Pastoral Approaches to Sexual Violence

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.


  1. Implementing an approach like this–which requires profound empathy–in the LDS Church will require a fairly radical change in mindset about how leaders are chosen. In my 34 years in the Church, I have never had a bishop who wasn’t successful in a worldly sense. Some were merely prosperous upper-middle-class professionals, but more were affluent-to-wealthy–one disgustingly so, and I do not use that adverb casually. Material success shouldn’t necessarily be inimical to empathy, but it usually is. It is a basic human tendency to attribute one’s successes entirely to one’s own virtue, and others’ relative failings to their vices; this destroys empathy.

  2. I doubt that most bishops truly have the time, training or temperament to be the pastoral caregivers you describe. Common Judge in Israel seems to be more likely. Maybe I missed it and you cover it in your book, but sooner or later a Common Judge in Israel must do exactly that, even with victims of sexual assault who might have broken the law of chastity (or seriously bent it) prior to or about the time of the assault. I’d prefer to see bishops refer out to professionals for the pastoral care and healing process so as not to diminish their role as Judges.

  3. I tend to agree with APM. I also understand why having a lay clergy who is solvent and self-reliant and not salivating over tithing receipts is probably the lesser of two evils. But even to refer to a professional requires a degree of empathy. Allowing women to confer with women in sexual matters would be a HUGE improvement.

  4. Clark: Leslie makes clear that pastors must suspend their role as judges in these cases. As she says, survivors often mistake vulnerability for responsibility, which means that they may frequently come into the bishop’s office believing that they have done something wrong, when in fact they have been the victims of sexual violence. Treating that response as a confession of sin and then instituting some form of church discipline is exactly the wrong thing to do. Jesus came to bind up the wounds of the broken-hearted and to set the captives free, and bishops should aim to do likewise. Arguably the justice (or righteousness) that Judges in Israel should be working toward is a version of tikkun olam: the healing of the world. The office of Judge and the suspension of judgment urged by Leslie need not be incompatible.

    I agree that most bishops and stake presidents are unlikely either to possess or to pursue the kind of training necessary to give survivors the care they need. The situation calls for professionals. Yet, a successful transition from a bishop’s office to a professional’s requires that the bishop respond with a combination of empathy and a realization of his limitations. Approaching the situation from the perspective of adjudication seems unlikely to yield that result.

    Arguably, if bishops’ primary role is to be Judges in Israel, as you say, then survivors of sexual violence may simply be better off avoiding them at all costs. Unfortunately, the tendency to confuse vulnerability with responsibility makes that unlikely. Thus, I believe that bishops should, at minimum, be trained to handle the transition to professional care in ways best suited to survivors’ needs. And, echoing Angela’s comment, opening up this kind of ministry to women (who don’t have the obligation to act as judges) could work wonders. If LDS women can be hospital chaplains, they can fill this role, too.

  5. It’s probably worth mentioning that both Leslie and Doehring are ordained ministers with years of pastoral experience. Leslie is Methodist, and Doehring Presbyterian. Both also teach courses in pastoral care.

  6. Kevin Barney says:

    An excellent synopsis.

    Your bullet beginning “Affirm that the violence was not the survivor’s fault” to me is a microcosm of the problems BYU had with the Honor Code. This whole judge in Israel stuff is misplaced in the context of a sexual assault, but it was hard for people seeped in traditional Mormonism to see that. The recent change in policy at BYU is so very important for the reasons articulated in that bullet point.

  7. Agreed, Kevin.

  8. I love the ideas in this post, but I also tend to agree that bishops (and other ward leaders) are not the people who should be spending a lot of time dealing with sexual violence victims, for two reasons; first, the reality that LDS “clergy” are often not prepared to counsel victims, and second, that it may place undue burden on people who aren’t really equipped to help in any substantive way. I think bishops should have training in this area, mostly because I know of about a half a dozen friends who reported acquaintance or date rapes to their bishops and were disciplined, doubted, and/or urged not to report or press charges. Single adults often feel that all sexual matters are their bishop’s business, even though this really isn’t true. Unless a bishop is able to offer support that’s not available to the victim through other channels, there’s really no reason he needs to ever be informed about a sexual assault.

