Research Investigates Spiritual Effects of Sexual Abuse

By Cindy V. Culp
Tribune-Herald [Waco TX]
February 26, 2006

With a degree in divinity, Meredith Jones is more tuned in to religious issues than most. But even she was startled by what she heard while hosting a support group meeting for sexual abuse victims.

As the women talked about their experiences and struggles, one suddenly blurted out that she felt like she was going to hell because of what had happened to her. The revelation opened a floodgate of emotions, Jones said, and it soon became clear that the women were desperate to talk about faith issues.

"I call it an existential crisis," Jones said. "They come to a point where they are very, very confused about who God is in their life, but they still want to use faith as a healing tool."

Jones decided to learn more the issue. With her passion for abuse victims and her love of theology, it seemed like the perfect pursuit.

But when she perused academic literature for articles on the subject, she only found a few. So she decided to begin her own research.

The first phase was done at a North Carolina crisis center where she was working at the time. But her work has now moved to Waco, since her husband recently took a job here.

Jones, 34, will be conducting the research out of the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children. She is interning there this spring as part of her studies for a social work degree at Baylor University.

The goal of the study, Jones said, is multi-faceted. For one thing, she wants to get a better understanding of the theological issues facing abuse survivors. She also wants to gather empirical data about their spiritual lives, she said.

To accomplish that, Jones plans to have participants answer questions about how frequently they participated in religious activities before and after the abuse. They will also be asked to rank factors that contribute to healing in order of importance, with spiritual issues being among them.

Based on those findings, Jones then wants to write an article for social work and pastoral journals. Her hope, she said, is that social workers at secular crisis centers can become more open to discussing religious views and that pastors can become more informed about victims' needs.

"There's a real fear both ways," Jones said.

Along the same lines, Jones hopes the research will help her augment a curriculum she has developed for pastors. She got a federal grant for the project in North Carolina.

Such curriculum is needed, Jones said, because many pastors either mean well but fall short with their advice or they actually perpetuate abuse. In the latter category, for example, Jones said she interviewed several women who were counseled to stay in abusive relationships because of the belief that divorce is a sin.

Jones also recounted the story of a woman whose priest tried to help her by telling her about other women in their church who had been abused. Although it was meant as an encouragement, the information wasn't what she needed to hear, Jones said.

"He immediately wanted to take her to a place where she would be feeling better," Jones said. "...But she was wanting him to tell her whether God loved her or not, something very simple."

Jones said her ultimate goal is to get more seminaries to mandate a crisis intervention class for students. That way, pastors could be better prepared from the minute they get their first flock, she said.

Jones is hoping to talk to as many abuse survivors as will come forward between now and the end of March. There is no criteria for participants, except that they be a survivor of sexual abuse or assault. Participants can of any faith, any age and either gender.

All participants will be asked to fill out a questionnaire, Jones said. Those who are willing will also be asked to give a video-recorded interview. Both will be kept confidential, she said.

No money from the Advocacy Center is being used for the project. But center director David Davis said Jones' research is important because while churches are often one of the first places people go after abuse, it is one of the last places they talk about it. Anything that can be done to build bridges between faith leaders, crisis centers and abuse victims is a positive thing, he said.

The local center has made strides in that area by offering training sessions on faith issues for both clergy and volunteers, Davis said. The next such session is scheduled for the end of March.

The Advocacy Center can be reached at 752-9330. Abuse victims who would like to talk to Jones about her study should dial extension 100.


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