Among the recommendations in the recent BYU Title IX Advisory Council Report appears the following:
Share with officials of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints the findings of the advisory council regarding ecclesiastical leaders’ varied responses to sexual-assault reports.
Mormon lay clergy, in other words, come to their pastoral obligations with wildly varying preparation to give the kinds of care that members of the Church might seek from them. Cases of sexual assault and other forms of sexual violence can prove especially difficult to handle well, and the Advisory Council has documented some of the resulting “varied responses.” The pastoral care that survivors receive from their ecclesiastical leaders thus appears to be a noted area of needed improvement.
My research has recently led me to a book that I believe might be a helpful resource for people in caregiving relationships with survivors of sexual assault. I recognize that recommending this book (or indeed any book on the subject) might run into concerns about professionalizing our clergy too much in ways that decrease reliance on the Spirit. In my view this dichotomy is false: professionalization can provide a toolkit, and the Spirit can provide guidance about which tools to use and when (and when not to use any of them). We should approach this subject, like any other, with a combination of study and faith.
What follows, then, amounts to a review of Kristen Leslie’s book When Violence is No Stranger: Pastoral Counseling with Survivors of Acquaintance Rape (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003; Amazon). A significant majority of rapes are acquaintance rapes, so this book aims to cover the most prevalent form of sexual violence. Even though Leslie tailors her advice to acquaintance rape, much of what she says could be applied beneficially to other cases of sexual violence. That said, this book, excellent though it is, should be the beginning, not the end, of studying the subject. I’ll conclude by pointing to another book that might be helpful, and many others exist.
The book begins by presenting models for pastoral engagement with survivors of acquaintance rape. Any such model needs to begin with facts, so Leslie presents statistics both about acquaintance rape and sexual violence more generally, in addition to relevant psychological research on topics like Rape Trauma Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (more survivors of sexual assault are diagnosed with PTSD than any other population, including soldiers, although the book’s publication date means that its statistics do not account for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq). She includes an intersectional focus, thinking about how the history of sexual violence toward African-American women has effected broader American treatment of the subject. She then turns to case studies that walk through four women’s experiences with sexual assault, chosen to illustrate a range of possibilities. There is no one-size-fits-all experience, which means that pastoral care and counseling for survivors must attend sensitively to the particulars of each situation.
The book is so well-written that each sentence cuts to the bone. That makes it a harrowing read, but it also makes highlighting excellent passages very difficult. For my purposes here, it makes the most sense to focus on Leslie’s recommendations for best practices, which I’ll try to distill succinctly. I intend these as invitations to read the book, not substitutions for that. Getting pastoral care right demands more work than reading a blog post.
One crucial point: when I say “clergy” below, I mean the word to extend beyond bishops and stake presidents (and Young Men’s leaders) to include Relief Society presidents and Young Women’s leaders. Survivors’ attitudes toward the gender of the person from whom they seek pastoral care varies, so female authority figures need to be included under the umbrella of “clergy” as well. Leslie writes primarily for female survivors; I will prefer the gender-inclusive “survivor”—not to diminish the suffering of women, but to make room for male and LGBT survivors of sexual violence, all of whom have a claim on pastoral care.
- First on the list: listen more than you talk. The primary goal of working with sexual assault survivors should be empowerment. Sexual violence can shatter a person’s ability to make sense of the world, and certainly to make sense of what happened. Clergy should help survivors to make new meaning for themselves, and trying to impose meaning is not only unhelpful, but counterproductive. As a consequence, pastoral caregivers need to use religious resources only as dictated by the survivor. This may be difficult counsel to follow for LDS lay clergy, who are often counseled to make the scriptures their primary resource in working with members. That may be generally good advice, but not in this case: in Leslie’s words, “religious resources used inappropriately or at the wrong time can add to the survivor’s shame and sense of betrayal,” so they need to be introduced on the survivor’s terms (142).
- Believe what the survivor tells you. Know that trauma can affect memory, so survivors may be unclear about the chronology and details of what happened; in telling their stories, they are trying to reassemble a very jumbled jigsaw puzzle. Be patient and empathic through this process.
- Name the violence. Naming is a form of power, and as such naming is an important step on survivors’ paths to healing. If clergy name the violence, they can enable survivors to name it for themselves and thereby gain some power over their experience. If what happened was rape, call it rape.
