HDS Teams Up to 'Interrogate the Silence'

October 6, 2015
Rick Santos
Rick Santos, MTS '92 and IMA World Health president. / Photo: Laura Krueger

Why don't faith leaders address sexual and gender-based violence in their communities, even when they know about it? What can be done to break this silence? And what role can educational institutions play?

These were some of the questions set before a panel on the HDS campus in the wake of the new study, "Interrogating the Silence."

Conducted by the Science, Religion, and Culture Program (SRC) at HDS with the support from IMA World Health and WeWillSpeakOut.Us, the survey examines the role religious leaders play in their congregations on issues of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). 

A Harvard research team led by Kera Street, Harvard PhD candidate and assistant director of academic affairs at SRC, conducted interviews among faith communities in the Boston metropolitan area between fall 2014 and summer 2015. The study emerged with new understandings of the silence in faith-based communities around issues of SGBV.

The SRC study follows up on a report by IMA World Health and Sojourners in June 2014, titled "Broken Silence," which revealed that an overwhelming majority (74 percent) of the 1,000 Protestant pastors surveyed by phone "underestimated the level of sexual and domestic violence experienced within their congregations."

In addition, it revealed only 56 percent were adequately familiar with local resources that specifically address this violence. Even if they knew, Street explained, it did not mean they would direct their members towards those resources.

One of the issues the research team found was that faith communities serve both the perpetrators and the victims, making it challenging for faith leaders to address the issue.

Street was categorical in noting that faith leaders take "passive positions." Victims, she said, are in a "precarious situation, as the leaders they look up to are not in a strong position to support them holistically." Training, she said, can help expand faith leaders' understanding of SGBV and how best to respond.

Interrogating the Silence Panel

Responding to the findings, Rick Santos, MTS '92, president and CEO of IMA World Health, said it is important to include public health messages when training faith leaders.

"We need to tell religious leaders that this is a theological issue, but it is also a public health issue," explained Santos.

Santos noted that faith communities have been involved actively in public health issues for years, the most prominent being the work being done on HIV/AIDS.

In sharing her experience as a pastor and educator, Marie Fortune, Faith Trust Institute founder and senior analyst, said that strong faith communities are a key to prevention and are in a position to change sexual norms. The HDS study, she feels, has helped "name the problem in a powerful way."

Ahmed Ragab, Richard T. Watson Assistant Professor of Science and Religion at HDS and SRC director, noted that it was clear from the report's findings that pastors and religious leaders need further education and training to address SGBV head on in their congregations. He also brought attention to the part Harvard Divinity School could contribute as an educational institution.

"It seems that this type of education is one we need to take on ourselves, because it is central to taking on sexual and gender-based violence and how the leaders deal with it," Ragab said.  

by Kalpana Jain