In the early years of my social work career, I started volunteering at a rape crisis center in Louisville, Kentucky. I would be on call and respond to hospital calls whenever they had a rape victim walk into their ER. I went on to become a therapist, providing counseling for survivors of sexual assault and then on to directing a Children’s Advocacy, Domestic Violence and Rape Crisis Center. All through those years, the most common theme I heard when handling sexual assault cases was women often made up the assault or did something to provoke it, such as wearing certain clothing.

I don’t believe this has changed much and continue to be saddened that the crime of sexual assault is often viewed through such a lens. When someone is robbed or carjacked, we don’t immediately ask why the person had to drive such a nice car or have such an ostentatious looking house. FBI statistics tell us that the rate of false reporting for sexual assault is not any more than any other violent crimes (about 5%). So why do we do it with sexual assault?

I think that such a mindset is worth examining because unless we can change it, it will have far reaching impacts on how we respond to victims of sexual violence. From a faith perspective, it could mean the difference between faith paving the way for healing or completely losing faith. Research has shown that how we respond to victims, especially in the initial days of disclosure, can determine the trajectory of their healing. I would also argue that how we respond to victims can determine the trajectory of their faith development.

I would like to offer some practical and helpful tips for both lay leaders and ministers on “best practices” that can help us respond from a victim-centered approach:

  • Acknowledge that we all struggle with the reality of sexual assault. No one wants sexual assault to happen in our churches or organizations, and often we will deny that it can happen in our contexts. This is especially true if the alleged perpetrator is someone known in the church and especially if it’s a minister of the church. It’s important to take a step back and realize denial is normal, but then move beyond it to face facts. 95% of sexual assault allegations are true. That is a staggering statistic that should shake off our denial. When a woman steps forward to report sexual assault, she has little to gain. In fact, she has a lot to lose, especially if it’s within the context of her church. FBI statistics tell us that 65% of sexual assault cases are never reported making it the most under reported crime.
  • If the victim chooses you to disclose their assault, it is your sacred and ethical responsibility to hold that safe space for them. Listen, listen, listen.
  • Choose to believe the disclosure. I use the word “choose” because it is an active decision. Put aside any feelings that cloud the judgement of Christ in you and make the choice to believe. Tell her you believe her. “What if she’s wrong or lying?” Train yourself instead to think, “What if she’s right?” The impact of sexual assault is just as devastating as false allegations. 95% vs. 5% are good odds, and as Christians we should err on the side of grace every time.
  • There is no “perfect” victim. Are you without sin? Don’t expect victims of sexual assault to have impeccable character either. Many of us have made bad choices in life, but bad decisions do not cause rape. Rape is the choice of the perpetrator, always.
  • An adult victim of sexual assault will have to make the choice to report or not to report to the authorities. It is the victim’s choice, not yours (except when the victim is a minor; there are mandatory reporting laws for minors that mandates you to report regardless of your position).  What you can do is offer your support by accompanying the victim to make the report. Sexual assault remains the most underreported crime, and there are good reasons for that. The “Me Too” movement has opened our eyes to that reality. The ramifications for reporting can have a devastating impact on a victim’s life. Respect their choice but support them no matter what.
  • In a church context where assault is perpetrated by clergy, help victims understand that even if they choose not to report to law enforcement, they can still report it to church leadership or the appropriate committee/council of the church. This is important as the likelihood of the clergy continuing to abuse others within the congregation is very high. Again, offering to accompany the victim to report to leadership might give them the courage to do it. There are other creative ways to help the victim report as well, such as writing a letter to alert the leadership of the church/organization.
  • Ensure that your church/organization has a policy on how to respond to sexual assault allegations that protect the wellbeing of the victim and the congregation. Refer to CBF and BWIM’s Safe Church Resources for guidelines and recommendations. The alleged perpetrator, if a clergy of the church, should be put on administrative leave until the investigation is complete. There should also be a firm mandate that while the investigation is going on, the alleged perpetrator should NOT be allowed to contact the victim. If this cannot be honored, you can help the victim know of the option to file a protective order.
  • Provide support for the victim to receive professional counseling to begin the healing process. It is important to make a referral to licensed therapists/counselors who have been trained to implement trauma focused treatment models. Look for professionals with such designations as LCSW, LISW, LPC, LMFT. Help the victim to ask the right questions about the professional’s expertise in treating traumatic experiences.
  • Research shows that the support system of the victim is critical to healing. As a church, we are in the position to be that robust support system. Instead of pretending that nothing happened, victims/survivors feel affirmed when there are trusted individuals who are willing to process with them and walk the journey with them.

One final point we all need to acknowledge is that institutions, both churches and faith-based organizations, will most often choose to protect themselves first. We have had multiple examples of this over the years—the Catholic Church, Boy Scouts of America, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the list goes on. Knowing and acknowledging this bias towards institutional protectionism is the first step for leaders of institutions to be proactive in developing policies that will prevent the mishandling of cases of sexual assault. I would argue that the best way to protect institutions when abuse allegations pop up is to be victim centered and transparent about the process with sensitivities toward protecting the confidentiality of the victim.

Since sexual assault is a crime of power, it is critical for those in powerful leadership positions to acknowledge the possibility of the abuse of our power. No matter how big or small your church/organization is, we are all fallible and none of us are immune to sin. Most of our churches practice grace and love well but we should also acknowledge that we have a hard time with accountability. Jesus kept the religious leaders accountable to their words and actions. He spoke truth to them and did not let them get away with their hypocrisy and harmful actions no matter their rank. Ultimately if the church is to be the hands and feet of Christ, we must model the Kingdom ethic that Jesus embodied—that the last shall be first.

Shauw Chin Capps is president of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Foundation and chief legacy gifts officer for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, Decatur, Georgia.