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As a person of the Christian faith and as a social worker, it can be extremely difficult to reconcile faith ideals with the pictures of abuse that are seen occurring within a faith-based environment. Religious ideals are, at their core, meant to promote ideas of welfare, respect, and love for all people; the abuse that is sometimes perpetrated onto individuals the church is intended to protect can be seen as a grave betrayal of Christian tenants. However, it does happen at an alarming rate. According a report released by the John Jay College about sexual abuse of minors within the Catholic Church, “…3 percent of social service referrals are for claims for sexual abuse by an authority figure within an institution, with the most prevalent institutional abusers being teachers, clergy, scout leaders, tutors, and social workers. Abusers in these settings are generally understood to be employees or volunteers having some authority over children” (Terry, et al., 2011). Additionally found in the report was that 20 percent of non-familial abusers reported that they were able to gain access to children through some sort of organized activity, and 8 percent stated that they joined youth or children’s organizations primarily to perpetuate a sexual offense” (Terry, et al., 2011). Many of these individuals enter the church with “a servant’s heart” for children, but over 90 percent of the abusers studied in this article reported that they were aware of their sexual attraction to children prior to beginning their professional careers. A study in Australia investigating abuse cases in the Catholic church stated that the “…institutional complicity in the sexual abuse of children has irrevocably damaged public trust and the consequences of this are still to be fully appreciated…the public surfacing of child sexual abuse within religious organizations has shocked many…and challenged their legitimacy, in particular, the Catholic Church” (McPhillips 2016). McPhillips also found that a number of people expressed general suspicion about whether church leaders would be able to be honest in the future, since the church had failed to protect the youth in their care, particularly since this is seen as a turn-away from Christian values. It is assumed that less than 15 percent of children disclose their abuse with anyone, as a child or years later as an adult.
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Much of the mindset related to sexual abuse is about power. Typically, this power-based violence derives from a place of hegemonic masculinity, or the upholding of ideals that place males in a dominant position over women. This idealization of male dominance over women often leads to a power imbalance that encourages male perpetrated violence towards women. According to Peter Warren, who conducted a study on religion and intimate partner violence, “[M]en who internalize the traditional expectations of male power in relationships tend to be at greater risk for perpetration of violence against their female partners” (Warren 2015). Warren likewise stated that …”social environments created by these communal beliefs serve to potentially create pressures and opportunities for men to carry out abuse, as well as increase the potential to seemingly legitimize abuse in a religious context. Men who are already at risk for perpetration due to abuse history or personality factors may tend to be influenced towards more acceptability and justification of abuse when they are in cultures that are patriarchal and supportive of male dominance”. As Laura Schilperoort points out in her article about marriage equality in Christian relationships, many stricter sets of self-described “evangelical” Christians take a literal interpretation of men being the heads of spiritual households. This can often lead to these men believing this leadership role entitles them to a “free pass” to bring harm to those who are not obedient or will not kowtow to their shows of dominance.
History of the Problem
Jane Anderson holds in her study on rehabilitating clerical offenders that child sexual abuse was “discovered” in the 1960s, although it is apparent that this problem has been an issue perhaps as long as people have existed. During the 1960s, with countercultural and feminist movements, many were empowered to come forward with their stories of survival about sexual abuse. Anderson touches on a point when, in the 1980s, media coverage began to report on offenders, particularly clergy offenders, that encouraged even more survivors to come forward (Anderson 2015). According to McPhillips, attention being paid to child sexual abuse is fairly new. “This is mainly due to an increased social awareness of the rights of children, the development of a language with which to recognize and treat sexual abuse, the development of a culture of personal and institutional disclosure and openness, and the activism of feminism in defining and identifying patriarchy as a social system of oppression” (McPhillips 2016).
Perhaps the most important historical antithesis to this sort of treatment in religious relationships is scripture itself. According to Warren, aspects of religiousness are historically, when examining sacred texts, not supportive of any sort of intimate partner violence. In contrast, men are commanded in Ephesians 5:28 to “love their wives as their own bodies”. This indicates that men are to treat women with respect and dignity, not as a person who is meant to withstand horrible violent behaviors.
Prevalence of the Abuse and Links to Other Forms of Violence
People who are being abused in faith traditions can often be beguiled into remaining in sexually abusive relationships because of the belief of the sacredness of marriage. Schipleroort points out in her article the following comment from a member of the faith: “I know women who have been beaten in relationships in years past, and the church told them ‘stay and put up’ or ‘you made your bed, now lay in it,’ that sort of thing….I think the church has taught things in the past that I find really unhelpful…we had one of our members who married about six years ago to someone who we weren’t sure about…and he later murdered her when she left.” This alarming statement shows that often, the response of the church can be for parishioners to remain in an abusive relationship because “they made a commitment,” which is a pervasive and dangerous message to communicate to those who may be experiencing sexual abuse.
Barriers to Service/Implications for Social Work Practice
There are numerous barriers to service for populations who are considered religious. One of the primary barriers to service for this complication is nondisclosure of abuse that may occur. There are numerous reasons why an individual may not disclose sexual abuse that is occurring in a religious setting. In particular, “In closed cultures characterized by religious fundamentalism, strong religious prohibitions regarding sexuality, isolation from mainstream society, and taboos that may deter discussion of certain issues or contribute to silencing, victims are less likely to disclose incidents of sexual abuse” (Zalcberg 2017).
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Another significant barrier to service for these individuals is the issue of financial resources. This is a common issue among people who suffer all types of abuse, not just those who identify as religious. As a religious scholar who also works as a victim advocate in the state of Georgia, Stephanie Crumpton was surprised to realize that “…many victims are held captive in their relationship because they are uneducated and either unemployed or underemployed. Lack of financial resources makes it so that many can’t ‘just leave’ and it is not so easy to just answer ‘yes’ to the question of whether or not they want to testify against their abuser.” She also continues this argument by stating that every day the abuser is behind bars is a day that the family is unable to earn financial support, which can be a terrifying prospect if a mother is unable to buy groceries or pay utilities (Crumpton 2013).
The religious nature that guides the culture of clients who are established in the faith can also be a factor for consideration for social workers, especially those who may not be familiar with a faith tradition a client holds as their truth. Religious factors can affect clients in the following ways: feelings of shame or guilt, promotion of “suffering in silence”, promotion of premature forgiveness for the perpetrator without many plans for child safety to accompany it, and the power structures that place men in positions of power that expect obedience, even in regard to one’s own bodily autonomy (Tishelman & Fontes 2017). Tishelman and Fontes also mention the importance for social workers to be aware of the positive relationships between religion and resilience and trauma recovery. A trauma recovery with religious elements can be found to be healing, if the client so chooses to incorporate religious elements into their recovery.
Though it can be difficult to recognize that religious institutions, particularly of one’s own faith, can participate in harmful abuse of others, it is important to be aware of this problem so that the survivors of this type of abuse may be protected, and prevention efforts can be worked toward to protect others in religious institutions. One paper concluded their talk of sexual abuse within religious communities with the following quote: “As a Christian, I have found solace in grounding myself in the belief that the power of Jesus’ death on the cross does not lie in Jesus’ suffering at the hands of others, but rather in the power of God to raise life out of death-dealing circumstances” (Crumpton 2013). This quote can be used to let those of the Christian faith know that God never intends for anyone to suffer in abuse, but rather they can put their trust in His healing to raise life out of situations that are traumatic and devastating. Paired with proper secular reporting and services, religion can be a step toward healing and wholeness for clients.
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