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 legal options does a victim have?
A: Victims have three options when it comes to reporting a crime. An advocate can help with all three of these options, reporting a crime is not something a victim must do alone.
The first is a blind report. This report is the lowest form of police report someone can fill out. A third party (such as a friend who thinks they know something) can fill one of these out. It is often handwritten and put into a file drawer. It is not put into the official police computer system. Often these are left alone, if investigating another case, detectives may go through the blind reports simply to see if the perpetrator’s name comes up anywhere else but this will rarely if ever result in a call back to the one who filed a blind report. Nothing that is shared in a blind report would ever be used in a criminal investigation without a victim’s consent. The point of the blind report option is to allow for third party reporting and increased confidentiality for victims.
The second option is an official police report. This involves no investigation, but it does put actual names and facts into the police system. This type of report can be taken by a uniformed officer and involves more detail than simply a blind report, but it will not involve a long interview by a detective. This report can be done at the Crime Victim Advocacy office as well as the police station. This type of report does not result in an investigation. However victims can leave notes on their report such as, “If this name gets other hits, call me back I might want to press charges.” For example if a woman is hesitant to press charges, but they fill out a report and realize they are the 4th victim of the perpetrator, they may want to change their response to it.
Finally there is a full on investigation. This would require a police report to be filled out and a request for an investigation. The victim will be contacted in the next couple days by a detective who will conduct a longer and more in depth interview. This takes place at the crime victim advocacy office rather than the police station. An advocate will be present to help support the victim, answer any questions, and provide crisis counseling.
The accused will also be contacted and brought in for an interview.
At any point during this process (prior to a criminal charge) the victim can decide they have had enough and withdraw the investigation and it will be closed, no questions asked. An advocate can be present for any of these, as well as family and friends. With an actual interview though, family and friends can be present, but the actual interview takes place between the detective, the victim, and an advocate.
Victims again are in the driver seat as far as how they want things to proceed. For example a victim can fill out a police report, request interviews (for themselves and the accused) and then say that’s as far as they want to go with it.
Q: How do you encourage women who are afraid of not being believed?
A: Both detectives and advocates will readily communicate belief in a victim. An advocate’s job is to believe and support what the victim shares with them. The detective may also believe, but must remain slightly more neutral during an investigation.
Both advocates and detectives are trained in the complexities of sexual assault and understand the fear of disbelief as well as the negative impact it can have on victims to not be believed or to be blamed. Neither of these should happen.
There is also a difference between a detective believing this particular case will be a challenge to charge, and not believing a victim. A detective may give the impression this case will be a challenge, but it does not follow that they do not believe a victim.
Detectives are also trained to give reasoning for the questions they ask and the things they do which will help dissuade any notion of disbelief or lack of understanding on the side of the victim.
Side note: Things that victims disclose cannot get them in trouble. For example, even if a victim was under the influence of illegal drugs, they can feel free to be honest about that. The details are needed to establish state of mind during the assault, but they cannot come back on the victim. There ought to be no fear of repercussions for being honest with detectives. In fact honesty is the most important thing a victim can provide.
Q: How does a he said/she said situation get resolved?
A: Nearly all situations are at the surface level a he said/she said. This is not uncommon. It is the job of a detective to take people beyond the simple problem of two differing stories. This is why we have trained investigators whose job it is to draw out what other people miss. There is far more evidence than we often realize regarding a case. This doesn’t mean every case will get charged, but it is an oversimplification to say all situations just come down to two different stories. Just because a victim and a perpetrator have differing accounts does not mean truth cannot be found.
Q: As a pastor, what should I not do when talking with a potential victim?
A: The primary thing to avoid in talking with men or women who are victims is to blame the victim, or even give any possible impression of unbelief. The role of a pastor ought to be much like the advocate. There are trained investigators to figure out if it is not true.
Q: What advice do you have for perpetrators?
A: As advocates and detectives, we see our job as one of holding people accountable to their actions. Accountability can heal wounds. Perpetrators should be encouraged and instructed to own up to their actions and take responsibility. This is the most freeing thing they can do to escape their own guilt.
In fact, a perpetrator taking responsibility inspires compassion, from judges, juries, even victims. A perpetrator taking responsibility is the most healing thing that can happen for a victim, even more than a charge.
It is one thing for a judge and jury to believe you. It is a whole different thing when a perpetrator acknowledges the pain they have done to a victim. Perpetrator repentance is the most powerful possible outcome in these situations.
A huge thanks to both Erin and Connie for their time and willingness to share their expertise on a such a difficult and complicated topic. My hope is this interview will have grown you in your awareness and ability to minister to men and women who disclose their own stories of abuse.