Faith and Justice Alliance Seeks Faith Leaders’ Help in Combatting Sexual Assault

May 5, 2021

The Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance recently held a webinar educating Tennessee faith leaders on how they can help in the fight against sexual assault. Henry County General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Vicki Snyder participated in the online forum, as did representatives from the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, the Sexual Assault Center, the Knoxville Family Justice Center, AMEND Together, and the YWCA.

Dr. Monty Burks, director of faith-based initiatives for the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, started off the webinar by sharing some numbers.

He said there are nearly 434,000 victims of sexual assault or rape each year in the United States. Those victims are 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs. In Tennessee, there are over 12,000 faith communities and 3.6 million people who regularly attend worship services. To Dr. Burks, this speaks to a clear role for faith communities in dealing with sexual assaults.

“Our faith communities have to be part of the healing process, have to be part of the equation,” he said.

Knoxville Family Justice Center Executive Director Kathryn Ellis works with domestic violence and sexual assault survivors on a regular basis. The Justice Center connects those survivors with a number of locally available services, including legal assistance, shelter, counseling, and more.  The Justice Center also helps survivors obtain orders of protection and has investigators on site to aid in pursuing criminal charges.

Ellis said the Justice Center is moving toward closer relationships with faith leaders, out of the realization that those leaders are uniquely well-positioned to be effective in the fight against sexual assault.

“We think faith leaders see a lot of things other people aren’t going to see because a lot of people trust their faith leader more than anybody else,” Ellis said. “Our hope is by engaging faith communities we will be able to reach out to a broader scope of the community. We are hoping this panel and future trainings in our area and across the state will help us to inform and improve the situation for as many people as possible.”

She said that part of that training is teaching faith leaders where to direct sexual assault survivors who may come to them for help.

“It is our duty to educate faith leaders about where the resources are, what the resources are,” she said. “If we do that, the faith leaders will be able to make educated referrals.”

Judge Snyder offered some expert suggestions to faith leaders on how to spot possible victims of sexual assault and what to do once abuse was suspected.

“Look for some of these signs if you have children in your congregation,” she said. “Look for anxiety; depression; sleep disturbances; changes in eating habits; fear of certain people or places—they no longer want to go to places they used to like to go to; changes in mood—suddenly they’re not the same child they were; changes in the entire way they dress; lack of interest in friends they used to have; frequent health problems; poor self-esteem; and cutting or self-mutilation.”

Judge Snyder urged faith leaders to take those warning signs seriously and to contact someone for the good of the child.

“Reach out to a judge in your community,” she said. “Reach out to someone if you think you have a child in your congregation or if a child you care about has changed. Ask somebody you know who works in this field. Do not ever brush this off as, ‘Well, it’s growing pains,’ and, ‘I don’t want to step on somebody’s toes.’ The last thing you need to do is let it go unsaid.”

Sharon Travis, the outreach and advocacy specialist for Nashville’s Sexual Assault Center, said that one of the most important things that can be done to combat sexual assault is to change the “rape culture” that exists in our society. Rape culture normalizes sexual assault by fostering such views as victim blaming—where a person is told that it is somehow their responsibility that they were assaulted.

“What I think churches can do is speak to that and reshape the culture,” she said.

She acknowledged that there are some challenges for churches who want to do more to fight sexual assault. For instance, she said that the Sexual Assault Center, which offers therapeutic and advocate services to sexual violence survivors, does not allow offenders in the building. At church, though, victims may attend services with their abusers. For that reason, Travis emphasized that it was important for faith leaders to figure out ways to create a sense of safety in their sacred spaces for victims to feel comfortable sharing their experiences.

“What we want to say is ‘I believe you, I support you and, it’s not your fault,’” she said. “The best thing you can do is listen, hear them out, and connect them to the right resources. You don’t have to be a therapist to do that, you just have to be human.”

Shan Foster is also deeply concerned with dismantling the rape culture that can enable sexual assault. As the executive director of AMEND Together, Foster works to engage men and boys in the process of moving beyond toxic masculinity and into a place of greater respect for women.

He said that he thinks faith communities have been underutilized in the struggle against sexual assault.

“One of the things that has become glaringly obvious to me and confirmed by clergy, men and women from all over from various denominations, is there are not enough resources for prevention in faith-based institutions and places of worship,” he said.

Foster wants to change that by making faith communities places where young and adult males can come and feel comfortable showing vulnerability and sharing their experiences in an open and honest way. These men may resist counseling or similar methods, but church may provide a way.

“We really have to take the time to be intentional about creating a safe space for men and boys to talk, communicate, and have their authenticity be confirmed,” he said. “That is so critical.”

If that work is not done, then men are more likely to pass their own personal trauma and defensive ideas about masculinity on in harmful ways.

The discussion was moderated by attorney and chaplain Robin Kimbrough Hayes and also featured a presentation by Department of Children’s Services Resource Linkage Coordinator Carren Broadnax.

Broadnax clarified some issues regarding the reporting of sexual assault for the faith leaders who attended the online event, pointing out that all adults in the state are mandated reporters when it comes to child abuse.

Broadnax works to connect multiple teams and entities across the state to best respond to the needs of children who are abused.

“Our goal is to make sure we start bridging the gap,” she said. “The more we can work together to build community, the more we can equip guidance counselors, social workers, foster parents, identify more mentor programs and do everything we can prevention-wise for our kids, the more we can be successful,” she said.

The Tennessee Faith and Justice Alliance is a project of the Access to Justice Commission. It is an alliance of faith-based groups in Tennessee who commit to providing legal resources to their congregations and communities.

Faith leaders who want to get involved with the work of the TFJA are encouraged to contact the Access to Justice Commission’s pro bono coordinator at ATJInfo@tncourts.gov.

For those wanting to report an instance of child abuse, call the state Child Abuse Hotline at 877-237-0004. In case of an emergency or life-threatening situation always call 911.