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Advice for congregations and institutions responding to reports of abuse

2.20. 2017 Written By: Stephanie Krehbiel and Jennifer (Jay) Yoder, Into Account 1,089 read

This advice is drawn from a Feb. 14 phone interview with Hannah Heinzekehr.

Dr. Stephanie Krehbiel and Jennifer (Jay) Yoder formed the nonprofit organization Into Account in Fall 2015. Pooling their collective expertise, Krehbiel and Yoder offer free services to survivors of abuse looking for accountability in Christian contexts as well as paid services for institutions, churches and organizations that are looking to address and abuse and work to prevent abuse.

Here, Krehbiel and Yoder make several recommendations for congregations or institutions engaged in the work of supporting survivors, holding perpetrators accountable and working to prevent abuse in the future.

1. The first step when abuse is reported is to bring in a qualified outside expert.

Both Krehbiel and Yoder acknowledge that no congregation or organization is the “right expert for [its] own context.”

“We’re often so immersed in our own situation or context that it’s harder for us to see what needs to be done, even if we have expertise and experience,” said Yoder. Organizations such as FaithTrust Institute, Into Account or GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in Christian Environments) have experience working to support survivors and to help institutions set up a good process for addressing abuse. They also note that institutions should draw on the resources in your community whenever possible. “You need to be familiar with the rape crisis centers, domestic violence shelters, and other advocacy and support organizations for victims of sexual and relationship violence in your area,” wrote Krehbiel.

They note that sometimes adult survivors will ask for you not to tell anyone else, because they fear shaming from the church or retaliation from the perpetrator. In cases like these, Krehbiel and Yoder still recommend calling an outside expert to guide you through next steps. “You can honor the survivor’s request, maintain their confidentiality, and still seek outside counsel for yourself about how best to move forward in protecting both their safety and the safety of others in your congregation,” wrote Krehbiel.

2. Don’t try to minimize the impact of abuse. Name it as violence.

Too often, Krehbiel and Yoder say, an institution’s first reaction is to try to minimize the severity of or contain reports of abuse. This can be devastating to survivors and can prevent organizations from making sure they are adequately cared for and out of harm’s way. In addition, it can lead organizations to inadequate responses to the perpetrator of abuse. Krehbiel and Yoder emphasize that in churches and church institutions, there needs to be a fundamental culture shift that emphasizes sexual abuse as violence and takes it seriously as such.

“Minimizing and containing is awful for survivors, for the culture of your institution and for the perpetrator. It is the worst solution for everyone,” said Yoder.

3. Don’t assume that sexual violence in a relationship is an isolated occurrence.

In the case of sexual abuse, statistics show that most perpetrators of sexual violence are likely to have a pattern of behavior. “People often assume that relationship violence is isolated and the person who commits it is not impacting anyone else. But this is usually not the case,” said Krehbiel.

When a pastor or leader hears a report of abuse or learns that something violent is happening within a relationship in the congregation, it is important to draw in outside experts to help think through next steps for addressing a perpetrator’s behavior. Krehbiel and Yoder note that it is imperative to ask questions that assess whether this behavior is part of a larger pattern. Questions include these: Are there other survivors? Are there other existing reports? Where has this person worked before? Who can I call to find out if there are files, other reports or knowledge? Were other people who worked with them in the past uncomfortable in a way they could not necessarily articulate well?

“As much as we talk about accountability, we know that the theology of the Mennonite church emphasizes saving the soul of the perpetrator, too. If you’re serious about that, you’ll want to check out whether they have a pattern and if this is a deeper sickness,” said Yoder.

4. Don’t just rely on policies. Undertake the hard work of cultural change.

Krehbiel and Yoder emphasize that having strong organizational policies and procedures in place for responding to abuse is critical. But these policies and procedures are also only as good as the collective organizational will to enforce them. Too often, they say, organizations don’t undertake the hard work of changing cultural understandings about abuse, and policies fall by the wayside.

In their work with college students, Krehbiel and Yoder have seen many examples of colleges and institutions who have compliant policies in place but where addressing abuse focuses on how to avoid a lawsuit rather than on restitution and protection for a survivor of abuse.

“In many instances, there are policies in place that could have prevented what happened, but there ‘s also a culture of victim-blaming, and the established practices are to disbelieve, isolate and intimidate survivors” said Krehbiel. “Perpetrators are able to manipulate these systems if officials don’t have a sufficient understanding of sexualized violence. That’s why there has to be a comprehensive accountability and education across institutions. You can’t just change individual policies and expect things to be better next time.”

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