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Sexual Assault: The Church Connection

by Elizabeth Bernier

(A talk given at the Women’s Theological Center)

To begin, let us light a candle to recognize this time together as sacred; to name our speaking and our listening as sacred; to acknowledge, once more, that each time we "break the silence" surrounding sexual violence we claim again the sacred dimensions of our lives.

I want to acknowledge that in any group of women, those of us who have experienced sexual assault at some time in our lives comprise a significant percentage of the group. We are not talking about someone out there, different from ourselves. We are talking about ourselves, about each other, and so I ask that we be very aware of that reality and very sensitive to the pain that may surface, by virtue of 'breaking the silence' and talking about this subject today.

Many times I have thought how much we need to provide a 'wailing room' when we come together to speak of sexual violence in women's lives. Do what you need to do to take care of yourself during or after this talk. I have been moved to tears in the past while preparing for a talk like this and sometimes in delivering a talk like this. My tears are not only a response to the immeasurable pain of women's lives that I witness, but they are also a response to the boundless capacity for healing and new life that I also witness.

I speak to you from my experience as a psychotherapist, a white, Roman Catholic and middle-class woman, a mother and a student of theology. While I acknowledge the limitations of my experience, I also recognize that much of what I say may reflect the experience of many different women and many different communities of religious faith.

The image of 'unwrapping the silence' conjured up for me a gentle movement, a process of discovery. Until now I have been inclined to think and speak of sexual assault in terms like breaking the silence, an image denoting sudden action through speech. However the former image has been useful for me to understand the process of bringing to consciousness a truth long hidden.

I will use the unwrapping image to describe my own process of discovery of the silence, then talk a little about that silence and move to the Church Connection before I close, leaving you with two questions to consider. In short, I want to try to unwrap the silence around sexual violence so we can all look a t it and continue to talk about it.

First, the bow on the package became untied for me in my clinical practice as a psychotherapist from hearing women, raised in Christian homes, bring forth their stories of childhood incestuous assault. They shared with me their experience of sexual violation in the sanctity of their own homes, at the hands of their fathers, uncles, brothers, grandfathers; sometimes fathers of a different kind — a parish priest.

Statistics point to over 90% of perpetrators of child sexual abuse being male. Of course, there is much we don't know about sexual abuse, in particular we don't know the whole story about the numbers of female perpetrators. We also don't know the whole story about male victims. But I want to focus here on women's experience of sexual violence. And while I am referring to child sexual abuse, I don't want to overlook the incidence of adult rape of women, date rape, marital rape, stranger rape. Statistics tell us that 44% of us will be raped at some time in our lives. Learning some of this untied the bow for me, but there was a knot under the bow — it was tight, hard to loosen.

However, the knot began to come apart when I considered that a child begins to form a concept of God through her early experience of parental care; that her developing spirituality is impacted by religious events and services, God language and images of God, CCD lessons, church school and bible study, prayer and preaching. All are permeated with male images, images that convey God as all-knowing and all-powerful, dominant, king and warrior.

And then I began to lay aside the wrapping on the package when I considered my own personal experience. I had come to understand that sexuality and spirituality were deeply and profoundly connected to one another, that they spring from the same source in my life. Sexual experience, giving birth, knowing the presence of God, all hold the potential for experiencing ecstasy; that is — being with, and in relation to, another: lover, child, God. Knowing intensely in my body, another life in union with my own.

Hearing the pain of incest survivors, knowing some of the theory relative to spiritual development, and considering my personal experience of the linkage between spirituality and sexuality — these have unwrapped for me the complete and utter silence of the Church on the subject of sexual violence. I question: How has it been possible for the Roman Catholic Church to ignore the incidence and effects of sexual violence? I had assumed that my church was about the business of promoting one’s relationship with God, but I came to ask how is even possible for incest survivors to come to know and experience God as Love in their lives? Is it possible? We say that God is love, but if God is imaged as male in language and ritual, in song and scripture, in prayer and preaching; if a child "births the living God" through her early experience of parental care; what happens for the untold millions of women in churches who, as children, have been sexually assaulted by their male parent? How do we begin to talk about an embodied spirituality when one out of three of us has been disconnected from living fully present in our body through the violation of sexual assault and the rest of us have at least experienced the disconnection from our bodies that is our heritage from living in a misogynist culture?

Incest and sexual assault know no boundaries of class, race, ethnicity, social group or religious group. I want to use my remaining time to raise some issues for your consideration as you continue through this conference. What I hope to do is to spark your thinking, your discussions, your actions, about sexual violence and the Church Connection.

How many of us have ever heard a sermon on incest? On marital rape? Are we seeing articles in our religious journals about sexual violence as a problem in our congregations? Or do we continue to see only reports that say sexual abuse occurs in day care centers, when we know that sexual abuse occurs primarily in our homes.

What about the message of blind obedience we give our children when we teach the fourth commandment in religious education classes? Do we hear anything in our churches recognizing that violent behavior may not only be individually willed but also socially constructed?

Do our church leaders use at least as much time, energy and resources addressing the issue of sexual violence against women as they have done in addressing matters of sexual activity in the bedroom?

Do our church leaders preach that forgiveness cannot precede justice and that justice requires accountability, repentance and conversion of life?

How does this male-controlled institution benefit from the silence? Is it analogous to the way white people maintain privilege and benefit from remaining silent about racism?

When we allow people to link the need for a married clergy to stories of priests who sexually assault children, are we not still promoting a model of male sexuality that gives license? A model many Catholic women of my generation grew up with. A model (and it was a heterosexist model) that said adolescent girls are responsible to control the sexual urges of the adolescent boys they date. A model that said adult women, once married, are responsible to be sexually exciting so their adult husbands don't stray.

As my friend illustrated for me: "This is tantamount to saying man is like a wild beast and the church expected a young girl to enter his cage and keep him at bay but if she marries him she has to keep him sexually engaged so he can't escape to attack anyone in sight. Now it seems we are suggesting that in order to satiate the celibate beast and protect the children, we throw him a woman?!"

In closing, let me caution you to remember that in order to break the silence, a woman's story of sexual violation must be believed. Responsibility for the violation must be placed clearly with the perpetrator.

Any suggestion or intimation that a woman, (child or adult), shares responsibility for the violence against her, only compounds the violation. Many women carry overwhelming guilt because they experienced
a sexual response to incest or rape. What it means is simply that
their body's normal physiology was intact during the time of assault.

I want to leave you with two questions regarding strategy:

1. As women in the church, how does our silence enable sexual violence to continue?

and

2. How can we use whatever privilege we have, whether it be t he privilege of being white or heterosexual or educated or middle-class — how can we use our privilege to empower all women to break the silence around sexual assault in our church communities?

Editor's Note: Elizabeth's graduate thesis at Harvard Divinity School was titled When Women Keep Silent in the Church: Sexuality and Spirituality in the Lives of Incest Survivors.


Elizabeth, a retired psychotherapist, has downsized to an apartment in Bristol, RI.  She raised six children in Scituate, MA as a single mother and now has seven grandchildren. 

Elizabeth did some writing in graduate school when the children were young and returned to writing as a result of her RV trip to volunteer for Katrina disaster relief. At the age of seventy, she plans to continue her travels seeing the beauty of the US and Canada.  You may email her at: ebernier6@verizon.net

 

©Elizabeth Bernier for SeniorWomenWeb
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