By Austin Santiago

 

On Thursday, Interchurch Medical Assistance (IMA World Health) and Lutheran World Relief hosted a panel in Manhattan to address the response of religious institutions to sexual and domestic violence.

Three specialists discussed the ongoing problem of poor response from religious institutions in regards to sexual assault and domestic violence. In an independent study, conducted by IMA and LifeWay research, a faith-based research company that monitors church culture, it was discovered that out of 1,000 pastors who were interviewed, 90 percent have had to deal with a case of sexual assault or abuse in their congregation. However, only 50 percent felt adequately trained to handle such problems.

“A lot of it depends on when and where you were trained,” said Monica A. Coleman, a professor at Claremont School of Theology. “There weren’t books on this twenty years ago. It was just not something we did in theological education.”

The call for better response from religious institutions comes at a time when the public is questioning beliefs more than ever. In a recent poll conducted by Gallup (and released on Wednesday), 37 percent of Catholics question their affiliation with their church.

Left to right, Jenna Barnett, moderator; Monica A. Coleman; Kirsten Larsen Muth; Dr. Jo Lusi. Credit: Austin Santiago

This is the highest percentage since the Boston Globe broke the news of widespread abuse by priests in the greater Boston area. The poll comes one month after two of Virginia’s dioceses released the names of 58 clergy officials deemed “credibly accused” of sexually assaulting youth.

“The problem of sexual violence is immense,” said Dr. Jo Lusi, founder of Heal Africa. “We have to ask why is this happening in the twenty first century?”

Not only did the panel discuss practical training methods for clergy, but they also discussed scripture and how it can be used to curb sexual violence.

“The Bible is open to interpretation,” said Kirsten Larsen Muth, special advisor at Episcopal Relief and Development. “God cares about our bodily integrity.”

In a written statement from Rick Santos, President and CEO of IMA world health, the organization made its goal clear. “Our next generation of faith leaders need to be prepared to preach about prevention from the pulpit, create a safe space within their churches and lend their voices to the movement of lasting change in our society.”

The pandemic of sexual violence within religious institutions is very real, and it appears there are many in the wide religious community paying attention to the issue, including Pope Francis himself, who has called for “Concrete measures” to deal with abuse in the Catholic church “so that . . . we may lend an ear and listen to the Holy Spirit … and to the cry of the small ones who are asking for justice.”

Thursday’s Conference was a step in the right direction.