Courageous Conversation Explores How Other Faith Traditions Address Abuse

By Anselma Dolcich-Ashley
Guest Writer

Last week, Awake hosted a Courageous Conversation featuring guests from Jewish, Protestant, and Muslim backgrounds who shared insights about addressing abuse in those contexts. The panelists included Toronto-based Dr. Guila Benchimol, senior adviser on research and learning for Safety Respect Equity (SRE) Network, a Jewish network of over 160 organizations in North America that is rooted in a shared commitment to safety, respect, and equity for all; Maureen Garcia, who is based in New York and lead safeguarding specialist for Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE); and Nadiah Mohajir, co-founder and co-executive director of HEART: Women and Girls for the Islamic community, based in Chicago. The acronym HEART stands for health, education, advocacy, research, and training. A recording of the conversation, led by Sara Larson, executive director of Awake Milwaukee, is available below.

The panelists began by reflecting on how awareness of sexual abuse in their respective faith communities arose from “particular flashpoints,” most notably from the #MeToo movement in 2017. The Reform Jewish community, Benchimol noted, “became more aware of a problem that is not just about children … Sexual abuse can happen to adults, it includes sexual harassment, and intertwined are issues of discrimination and inequity linked to instances of victimization. And so that was an important moment for deep conversations and a new understanding.” This led to multiple Jewish communities launching “public investigations into abuses and harm in their movements,” she said.

Mohajir’s organization, founded in 2010 to address sexual health and sexual violence in the Muslim community, had been already working with survivors, particularly in the case of an abusive, Illinois-based imam who made national news. When the #MeToo movement became prominent in 2017, “there were some Muslims who wrote about #MosqueMeToo, [and] focused on tak[ing] proactive steps against [abuse].” Also, “there was another initiative called Side Entrance, [that] documented gender inequities in the mosques themselves,” Mohajir explained. These initiatives “started the conversation about how even religious spaces are creating conditions that become ripe for mistreatment of folks that are marginalized.”

“There was a corresponding #ChurchMeToo” in the Protestant community that arose in 2017, Garcia noted. Men and women “started coming forward and saying, ‘this is happening, and it has happened to me in my church.’ People were talking about it more,” in contrast to the early 2000s after the Boston Globe Spotlight Investigation. Then, some victims and advocates insisted that sexual abuse also occurred in Protestant churches, but many “Protestants said, ‘no, that’s a Catholic problem.’ ”

Another flashpoint came in 2018 with case of Dr. Larry Nassar, the doctor who abused young gymnasts at Michigan State, Garcia added. When Rachel Denhollander, a Christian, former gymnast, and attorney took Nassar to court for the abuses he perpetrated against her, the Christian community took notice of this open acknowledgement of abuse. The 2019 Houston Chronicle investigation of Southern Baptist leaders was another key event, which revealed “that the abuse is happening, and in response to the abuse there are coverups,” Garcia explained. The investigation also found that survivors were left with no support, were not believed, and were being re-traumatized when they reported their abuse.

The Role of Theology, Spirituality, and Structures

The panelists shared how their faith traditions can both hurt sexual abuse victims and also, in some cases, help them heal. Mohajir reported seeing “the misuse of tradition and text… to pressure people to stay silent and to protect perpetrators. Interpretation of Islamic tradition from the Qu’ran or Hadith really is dependent on who is doing it and what their social context is.” Structurally, challenges include a lack of “adequately trained first responders,” she said. “Imams and chaplains and Islamic school principals… will receive disclosures, and [may] retraumatize the survivor further by not believing them or blaming them or pressuring them to stay quiet.”

Possibilities for healing, she added, have arisen from Muslim women scholars “reclaiming core Islamic values such as rahmah (compassion) and adalah (justice), and showing from stories of the Prophet… that standing with survivors and speaking up against abuse is not simply Western feminism talking, but it’s in our tradition and history to do this work.” Mohajir also cited “the rise of third spaces… which are community spaces or informal communities of Muslims that do not feel welcome at the mosque or in the mainstream Muslim community.”

Benchimol spoke about encouraging Jewish leaders to adhere to their values. “It’s really important as people of faith to not act like sexual abuse is separate from our faith,” she said. Rather, doing the work of healing from abuse is “part of our moral obligation to our faith,” including being clear on the meaning of sacred texts. “One particular Jewish term… is lashon hara which literally translates to ‘evil tongue,’ but it means gossip. So, people say, ‘if I report, I am committing lashon hara, and we’re not allowed to do that.’ And then I point out to them, ‘Well, it also says that when you witness harm, you need to rebuke the harm-doer, you may not stand idly by.’ And lashon hara – gossiping – does not apply to this. The first [duty] is always to save the life; you’re even allowed to break the Sabbath to save the life.”

