(This is the 1st of a 2 part blog post)
I recently sat down with two local Missoula experts, Detective Connie Brueckner, who specializes in sexual assault cases, as well as Crime Victim Advocate Erin Shreder to grow in my understanding of sexual assault and how to properly handle this complex issue as a Pastor.
The following is a summery of my conversation with them, put into my own words, with their stamp of approval. My hope and prayer is this begins the conversation on how we as Pastors have failed victims in the past and how we can properly care for them in the future.
Detective Connie Brueckner. Criminal Victim Advcoate Erin Shreder. Pastor Mark Resch
Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions about sexual assault? How can there be a shift in thinking?
A: The first misconception is the idea that all rape or sexual assault is a stranger in the bushes with a gun, when in reality nearly all sexual assaults occur between people who have a relationship. Often times it is a friend or a boyfriend, and more often than not there is alcohol involved. In fact, many sexual assaults even occur in a house with roommates. This can lead to much disbelief of actual events or guilt on the part of the victim.
The second misconception would be there is an unfair emphasis on the victim rather than the perpetrators. We need to re-align our focus on the perpetrator and rightly place blame on them rather than the victim. There is a tendency to disbelief victims or blame them for the situation they put themselves in, or even how they reacted during the event. The truth of the matter is during an assault many victims freeze and are unable to call out or wake a roommate. The emphasis needs to be moved from the victim to the perpetrator.
A third misconception would be that there is a rash of false accusations when the truth is a completely false accusation is a rare event. A false accusation will rarely have an actual name attached to it; more often it is simply someone who desires to get a certain type of attention or help. A false accuser will not usually name an actual perpetrator. More than that, we often don’t understand the depth of pain involved in speaking up about this particular crime. No part of what a victim has to go through is fun. Most people who believe someone is falsely accusing have never been through, or seen what a victim goes through after speaking up. It involves the most personal aspects of their lives, often a close relationship with someone they trusted as well as questions about their sex life.
When thinking through how the outside world processes sexual assault it is important to add that we know through research that victims of trauma often have difficulty with memory and recall. This can be a part of being a victim of an assault. Their statements may not all be crystal clear and/or they may do things that don’t make sense to others given their experience. For example a victim may even drive a perpetrator home after a rape. We know victims engage in counter intuitive behavior. Victims should not be dismissed because of this behavior and/or because of inconsistent statements. While these can present complexities in cases they are also evidence of actual trauma having taken place. Trust that trained detectives and prosecutors can deal with these types of disclosures.
Q: What steps should a woman who is a victim take?
A: If the assault is acute (generally within 1-10 days) the victim should immediately go to First Step at St. Patrick’s Hospital*. The reason for this is to have them get a free medical exam regarding the assault. These are highly trained women, medically and in victim trauma, and will be incredibly careful and empathetic towards a woman who is receiving an exam. The victim has all the power to decide what they want done. They will offer antibiotics for STI’s and a medical exam. Even if a victim only wants antibiotics they can request that. The details of the exam are completely up to the victim. If they simply want their fingernails scraped they can say that, if they only want an exam from the waste up that is acceptable as well. The victim can decide about each individual part of the exam and how much they want to go through. While at First Step, an advocate will be offered to help support a victim through the medical process.
The second step a woman could take is to contact an advocate at the Crime Victim Advocacy. The advocates at the CVA help with criminal cases and order of protections. The victim can also contact the YWCA for a community advocate, and the University has their own Student Advocacy Resource Center (SARC). Any of these places will happily provide a free advocate to be with the victim during exams, interviews, or even just personal conversation. An advocate’s primary focus is to be with the victim, get them whatever they need, and care for them. A victim advocate relationship is 100% confidential. Nothing is shared with the investigator or anyone else for any reason unless the victim wants something to be shared.
Finally a victim of sexual assault must make sure they are safe. They should not return to a situation where they may be in danger.
* First Step is open during normal business hours. It is located next to the Providence Center on North Orange Street. It is best to call and make an appointment through first step during business hours or people can call St. Pats and they will reach out to have a nurse meet a victim at First Step after hours.
(Look for part 2 of this blog post, where legal options, the problem of disbelief and perpetrators are discussed)