THE BLOG
08/07/2014 08:46 am ET Updated Oct 06, 2014

Pope Francis, Ray Rice and the 'F Word': How Faith Communities Can Help Trauma Victims Heal

The women came seeking healing. Many of these survivors of the Rwandan genocide had lost family members and some had been raped and infected with HIV. More than a few were struggling just it to make it to another day before they found Solace Ministries.

Sometimes it took a month, or a full year before they spoke about their experiences with other survivors. When they did, even if it was only to say a few words before they broke down in tears, other survivors gathered around, embracing one another.

The passage from the Book of Isaiah -- "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God" -- was the mantra for this ministry, which helped women take the first steps to escape from the depths of horror.

Envisioning a future with a sense of hope was nurtured among a loving community that reinforced their belief in a God who had not abandoned them.

One sermon topic was off limits, however, for the Solace ministers.

"They never, ever, ever preached forgiveness," said University of Southern California sociologist Donald Miller, who has visited Rwanda 16 times and conducted more than 260 interviews with widows and orphans of the 1994 genocide.

Forgiveness is linked to better mental and physical health.

Research has shown people who scored high on forgiveness scales had significantly lower levels of blood pressure, anxiety and depression, and relatively high self-esteem and life satisfaction. And religious traditions generally uphold the practice as a great virtue.

But forgiveness is also a deeply personal act, one that can harm trauma victims if it is coerced or demanded before they are able to come to terms with their pain and suffering, experts say.

One would not say the 'F word' to someone who has recently been traumatized, said Kenneth Pargament, a psychology professor at Bowling Green State University who is a leading scholar in the field of religion and health.

Many people who have undergone trauma such as rape or domestic violence often have feelings of self-contempt or self-loathing as if they must have been somehow responsible for the crimes committed against them.

Asking them to forgive before they are ready can "re-traumatize" victims, and leave them feeling disconnected and alienated from communities such as churches that can be vital to help them heal, Pargament noted.

In the cases, say, of a battered woman continually returning to her spouse or an abusive cleric who is transferred from congregation to congregation, forgiveness given inappropriately also can endanger the victims and others.

Consider the outrage in recent days against NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell for giving Baltimore Ravens' star Ray Rice just a two-game suspension after he was accused of assaulting his then-fiancé, now wife.

Goodell elicited testimony from the woman in front of Rice and his attorney. He said he took into account Rice's contrition in making the decision.

To advocates for battered women, Goodell's words may evoke all-too-similar scenarios to a time when clergy would routinely intervene on behalf of abusive husbands, urging the wife to take her spouse back for the sake of the marriage.

Last month, Pope Francis drew mixed reactions after he pleaded for forgiveness for "the grave crimes of clerical sexual abuse" and the sins of church leaders in their response to victims.

Groups supporting abuse victims were wary.

David Clohessy of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests referred to Francis "as a humble, brilliant unpretentious pope." But Clohessy said the pontiff must follow through with reforms such as holding bishops accountable and turning records over to civil authorities.

"We endanger boys and girls if we confuse words with deeds," Clohessy said.

So how can faith communities help trauma victims on their journey to a state of healing that may one day enable them to reap the benefits of true forgiveness?

Here are three ways suggested by research and those with experience in working with survivors:

Support, support, support: "The first thing is to surround the people with care and compassion," said Pargament, editor of the American Psychological Association's APA Handbook of Psychology, Religion and Spirituality. "Just to listen, that's a huge gift."

The need for support became clear to Miller in his research with genocide survivors in Rwanda.

"You have to care. You have to support, and you have to allow survivors to go through a process," said Miller, author of the upcoming book, Healing, Forgiveness and Reconciliation in Post-Genocide Rwanda. "Forgiveness occurs over a long period of time, years, and even then there is a sense that it's never completed."

Educate, educate, educate: Forgiveness education is a critical step churches can take to promote a healthy path to forgiveness, said Robert Enright, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who has been doing research on forgiveness for a quarter of a century.

Such work includes helping people understand forgiveness is a free gift from the person who was wronged, given when the person is ready.

In a journal article, Chad Magnuson of Liberty University and Enright advocated a comprehensive program that includes forgiveness training for church leaders and regularly integrating discussions about forgiveness into sermons and Bible study programs.

Challenge rather than enable transgressors: One study of 1,200 abusive men in the Northwest found that faith communities can be critical in providing the practical and spiritual support to begin to move violent men to a sense of empathy and accountability.

Faith-based intervention also can discredit dangerous theological ideas that abused women must be submissive and provide resources to allow the men to envision a different future.

Forgiveness is not about condoning or forgetting the transgression, and may or may not involve some form of reconciliation, noted Enright, co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute.

Nor may forgiveness be possible until well down the road for people who have experienced severe trauma. A young woman in Rwanda who was beaten and sexually assaulted while her other family members were killed may never be able to forgive.

In the case of victims of sexual abuse by clergy, Pope Francis opened a door to forgiveness with his recent remarks, Enright said.

But if it is a road the church and survivors are going to go down together, actions must follow.

And no one, not the pope or anyone else but the individual who was abused can decide whether to grant forgiveness, Enright said.

"It's their call when they're ready."

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.