    Some time ago, I reported sexual violence to my bishop (in this case, I was newly married, and my husband was the perpetrator). Looking back, I realize that this was rather inappropriate and pointless. The bishop was a young man about my age who had no idea how to process or respond to the situation any more than I did.

  9. First: this is beautifully written and, for me, touches the key points on the matters at hand. I wish every bishop and RS president could read this. I’ll pass it along.

    Second: This is my favorite sentence in the entire post: “Pastoral relationships flourish when they are built on empathy, … balancing forms of nearness with forms of distance.” For a several-year period during my adult life I was actively working through childhood sexual traumas. I turned to clergy as well as professionals. These experiences taught me that an ounce of empathy was worth a fair amount of professional skill. Granted, I am only one person, but for many years I was connected to others like me through various survivor organizations and I heard over and over again about the profound healing effects of simple human kindness from the listener when a person reveals their traumas and sorrows.

    I will never forget when my then bishop, Ron Smith, was meeting with me one afternoon in his office at my request — for pastoral care and counseling. He told me how earlier during sacrament meeting he watched a harpist play her instrument not far from him on the stand. He saw her pluck the lowest string and briefly heard the note ring in his ear. But he noticed something remarkable. Long after the string was plucked and was no longer audible, it continued to vibrate. He said to me, “I had been thinking about our meeting today. And I realized this was just like your [sexual assault] — long after the traumatic events you are still feeling the effects. Those of us who care about you may not ‘hear’ it, because your life looks so good on the outside, but it’s still there inside you vibrating and you can feel it.” He became momentarily tearful and simply reiterated that he understood my suffering in ways he hadn’t before and wanted be there for me as I worked through my pain. Simple human kindness, empathy, listening to the spirit. So much good can be done. ..

    Thanks so much for taking time to write this. It’s wonderful!

  10. I’ve never met Bishop Smith, but I love him already. I’m glad that he could be there for and with you in the way that you needed. Every time I’m about to despair of our ever getting this right, I remember that there are people like him–and people like you–in the Church. Much love to you, my friend.

  11. Wonderful article. However though, I feel it doesn’t go far enough. There are innocent children being molested and abused in many ways. Contrary to not so popular opinion children do not “grow out” of sexual and other abuses. A case came to my attention in 2011 where two preschoolers were being badly abused sexually, physically and psychologically. It took three years to get an investigation opened. Afterward I was told that my report was accurate but there would be no prosecution. Knowing what these little victims were suffering I was completely shocked. The learned ignorance of church, law enforcement and community is inexcusable.
    Stephen Miller, BS: Criminal Justice

  12. 1. Jason, thanks for the review. It sounds like an excellent source. I’ve had some experience, and learned mostly from errors I made the value of this advice.
    2. Acquaintance rape is a critical emphasis and deserves this special attention.
    3. Probably a different book, but we need a similar work on within-family sexual abuse (my made up term; there’s probably a clinical or legal term for this that I don’t know). I think that’s even more difficult for LDS counselors of whatever title.
    4. The Mormon bishop’s role needs serious thought. In Mormon culture the bishop will often be the first contact, the first advisor or counselor. We’re not going to bypass bishops so we have to make their work good. Many bishops (in fact every bishop that I have ever known personally, including myself) will try, really try, to do the pastoral thing right. Many will set aside the judge in Israel role in order to do so, but not all. [Note: My opinion is that the judging is an error in LDS practice, but I’m not prepared to argue that here. Only that we must address it.]

  13. “if bishops’ primary role is to be Judges in Israel, as you say, then survivors of sexual violence may simply be better off avoiding them at all costs.” BINGO

  14. A Happy Hubby says:

    Great suggestion. I am always (even in church meetings) stressing that Bishops really need more training than they are getting. I try to not put it in an accusational way, but try and draw out people’s sympathy for what bishops are asked to do. It is like 10X being a new parent. You know how to do some stuff, but it takes probably more than a lifetime to learn all that you need to handle the varied situations.

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