A longtime Jewish educator who later earned a doctorate in criminology, Benchimol described using biblical stories to teach about faith-based ways of aiding victim-survivors. “When we celebrate Purim, I re-teach the story of Esther in the Bible through the lens of women survivors. And I teach the [Biblical] story of Dinah, who was raped by Shechem, through the eyes of the survivor watching the male bystanders respond to her crime without asking for her advice.” But she encourages the Jewish community to bring in outside expertise so that any policy or teaching is “really trauma-informed” and “survivor-centric.”

In the Protestant community, Garcia has observed a misunderstanding of Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus tells the disciples “’if you have a problem with your brother you go to them personally and confront and rebuke them,” she explained. “This is often misapplied to victims of abuse [with], ‘you need to go to your abuser privately,’ which is obviously not trauma-informed or victim-centric. But it’s a very common response. The original sense of that text was never about victims of abuse but rather peer-level interpersonal issues.”

Another concern among some Protestants is seeing “repentance as an event” within the community; if the perpetrator admits guilt and commits to doing good in an emotional public apology, “people assume that that person is now safe.” Garcia cautioned against “shallow repentance … If you want to love an abuser, the … best way … is to hold them accountable. That’s the only way they’re going to stop destroying others and … their own self and their own soul. We have to hold them accountable. It’s how we show mercy and compassion and love to an abuser. To show mercy and love to victims, … hold their abusers accountable.” Having written and spoken about sexual abuse in the Protestant community throughout her adult life, Garcia said that in the best scenarios, pastors ask the entire congregation to be responsible for shifting the culture to create a safe, supportive environment.

All three panelists noted that their communities tend to be structurally decentralized. None of their traditions has a main rabbi, imam, or pastor analogous to a Catholic pope or bishop. On the one hand, decentralization can often lead to quicker change, Garcia said, as a community “integrates training and instruction… and creates [a new] culture.” On the other hand, Benchimol noted, decentralized networks can lead to uneven reforms; if “everyone has their own way … who’s to say that their way is really trauma-informed, survivor-centered, or even rooted in expertise.”

The Conversation Continues. Join Us!
Don’t miss Part 2 of the Courageous Conversation, 7 pm Central on Thursday, May 11.  Attendees will break into small groups to discuss the ideas shared by the panelists in Part 1. To join us, please complete the registration for Part 2 and watch the video recording before you attend. See you on Thursday! 

Inspiring Examples of Change

The panelists all shared positive examples of change in their respective communities, such as Benchimol’s two-year effort to help a school create all-new safeguarding procedures. She also works in a restorative justice project in the Reform Jewish movement and has invited survivors to speak at policy workshops. Mohajir’s organization has developed a three-fold program of response, prevention, and leadership based on the Islamic values of rahmah (compassion), imana (God-given responsibility), and adalah (justice). Garcia sees a positive development in pastors and congregations who recognize they need assistance in handling abuse cases, which leads them to reach out to GRACE or secular organizations.

Garcia encouraged the audience to understand that sexual abuse is always intentional on the part of the perpetrator (as opposed to a momentary “falling into sin”), and no matter the type of abuse, it always impacts survivors and congregations in profoundly harmful ways. Mohajir asked the audience “to be aware of how we live in a larger culture and society that perpetuates sexual violence every day,” and advised that “everyone has a role to disrupt that culture.” Benchimol stressed that “it is not the survivors’ responsibility to make our communities safe,” and encouraged everyone to help, love, and care “using our faith values” for change.

Overcoming Ignorance, Promoting Safety

During audience questions. Mohajir was asked about spiritual abuse, which she mentioned in the case of the abusive imam. Spiritual abuse, she said, should be understood in two ways, as perpetrated “by a spiritual leader, a person with religious authority who is emotionally, financially or sexually abusing people who are learning from them or following them,” and also as a factor in “everyday relationships where somebody might misuse religious tradition to justify power and control over their victim.” She noted that spiritual abuse rarely happens in isolation, often taking place alongside other forms of abuse.

When asked about assisting male survivors of sexual abuse in faith communities, Garcia noted much “ignorance and denial about males being sexually abused. It’s not even minimization … I’ve met a significant number of evangelical Christians who didn’t even think it was possible for a boy or a man to be sexually abused. There’s such a stigma; there’s so much shame.” In response, she said she encourages education and awareness in communities, and the development “of a safe community in which to disclose.”

As the conversation concluded, each panelist shared action steps with listeners. Garcia recommended that to make a difference, audience members make an effort to “model and practice what it looks like to relate in healthy ways.” Mohajir asked listeners to “commit to believing survivors.” And, reflecting the spirit of the entire event, Benchimol urged the audience to “keep having courage, and keep having conversations.”

Anselma Dolcich-Ashley is a theologian and independent scholar from South Bend, Indiana. She has studied the meaning of moral norms as applied in the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. She appreciates working with Awake to accompany others, to encounter the human face of the abuse crisis, and to participate in a compassionate Catholic community.

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