Assault on Dignity

Lauren was raped during her sophomore year of college. The attack came from someone she knew. Though they both had been drinking, she had said no, yet the advances continued. Lauren struggled to share her story with others. She felt unsafe and guilty, angry and ashamed. With the help of friends and a mental health professional, she was able to share her struggles, which were described by Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to the president, on the White House blog. Lauren’s story is tragic, heartbreaking and not as rare as one might hope. A recent report from the White House Council on Women and Girls found that sexual assault is alarmingly common: nearly one in five women of all ages have been victims of rape or attempted rape.

Sexual assault can cause immediate and long-term emotional and psychological harm. Many who experience such attacks live in shame or in fear of retaliation by the perpetrator. All too often, however, the pain of the experience is compounded when victims brave enough to speak out against their attackers face doubt, blame or apathy from the individuals or institutions to whom they report these crimes.

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In response to this crisis, in January the White House established the Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault, calling the prevalence of sexual assault “both deeply troubling and a call to action.” President Obama has urged institutions of higher learning to educate students about protocols for preventing and responding to sexual assault, where to go to report an attack and how to find support after an assault. Colleges must move swiftly, deliberately and fairly to resolve reports of assault.

Victims of sexual assault on campus should not become victims also of an ill-equipped or misguided system of response. To avoid future contact with the perpetrator, often it is the person who is assaulted who is forced to make the more significant changes in housing, class schedule or daily routines. Many women find it difficult to obtain information on the type of sanctions, if any, that are applied to the perpetrator. In a recent article in The Guardian, one college student wrote that her attacker was placed on disciplinary probation but seemed to face no meaningful consequences for his alleged actions, despite the fact that several women at her college had made accusations against this person.

Sadly, the prevalence of sexual assault extends beyond college walls. Many members of the U.S. military have long struggled with sexual harassment from their fellow troops. In 2012 an estimated 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted, according to the Pentagon. The problem is so pervasive that the Senate recently united in a unanimous vote in favor of legislation that will produce significant improvements in how sexual assault cases in the military are handled. Among other measures, the bill offers greater confidentiality for victims and better checks and balances between military and civilian courts. The legislation also forbids the use of the “good soldier defense” during court-martial proceedings, which allowed as evidence a soldier’s prior record of being dependable and trustworthy.

Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan, has said that “military culture has been slow to grasp the painful truth that even a successful professional can also be a sexual predator.” Unfortunately, this slowness is not limited to the military. Too often accusations of sexual assault against a star football player or popular student leader are dismissed as unlikely or overblown. In other cases women are blamed for the attacks by those who claim the victims were dressing too provocatively or drinking too much, as if these were evidence of consent.

Society should stop blaming the victims and start looking for more effective ways to prevent and prosecute sexual assault. Since many assault cases are fueled by alcohol, initiatives in Washington, D.C., and elsewhere have trained bar staff to identify and respond to patrons who may be victims or perpetrators of sexual harassment.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “God gives man and woman an equal personal dignity.” The church can play an active role in promoting that dignity by working to prevent attitudes that can lead to sexual assault. Every diocese in the nation has established channels to educate parishioners about how to identify and prevent sexual abuse of minors. The church could similarly develop resources to help educate people about how to identify and prevent sexual assault among adults. Since the healing process for many victims might involve prayer and a faith community, parishes could offer opportunities for victims to speak about their experience. Ritualizing the healing process through special Masses and discussion groups can help survivors of sexual assault know that they have the support they need to move forward with hope and faith.

