Clergy receive training to assist domestic violence victims


A recent survey of Protestant pastors showed that nearly three-quarters of them drastically underestimated the number of congregants who may be dealing with domestic violence issues.


The survey was commissioned by faith-based organizations Sojourners and IMA World Health to determine the clergy's level of knowledge about incidents of domestic and sexual violence, and how they responded.

Because how to address the issue is not as a rule taught in seminaries, many pastors are left not knowing the best way to discuss it from the pulpit and when members come to them for help, according to Emily Esworthy, of IMA World Health.


"The gap is really at the implementation level," Esworthy said.

For example, the survey found that 62 percent of pastors said that they have responded to domestic and sexual violence situations by providing marriage or couple's counseling, a method advocates agree often does more harm than good, Esworthy said.

At a workshop for faith leaders on faith, culture and violence at the Brethren Service Center in New Windsor Thursday, local clergy received tips and connected with local resources to assist them in discussing rape culture and providing assistance to those in need.

A person is in crisis when their normal coping methods break down, according to Janice Kispert, CEO of Rape Crisis Intervention Service of Carroll County.


When in crisis, a normally rational person may not react or behave in a way that society would expect, Kispert said. A rape victim could be laughing and joking or texting friends on their phone while they are at the hospital being treated.

"Don't impose your own values and expectations," she said. "It's their crisis."

The goal of crisis intervention is to ground and stabilize the person and prioritize identifying immediate concerns, she said.

Thursday, Kispert presented the training materials she uses for RCIS hotline volunteers to the group of assembled clergy so that they could be better prepared to deal with a congregant in crisis.

"Someone in crisis, they really want someone to listen to them and to believe them," she said.

When listening to someone disclose a sexual violence incident, Kispert said that it is important to let them know that their feelings and actions are valid and not unusual.

In some cases, the brain's chemical response to a traumatic event can make it difficult for someone to accurately recall events and it also affects their emotions for days afterward, according to Joshua Bronson, assistant director and investigator for the Office of Sexual Misconduct and Relationship Violence at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Tonic immobility has been reported in as many as 50 percent of rape cases, Bronson said. Tonic immobility occurs when a person is put in a fight or flight situation and hormones are released that cause them to freeze up.

This fairly common response can discourage reporting of sexual violence because a victim does not want to be asked why they didn't fight back, he said.

The hormones, which can affect the victim for approximately 96 hours, also impact the way the brain codes memory, and events can be out of sequence and vague if a victim reports an assault soon after it happens, according to Bronson.

When the victim is questioned later, Bronson said, they may recall more and have a clearer picture of what happened. To a listener, however, it sounds like the victim is contradicting the original report.

"It's just our natural reaction to be suspicious of somebody if they're changing their story," he said.

The victim may also display strange emotions or be devoid of emotion, according to Bronson, and if they aren't reacting in the way an outsider thinks they should, it can also impact whether they are believed.

There is a misperception that false reports of sexual violence are a pervasive problem when really 2 to 8 percent are later found to be falsified, which is in line with other crimes, according to Kristen McGeeney, who works with St. Mary's College of Maryland to prohibit gender-based discrimination.

Kispert said that it is important to make a person disclosing sexual violence feel believed right away because often their first interaction will be the difference between them seeking help or shutting down.

Because rape is about power, Kispert said that she recommends giving the victim back the right to choose by allowing them to determine how to proceed, from how much information to disclose to whether to go to law enforcement.

Establishing that the caller is in a safe place and making a future plan for their safety, if possible, is also important, she said.

Discussions are confidential and volunteers are only bound to report conversations to the police if a caller states that they plan to harm themselves or others or if they report child sexual abuse, Kispert said.

Esworthy said that the best thing that clergy can do is be aware of resources such as RCIS and direct congregants to those resources after dealing with the initial crisis.

"It's our specialty," Kispert said.

Robin Simpson Litton, pastor of Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in Eldersburg, said that she plans to take small steps soon to provide resources to her congregation.

