Rape in our churches

July 13th, 2015

If there’s one good thing about the Bill Cosby rape and drug allegations, it’s that more Americans may now realize how common it is for a woman to be raped or assaulted sexually.

The statistics tell a disturbing story. According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), 1 out of 6 women in our nation has been the target of a rapist. Between the ages of 16 and 19, females are four times more likely to be raped, have a rape attempted, or be assaulted sexually than anyone else. Of girls who are in grades 5-8, 7 percent said they had been sexually abused. That percentage jumps up to 12 percent for high school females.

Statistics alone won’t convince many people because they don’t have faces or voices. But the steady stream of Cosby accusers, with their eerily similar stories about being groomed and plied with pills by the comedian and then subjected to unwanted sexual advances or worse, resonated with many Americans. Others still weren’t convinced because Cosby has yet to be charged with a crime and has refused to address it — though he has surrogates who have denied the accusations on his behalf.

Last week, some of those minds were changed after the release of parts of a deposition in which Cosby admitted to acquiring and using drugs for sexual purposes. Drugs and sex equals an inability to consent – which equals rape. And that particular evil lurks in places that are more shocking and unexpected than the life of a beloved TV star. Rape can be found even in the church.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. If 1 in 6 women in our nation have been raped or had someone attempt to rape them, how could church-going women escape being targets? Especially when, according to one study, pastors are sometimes the rapists.

A Baylor University study of clergy sexual misconduct found that 3 percent of female church members who were surveyed said they had been subjected to inappropriate sexual advances or actions from clergy at some point in their lives. Additionally, 8 percent of these women said they knew about instances in which clergy sexual misconduct had happened at a church they were attending.

The Baylor study confined clergy sexual misconduct to sexual advances or propositions, so rape and sexual assault weren’t addressed specifically. However, that doesn’t mean clergy don’t rape.

Carolyn, whose story is documented in the Baylor study, was having a crisis of faith. Her husband suggested she get counseling from her pastor. After the sessions started, the pastor revealed that he was sexually attracted to Carolyn.

Because of her respect for his ecclesial authority, she continued the sessions and apparently found them helpful. Meanwhile, the pastor continued his advances. He called Carolyn his “spiritual lover,” eventually kissed her on the lips without warning, and tried to manipulate her into leaving her husband. Finally, Carolyn said, he raped her.

"I knew you wanted that,” she said he told her. “We need to keep this secret because it would ruin the church."

Carolyn, understandably, was confused.

"If this was any other man, I would have known it was not right," she told the study’s authors. "But church is supposed to be a sanctuary. I couldn't make sense of what was happening. He broke my connection to all that is holy."

She and her family left that church, but her children have rejected organized religion and doubt God. "What hurts me the most is that this wasn't just physical rape," Carolyn said. "It was spiritual rape."

I wonder how many women sit in church pews every weekend, wearing the same wounds Carolyn has, whether inflicted by pastors, fellow church members, family members or strangers on the street? How many women or girls in our circles, in or outside of church, carry the secret pain of surviving rape or sexual assault?

Unfortunately, we don’t have to guess. The numbers told us the story long before Cosby’s accusers opened our eyes.

David Person is currently working on a documentary focused on rape and civil rights. Watch the trailer here.  

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