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Pastoral Care for Victims of Sexual Abuse

This workshop was presented to current JST students and Bay Area community members who are on the front lines of ministering to those impacted by the sexual abuse crisis.  Dr. Banis offered practical guidance to attendees for how to minister to a person reporting and recounting abuse. 

During the first half of the workshop, Dr. Banis covered some basics on the psychology of trauma, its potential impact, and some behavioral responses to trauma, noting that this education is important so that there’s greater recognition by those ministering on the front lines.  Here are some of the salient points that Dr. Banis offered.

  1. One must assume that there’s a certain ratio of victims of trauma/abuse present in a community.  It is necessary to be mindful of this at all the time.  
    1. 70% of Americans have experienced a traumatic event in their life.
    2. 5% of Americans suffer from Post-traumatic stress disorder.
      1. A normal, healthy response to trauma is to experience symptoms.  One can be diagnosed with PTSD if these symptoms persist and interfere with one’s ability to function.
      2. Symptoms of some people who suffer from PTSD include: trouble sleeping, trouble concentrating, lethargy, or hyper sensitivity/arousal, experiencing time as non-linear, or “fuzzy”, the experience of “flashbacks” – a memory that feels like the present. 
      3. If a flashback occurs when you’re ministering to someone with PTSD, help ground that person in the present. Do not touch them, but describe your surroundings to them to help bring them into the present.
  2. Stress hormones, which increase in the face of trauma, cause damage to a person’s health.
    1. There is a proven link between adverse life experiences and a negative impact on the neuropsychology and physical health of a child. 
  3. Abuse trauma often equates to feelings of guilt in the person who experienced abuse.
    1. Especially if the abuse was perpetuated by a person known to the victim, the world can be perceived as an unsafe place.

    Beyond providing a brief education on the psychology of trauma, Dr. Banis offered tangible advice for providing pastoral care to those who have experienced trauma and abuse and spoke to the reality of ministering in our current climate and the context of the sexual abuse crisis. Dr. Banis offered wisdom of how to be with these individuals in their pain and in these moments of disclosure of sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy.

    1. Above all else, a minister must listen, must be open to receive and help hold the narrative of the victim, and must be pre-disposed to believe the victim.
      1. Accompaniment is especially important in the process of victims reporting their abuse. Ministers are to be witnesses to their story, their narrative, and the process of reporting the abuse.
      2. Especially when first hearing a victim’s disclosure, a minster must try to suspend need to determine facts there and then.  Who we are privileging with protection has shifted, and while allegations are still investigated, we must be pre-disposed to believe the victim.
    2. When a victim divulges abuse, as a minister, it is necessary to name that they can report their abuse to law enforcement, and that what happened to them is taken seriously.
    3. Working with victims of abuse, it is important to help foster a sense of agency: give control to them, give them choices.  This is especially important after control has been taken away in context of abuse.
    4. As a minister, be ready to provide resources: give three names of therapists that you’ve touched base with so the victim has both recommendations and a choice, provide recommendations for community based resources such as support groups, and provide online information or paper handouts that you have already reviewed.
    5. Transparency and accountability are paramount in these moments of pastoral care.  As someone ministering to a victim, one must disclose if the alleged perpetrator is an acquaintance, colleague, or friend.  One must also be upfront with whom the information will be shared with.

    Finally, Dr. Banis offered notes regarding a spiritual rooting to our ministerial care of victims of abuse.  

    1. Faith communities can be a source of support in the healing process.
    2. Trauma-informed theology can also be a source of support.  Look to the work of Serene Jones, Shelly Rambo, and Jennifer Baldwin.
    3. Holy Saturday is a helpful metaphor for understanding the space that victims of trauma exist in.  The trauma, or Good Friday, has occurred, and Easter, the salvation narrative, has not yet arrived.  
      1. There exists in helpers a need to fix or correct this traumatic tension.  Resist this urge, which can invalidate the lived experience of the victim.  Hold this space with them.
    4. Robert Greenleaf’s research on servant leadership can be a helpful spiritual tool for ministers who are working with victims of trauma.  Three guiding principles of servant leadership are:
      1. Relationship: people change in the context and dynamic of relationship.
      2. Attunement: listen and respond authentically to the person you are ministering to.
      3. Healing: healing happens in the context of relationship in which truth is acknowledged.