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Rick Sherman
3 years 9 months ago
The Catholic Church already has all kinds of good teaching resources to address the meaning and proper living out of human sexuality. All of the sexual abuse issues are ancillary to this larger understanding. The real problem is that Catholic teaching on human sexuality has been so roundly dismissed by us baby boomers and our children. The clergy, of whom I am also a part after having been an adult layman for 20 years, has been notoriously neutered in our attempts to educate the people according to Church teaching. Pope Francis, from the very beginning, wisely solicited the input of our Catholic laity and clergy to determine the state of marriage preparation and the understanding of teaching on sexuality. I suspect if the results of these meetings (if they occurred at all in most parishes) are publicized, it will be an obvious indictment of our pithy efforts in this area. Underlying our ineptness at teaching about human sexuality is our developmentally arrested state of spiritual formation in general. In my experience working with a wide variety of younger people (35 and younger including Mass going college students) they have been remarkably open to presentations on Theology of the Body and the need to develop spiritualities which support true chaste living. Different Theology of the Body curricula offer a variety of age appropriate developmental approaches to teach spiritually integrated formation. The younger people do not carry all the woundedness from the gender wars of the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. They are willing to learn. If baby boomers are willing to heal and grow themselves, a legitimate response to the spiritual catastrophe we are passing along to the young people can be made. Our senior clergy will need to come out of their shells and be willing to learn themselves how to live out and teach what the Church actually teaches…even if it means some embarrassment about our current ineptness. We will also have to risk ruffling our primary underwriters……..ahem……the boomers. JESUIT COLLEGES AND HIGH SCHOOLS COULD ALSO MAKE THIS A PRIORITY. It will remain to be seen if we actually care enough about our young people to risk facing our own demons.
Bill Mazzella
3 years 9 months ago
Meaningful suggestion. Action like this by parishes will convince women that the church is concerned about serious harm women face by a callous society which too often blames the victim rather than the perpetrator.
Rosemary McHugh
3 years 8 months ago
Thank you for this article. It is important to accept that boys and men are being sexually abused, as well as girls and women and children. It is a healthy change to see that the victim is being given some recognition. The Editors do not include the sexual abuse of innocent children and vulnerable adults by Catholic clergy, that remains a serious problem around the world. As a physician, I have met many of these victim/survivors. The betrayal of trust by a priest is called soul-murder by some. Sadly, it seems that there are policies in the Vatican that protect the predator clergy from civil law, and the victims of clergy sexual abuse are often re-victimized by the church. The pope is not treating sexual abuse as a crime, which puts many more at risk of being victimized by the predators. To quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the dignity of the person is so contradictory to the reality of church policies that protect the sexual predator clergy from civil law. I have found that many victims of clergy sexual abuse want nothing to do with the Catholic Church anymore. I was sexually assaulted by a Carmelite priest when I was a young doctor in Dublin. It was a shock to me that a priest would have no conscience about sexually assaulting a person. I was encouraged by the way that the Archbishop of Dublin, Dr Diarmuid Martin, listened to my story, referred the case directly to the police for investigation, removed the priest from ministry, and arranged for me to receive a yearly report from the psychologist monitoring the predator priest. In contrast to the Archbishop of Dublin, the U.S. bishops treat the victim like an enemy and re-victimize him/her, which is not what Jesus would do. Sincerely, Dr Rosemary Eileen McHugh, M.D., M.Spir., Chicago
Katherine Schlaerth
3 years 8 months ago
I don't see why we need yet another government agency to do what parents and guardians should be doing already: teaching children about the risks of substance abuse, teaching boys that they also are at risk for being sexually abused, instructing in avoidance of risky places and situations and about appropriate garb for various occasions. Maybe (dare I say it?) the Church should teach once more about near occasions of sin . When has anyone heard a sermon lately about sin??? Okay, I am an old bat and asking for personal and family responsibility is out of the question in the 21st century.
Barbara Graves
3 years 7 months ago
Katherine, it sounds like you are suggesting we blame the victims. Wearing "inappropriate garb" or entering risky situations may not be a good idea, but they don't make the victim responsible for being attacked. If you want to talk about personal responsibility, it is the responsibility of the attacker to NOT attack. Period.
Nicholas Clifford
3 years 8 months ago
In addition to these laudable aims, there are other necessary steps as well. One is to hold accountable not only the abusers themselves, but also those in positions of authority -- military commanders, school and university officials, CEOs and their staffs and so on -- who look the other way and even cover up the evidence of sexual abuse in their companies and organizations. "Every diocese in the nation," writes the editorial, "has established channels to educate parishioners about how to identify and prevent sexual abuse of minors. The church could similarly develop resources to help educate people about how to identify and prevent sexual assault among adults." Where the church has significantly failed, and (it seems) continues to fail is in its practice of of holding harmless from accountability those in positions of ecclesiastical authority who have all too frequently taken no action, or in some cases, even managed to hide evidence of abuse in their own spheres. How many bishops, archbishops, or cardinals, for example, have been called to account by the Church for their failures in this sphere? Any? How many has the Church protected when charges are brought? It's all very well to talk about the need to "educate parishioners" about how to prevent the sexual abuse of minors and indeed "sexual assault among adults." But how about also educating the hierarchy, and holding its members accountable? Occasionally we read of, say, a bishop who steps over the line in suggesting that we should at least talk about (for example) the ordination of married men (or even women!). He's promptly told that he must be held to account for questioning the Church's magisterium (at least in its present form). Is it any surprise that we might then conclude that the church's magisterium has little useful to say about the sexual abuse of minors, and indeed sexual assault is general? Or do we just shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, boys will be boys."

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