"There are some things that I knew about but I hadn't thought about that are so easy," she said. Litton said that she placed information cards with hotlines for help in her previous church but hadn't done so at the current one.

It's a simple service, she said, which makes it even more of a no-brainer to provide it.

Litton's husband, Christopher Litton, is serving as the interim pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church in Manchester. He said that he hopes to offer space at his church for RCIS if they need a neutral, safe location to meet with victims.

"I think it's a time of exploring," he said.

Digging into the root cause

Bronson and McGeeney spent the majority of their presentation providing examples of ways culture normalizes, condones and even glamorizes rape and sexual violence.

"To the men in the room, what do you do on a regular basis to avoid being a victim of sexual assault?" Bronson asked.

While the male attendees remained silent, the women present had multiple answers at the ready, from watching where they park their cars and being aware of who is walking around them to being conscious of what they wear and carrying their keys in a certain way.

"Men and women think about sexual assault differently," Bronson said. From an early age, women are taught how to avoid being victims, but men are simply taught "no means no."

"There are lots of other things that 'no' can look like," he said.

The presentation included a short film with examples of advertisements and other media that make sexual violence seem normal, or even desirable.


McGeeney said that the hidden message in a designer fragrance magazine advertisement that depicts a woman being held to the ground by a man while other men stood around is, "This is what I'm supposed to want."


When flipping through a magazine, the image may not jump out at a reader, but when looking at it during a discussion about sexual violence, it becomes more sinister, McGeeney said.

"This looks like a gang rape," she said.

The film also showed clips from popular programs such as the animated comedy "Family Guy," where a scene made light of a woman reporting a rape.

"Just because you watch an episode of 'Family Guy' doesn't mean you're a bad person," Bronson said.

However, while an adult may be able to recognize the layers to a joke and the underlying satire, younger viewers may not see beneath the surface and only notice that the show they like is mocking a rape victim, Bronson said.

Talking about sensitive issues

Because cultural perceptions about sexual violence are learned early and are pervasive, Bronson and McGeeney also fielded questions about how parents can talk to their children and how pastors can talk to their congregations about the sensitive subject matter.

Bronson, a father of two, said that he cautions against prohibiting certain behaviors or content outright because with the wide availability of media, children can be exposed despite parents' best efforts.

"If something is forbidden, it becomes all the more enticing for a teenager to go out and find it," he said.

Exposure to sexual violence, whether subtly or overtly, without an adult adding context can be more dangerous, he said.

Bronson's personal example was the discussions he had with his children about the Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines," popular in the summer of 2013. The song's lyrics have been criticized for trivializing sexual consent.

Bronson said that all his kids heard was a good, catchy beat and did not understand why he didn't want them to listen to it, so he explained. He said that he told them the song's words talked about violence toward women, and then they weren't as interested in listening to it.

Attendees also asked how they should address talking to children and particularly young women about the clothing that they wear and the message they send.

McGeeney said that while everyone carries their set of morals and values, objectively it is important to recognize that there are people who are different. No matter what a person wears or how they behave, they have the absolute right to personal autonomy and freedom from harassment.

"There's a lot more to a person than what you're wearing on a particular day," she said.

Bronson suggested that rather than saying not to wear something because it's inappropriate, parents should create a forum for discussion about how outward appearances can be perceived but still make it clear that it is never appropriate for them to be harmed because of it.

By having this discussion, Bronson said that parents can ensure that their children will feel safe coming to them if something happens and not be afraid of getting into trouble for breaking the rules.

Esworthy said that the conversations need to be started young and continue into adulthood to address the pervasiveness of sexual violence in our culture.

Reach staff writer Heather Cobun at 410-857-7898 or email heather.cobun@carrollcountytimes.com.

More Information

Who to call for help in Carroll County:

•Rape Crisis Intervention Service (RCIS), 410-857-7322; http://www.rapecrisiscc.org

•Carroll County Domestic Violence, 410-857-0077