Accompanying Survivors: Holding Trauma and Doing It Well

30 May 2014, Seattle, Washington State, USA --- Seattle, United States. 30th May 2014 -- Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence. -- More than 100 community members came in support of the #YesAllWomen Live Rally in Seattle. This was a call to action in support of those affected by violence against women, after recent shootings in California left 6 dead and 13 wounded. --- Image by © Alex Garland/Demotix/Corbis

30 May 2014, Seattle, Washington State, USA — Seattle, United States. 30th May 2014 — Demonstrators protest sexual assault on college campuses at the #YesAllWomen rally in solidarity with those affected by violence. — More than 100 community members came in support of the #YesAllWomen Live Rally in Seattle. This was a call to action in support of those affected by violence against women, after recent shootings in California left 6 dead and 13 wounded. — Image by © Alex Garland/Demotix/Corbis

For the past year, I have served my campus community as a deputy coordinator in the university’s process for adjudicating Title IX complaints. Sexual violence falls under Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 because the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex “in education programs or activities operated by recipients of Federal financial assistance.”[i] It prohibits a range of behaviors from harassment up to and including sexual violence because they are forms of said discrimination.  Each institution is mandated to have people like me work on more than mere policies and complaints. These are crises, wounds in our community as so many of our commentators this week have noted.

In this role, it is my responsibility to ensure due process for both complainants and respondents.[ii] There were many reasons that I, a campus minister, am in this role. For one, I worked with faculty members to craft some of our campus policy. Another reason is simply the particular moment for this small institution and its needs. I would like to think that my experience as a clinical social worker and my identity as a minister were also important assets that I brought to the table.

In order to safeguard the sacrosanct confidentiality of this community process, I cannot share any stories about this work. I can only write about lessons learned in the hope that this reflection might spark dialogue with others who accompany survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. This post also only applies to my work with half of those that I have encountered in the process – complainants not respondents. That is a different, but necessary part of the conversation for another essay. Here, I focus on the intersection of ministry, social work, and community-based processes such as Title IX complaint adjudication in higher education. I choose to focus on survivors because their experience is the site of historic and current systematic inaction in higher education.  I use the word “survivor,” a gender-neutral term, purposefully.

Adding a Voice Not Speaking For

I share all of this with some trepidation. I am an ally and I do not want to speak for any survivor, but survivors should not have to give voice to their experience unaccompanied. So who speaks? It is difficult to even talk about the experience of accompanying survivors without robbing them of that voice and re-inscribing the theft of their agency. So I acknowledge that what I write here is necessarily incomplete.

Yesterday, Jenny Peek wrote:

Discussions of rape in Christian spaces force us to risk losing our sense of safety, our sense of the world around us (and consequently our sense of trust that humans act for the good of others), and most terrifyingly, our sense of our God’s goodness and intercession. So what do we do? We avoid the topic entirely. We run away from talking, preaching, and even praying about sexual assault.

This has to stop.

Indeed.  I write with the hope that better accompaniment of survivors on our campuses can emerge from furthering the conversation. The skills that I learned as both a social worker and a minister came from significant exposure to those who experienced sexual trauma and accompanying them in their healing. My experiences with direct clinical supervision and hours of truly holy group process during my pastoral education slowly disrupted my fear of speaking. We had an agreement in those spaces. Engaging in dialogue enabled us to grow and our dialogue and growth were never finished. That hope continues here.

The Ministry is Holding Trauma

Survivors have shared with me their sense of the profound loneliness that sexual assault creates. I am left with no doubt that sexual violence exerts force not only on the body itself, but on all the relationships that hold that body in care. Every human person is bound up in a web of relationships and sexual violence tears at that web. It is this rupture in the social fabric that contributes to a collective fear of walking with those that have experienced such trauma.

Most everyone feels woefully underprepared to accompany survivors, and doing it once does not mean that you have the formula to do it again. Every terror is different, every assault fresh. Nuance and embodiment in violence matters (and certainly has mattered in every case in which I have accompanied survivors).  Despite feeling unprepared, we are called to embrace the encounter, to work through the fear.  Pope Francis has spoken at length about the significance of a “culture of encounter.”[iii] In its original incarnation, this message was about overcoming the profound isolation of the digital divide. It could be compelling for Francis to extend this idea to include the profound fear and isolation created by sexual violence during his upcoming visit to the United States.

We must hold those who have experienced sexual violence in spite of and because of this fear of what it might mean to do so.  Holding the trauma is an act of communal solidarity.  At a Catholic institution, I believe we have a special call to enter into the suffering of those in our community and not to turn away, as Katherine Greiner pointed out. Moving beyond naming this crisis in higher education and toward addressing it means confronting that fear and equipping the members of our communities with the tools to do so.

Going forward

Holding trauma is difficult. It requires that we develop expertise. As a result of new guidance for Title IX compliance, our campus communities should have enacted excellent, evidence-based trainings on sexual violence. We have to utilize them and encourage our entire community – students, faculty, and staff – to utilize them because that is the way that we can hold trauma together.  In my experience as an individual, I find that necessary and needed anchors are prayer and the hope that God can be present in the wake of this horror – somehow.

Intersecting identities matter a great deal in this conversation. Our campuses are prone to the same overlapping, systemic inequality that afflicts the wider society. We educate and minister to diverse communities, and we need to ensure that the trainings account for all the ways that people experience their embodiment. Trainings on sexual violence should be complemented by serious, campus-wide work on other forms of discrimination and bias. A Catholic university should foster a truly universal understanding of what it means to be human as well as safeguard that humanity. When certain members of the community act as if other members of the community are not the imago Dei then no one is truly free.

Finally, we must work hard to create safety in our classrooms, our offices, public spaces on campus, and even (and especially) in our worship spaces. Students and other community members cannot realize safe spaces if those of us that accompany them are not speaking persuasively and powerfully about their necessity. Safe spaces are created when we practice careful listening. There has to be a culture of openness, one of true encounter to defy the fear that sexual violence engenders.  Listening is a sacramental act that contributes to openness and invites an encounter with survivors in authenticity and grace.

This post is part the Octave of Theological Reflection on Sexual Assault and Higher Education at Daily Theology.

John DeCostanza is the Director of University Ministry at Dominican University in River Forest, IL.  He is an ecumenical Doctor of Ministry candidate and Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Scholar at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, IL.  
[i] United States Department of Education – Office of Civil Rights. “Dear colleague letter.” April 4, 2011.

[ii] These are the names for parties in a complaint in some institutional processes.

[iii] Pope Francis, “Communication at the Service of an Authentic Culture of Encounter” June 1, 2014.

One response to “Accompanying Survivors: Holding Trauma and Doing It Well

  1. Pingback: Sexual Assault and Higher Education: An Octave of Theological Reflection. An Introduction. | Daily Theology·

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