- Affirm that the violence was not the survivor’s fault. Doing this can be very difficult, given tendencies to moralize about factors that might seem to have put survivors in compromising situations. However, accepting an alcoholic beverage from someone is not tantamount to sexual consent. Nor is staying out too late or being alone with someone in a secluded place. The survivor may have agreed to do many such things without agreeing to sexual contact. If unwanted sexual contact occurred, the survivor was not at fault, no matter the circumstances. Survivors frequently play “what if” with the circumstances surrounding sexual violence; this process is part of coming to terms with their experience. They need to be reassured that they were not at fault in the violence perpetrated against them. Only then will they be able to name it as violence. As Leslie puts it, with reference to female survivors: “If you judge her or her behaviors, you cannot provide a safe space for her healing. If she feels judged, she will probably not come back to you for help” (134). The same advice applies even more emphatically to LGBT survivors. Indeed, survivors often have a mistaken belief that they somehow consented, which Leslie argues comes from their mistaking vulnerability for responsibility (109). Clergy who make the same mistake only compound the problem.
- Pastoral caregivers need to know their limitations. One telling quote: “Emma Justes asserts that if pastoral counselors are unable to work with women’s anger, they should not be doing pastoral counseling with women” (141). Implementing that advice could pose a significant challenge for male LDS lay clergy—hence the importance of defining “clergy” expansively. In other words, lay clergy (bishops and stake presidents) may best attend to survivors’ needs by recognizing when someone else in the community, to include professional counselors, might be better equipped for the situation. Such transitions require extreme care: survivors must not be made to feel that “not my job” is the first response of someone to whom they have turned in a moment of great vulnerability. Additionally, care should be taken not to make survivors repeat their stories to more people than are absolutely necessary, because telling those stories costs survivors considerably.
- On a related note, pastoral care and pastoral counseling are not the same thing. Pastoral care covers the basic obligation that clergy have to the members of their congregations, while pastoral counseling is a specialized discipline (with its own professional organization) that requires both training and licensure. LDS lay clergy are extremely unlikely to have this training and need to recognize the limitations that come with that by working willingly with LDS Family Services and other available resources, some of which can be found here.
- Be aware that giving pastoral care to survivors of sexual violence imposes psychological and spiritual costs on clergy, who therefore need to seek their own sources of care. Leslie urges: “Do not ask the survivor to deal with your vicarious trauma” (143).
Beyond working with survivors, clergy are also in position to change how the broader community handles sexual violence. For instance, bishops could encourage Young Men’s leaders and Elder’s Quorum presidents to read this book and think about how to help men see acquaintance rape through women’s eyes, in the hope that learning to see that way will lower the incidence of acquaintance rape while also making our wards and stakes more hospitable to survivors.
Carrie Doehring’s Taking Care: Monitoring Power Dynamics in Pastoral Care & Counseling (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995; Amazon) provides a useful complement to Leslie’s book. (Doehring is more recently the author of a popular pastoral care textbook.) A survivor herself, Doehring writes with sensitivity and wisdom about the ways that power operates in pastoral relationships. She examines the dynamics that can lead to clergy sexual abuse and attends, like Leslie, to intersectional realities. For present purposes, Doehring makes two relevant points:
- Understanding pastoral relationships in terms of a healer and a patient has a shadow side that can manifest as aggression, such as when caregivers become violently angry at the perpetrators of sexual violence. Such aggressive feelings make the relationship about the pastor and the perpetrator instead of the survivor. In this vein, Leslie offers the useful model of being a “wounded healer,” although she cautions against sharing too much personal trauma with survivors (9-10, 135). Notions of expertise can also produce power imbalances, which reinforces the need for clergy to know and acknowledge their limitations.
- Pastoral relationships flourish when they are built on empathy, which Doehring understands as balancing forms of nearness with forms of distance. Pastors cannot become submerged in survivors’ experiences; nor should they force survivors to submerge their experience in normative doctrinal or ecclesiastical paradigms. As one of the survivors interviewed by Leslie says, pastors need to move alongside survivors, not ahead of them (141). So, pastors need to listen with a great deal of openness to survivors’ stories while also maintaining a critical distance from them. This critical distance is less about enabling the pastor to say helpful things to the survivor than about modeling what the survivor is working toward. Both Leslie and Doehring understand survivors’ eventual ability to think about their experience in metaphorical terms (e.g., “finishing the work of Dinah and Tamar” [Leslie 64; see also 121ff.]) as a pivotal development in the healing process. Maintaining the kind of empathic relationship that enables such healing demands considerable awareness and sensitivity from clergy; Leslie writes ably on this subject.
I want to conclude with Leslie’s beautiful articulation of what pastoral care means:
When violence is no stranger, a pastoral caregiver is called to take off her or his shoes and gently accompany the woman over the sacred ground of her hard journey. In the name of God, we are called to stand with a survivor in her suffering, not because there is something valorous to learn from violence or because suffering makes us stronger, but because where two or three are gathered, suffering can be overcome. Through God, our presence can make a positive difference in a survivor’s healing. (156)
I hope that these resources will prove helpful to members of the Church as we work to care for the survivors among us, in keeping with our baptismal covenants to mourn with those who mourn, and also as we work together to build a culture in which sexual violence is less prevalent.