquering of sin and death through the cross and resurrection. April is also National Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which focuses on sexual assault, harassment, and abuse. This is a time when churches can demonstrate care and concern for those who’ve experienced sexual assault and also be open to learning and growing in their own understanding of it.
This is especially important since approximately one in four girls and one in six boys suffer abuse or assault in their lifetime, which means that many of your parishioners may have experienced assault or know someone who has. Sexual assault is traumatic and can impact a person’s relationship with God, self, and others. Unfortunately churches may unknowingly cause further harm if they do not become aware of the unique needs of survivors or perpetuate rape myths. According to several studies, clergy still struggle with perceptions of sexual assault survivors and assigning blame to those who’ve experienced rape (see resources listed below). They also may struggle with how exactly to respond when someone discloses to them that they have experienced assault.
With this in mind, clergy and churches should work to understand better the challenges and needs of survivors both within their congregations and in the world. Sometimes, survivors may feel overlooked or may be afraid to share their experiences with their faith community. One way to start to address this is to name this evil publicly. For example, consider including a form of prayer specifically for survivors during the month of April like the following:
Almighty and merciful Father, give comfort to those who have experienced sexual abuse and assault. Guide us by your Spirit to be a light and a safe haven to those who are hurting. Help your people to work alongside those who are equipped to provide legal, medical, and therapeutic care to survivors. Help your people to be sources of support and care to those who are experiencing or have experienced assault and abuse. Forgive your Church where it has have covered up abuse, blamed survivors, or allowed our own sinfulness to keep us from being open to our neighbors and their needs. Bring abusers to justice and help them to bear fruit in keeping with repentance, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
During the month of April, various organizations provide education, community outreach, and opportunities that your church can take advantage of and potentially partner with to reach out to survivors and become better educated. Many times these organizations offer free training for clergy or congregations on sexual assault. And as we seek the flourishing of our communities, we should be willing to work with organizations that are seeking the same, even if they may not be religiously affiliated. Connecting with your local Rape Crisis Center may also help you better know what steps to take if someone comes to you after an assault and have a better understanding of options that survivors have after an assault, including medically, therapeutically, and legally.
Another way to better understand how to care for survivors is to read more about their experiences. Two books I recommend that come from a Christian perspective are Justin and Lindsey Holcomb’s Rid of My Disgrace: Hope and Healing for Victims of Sexual Assault, which is written for survivors and includes great information on what they may be experiencing, and Rachael Denhollander’s memoir, What Is a Girl Worth?, which gives a firsthand account of one survivor’s experience.
As we enter into the end of Lent and also recognize Sexual Assault Awareness Month, I pray that we as congregations will become more sensitive to both our own need for Christ’s redemption and also his calling on us, the Church, to continue his kingdom work until he comes again. This includes recognizing the needs of those both inside and outside of the Church and being willing to face darkness in all of its shapes and forms so that the light of Christ can shine forth.
1 Yuvarajan, E., & Stanford, M. S. (2016). Clergy perceptions of sexual assault victimization. Violence against women, 22(5), 588-608.
2 Sheldon, J. P., & Parent, S. L. (2002). Clergy’s Attitudes and Attributions of Blame Toward Female Rape Victims. Violence Against Women, 8(2), 233–256. https://doi.org/10.1177/10778010222183026