Sally Schwer Canning & Tammy Schultz: What We Long For the Church to Face About Sexual Violence


We believe that the vast majority of people of faith, if asked, would state a sincere desire to respond to sexual violence with wisdom, justice and support for victims. Numerous narratives from survivors, however, caution us to consider that we vastly overestimate our readiness to respond well, and underestimate the challenges involved in doing so.

Therefore, we do not place all our hopes in sharing a “to-do list” of strategies for churches. Clergy and leaders can have access to best practices, along with the resources to implement them, and still be stymied by powerful spiritual, psychological, and cultural influences.

These forces complicate and countervail against wise application of knowledge and effective implementation of safeguarding and response measures. In the third of our reflections, we identify and urge consideration of a few of these complicating forces.

1 – Human nature recoils from engagement with sexual violence.

The first may seem an obvious truth, but it is essential to this conversation. Human nature seeks comfort and stability, and resists distress and disequilibrium. Anguish and disruption, however, are unavoidable when sexual violation touches the lives of individuals and those called to act in response.

By their very nature, sexual violations, and their disclosures, throw individuals and systems into disarray. We are inclined to resist this level of disruption and recoil from coming into close contact with the physical, psychological, social and spiritual realities of sexual violence.

However, there is no way to respond to these experiences with justice and accountability without encountering profound disruptions and palpable distress. Avoidance and minimization may temporarily reestablish a sense of comfort and cohesion, but will do far greater damage to victims, and result in congregations and communities that are less safe and whole in the long run.

2 – The nature of many sexual violence situations makes judgments about them challenging.

Allegations of abuse that come to the attention of decision-makers in the church are often brought without “proof.” The reality of many sexual violations is that “evidence” may be difficult or impossible to obtain.

Such “proofs” would make decision-makers’ jobs easier, and provide a kind of unequivocal reassurance for the rightness of our judgments and responses. They might lighten the burden of being a responder in a messy and painful situation. But these expectations are often unrealistic. To expect victims of sexual violations to present us with incontrovertible proof is to misunderstand (either willfully or unintentionally) the nature of many of these kinds of violations and their impact on individuals.

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Source: Christianity Today