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As victims unburden themselves with tales of horrific experiences, healers absorb some of the pain. In effect, they become witnesses to the traumatic experience. Like others who assist victims in crisis, clergy may become subject to compassion fatigue, also known as burnout. In some cases, they risk an even more serious danger: vicarious or secondary trauma.

Vicarious trauma is a stress reaction that may be experienced by clergy and other victim assistance professionals who are exposed to disclosures of traumatic images and events by those seeking help. Helping professionals may experience long-lasting changes in how they view themselves, others, and the world. The symptoms of vicarious trauma are similar to, but usually not as severe as, those of posttraumatic stress disorder, and can affect the lives and careers of even clergy with considerable training and experience in working with disaster and trauma survivors.

They may include—. It is crucial for clergy who work with victims to find ongoing support systems for themselves, and to identify situations that may trigger unresolved emotional issues and refer such cases to a colleague. Often, simply acknowledging the effect on one that others' pain has can be one of the best coping mechanisms.

The victim assistance community also may be able to provide support for clergy by using established debriefing techniques. Finally, for clergy who are exposed to a mass victimization, participation in a well-run critical incident stress debriefing CISD may be helpful.

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The VS initiative set out to address the lack of specialized training in victim assistance among clergy through a pilot project in Chittenden County, where more than one-fourth of all Vermont residents live. The Faith Community in Support of Victims of Crime" covered the basics of crime-related psychological trauma, including the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder PTSD. The workshop also explored the relationships that community members have with faith leaders, provided an overview of power dynamics in domestic violence relationships, and listed specific things that clergy can do to support parishioners.

In addition, the training shed light on some of the responses that faith communities may expect from survivors of crime. In some cases, victims of crime may avoid anything that reminds them of their victimization—a behavior that is often referred to as second-order conditioning.

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In this instance, a traumatic victimization elicits physical and emotional reactions in a victim that may generalize to other neutral stimuli that become linked in the victim's mind with the traumatic event. It could be a sound or a smell or even a person unconnected to the trauma. Consequently, a victim who initially sought support from a faith leader or pastoral counselor may later reject further contact with that person because he or she has become inextricably tied to the victimization. As part of the original VS needs assessment, program staff and the Vermont Ecumenical Council VEC developed a survey sent to the VEC mailing list that identified the needs of faith leaders and assessed their level of knowledge about assisting crime victims.

VS staff compiled the results of 68 completed surveys and compared the responses with those from a separate public awareness survey conducted among randomly selected Vermont residents to assess general knowledge of crime victims' rights. Five of the seven questions on both surveys revealed that the general public had a greater awareness of victims' rights than did the faith community. At each training site, representatives from the local domestic violence program provided information on local resources and encouraged clergy to collaborate with other programs and make referrals.

Topics included understanding the subjective experience of victims; traumatic grief; the relationship dynamics implicated in domestic violence; information on victims' rights and local resources; how to make medical, mental health, and social service referrals for victims; and specific skills in working with victims.

A compendium of training topics and resources is available from the Training Department of the Vermont Center for Crime Victim Services. Thirty-four clergy members attended the initial round of trainings, which were well received. Participants identified the workshops on domestic violence dynamics, including the characteristics of healthy and unhealthy relationships, as the most useful part of the training.

They felt that having providers from local shelters and victim assistance programs as presenters was extremely helpful. Several followup trainings were conducted at annual meetings and individual churches. The most positive result of the faith community training initiative—the result that marked its institutionalization—was the establishment of the Peaceful Communities Committee in January In the evaluation process, training organizers also realized their assumption that clergy would naturally want information and training about victimization was shortsighted.

In subsequent conversations with faith leaders, it became clear that only those faith leaders who have come face to face with a congregant in crisis truly understand the importance of providing assistance—and the need for training. As a result, organizers identified such individuals as key members of advisory groups because they can effectively motivate other faith leaders to participate. The Peaceful Communities Committee's goal was to bring together clergy, victims, victim advocates, and corrections officials to explore issues of justice for both victims of crime and offenders.

At their initial meeting, committee members agreed on the need for training—both brief and extensive—for pastors and church leaders about the needs of, and services available to, victims, their families, and their communities. They recommended several specific roles for clergy in aiding crime victims, including helping victims to stay safe when offenders reenter the community or when the offender is not arrested or arraigned. The committee plans to conduct a statewide series of study circles on offender reentry and community safety in collaboration with the Study Circle Center in Connecticut, including a "Training of Trainers" on study circle facilitation.

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The committee also works with Vermont's seven community justice centers to share resources and involve faith leaders in developing programs and offering assistance to reparative panels. Read more about the Peaceful Communities Committee and other initiatives. Faith leaders who attended the training sessions found the information valuable. When evaluating the overall effectiveness of the Faith Community Initiative's training model, however, organizers realized that taking a more collaborative approach—one that included presentations by clergy or lay members of a congregation who were already assisting crime victims—may have resulted in wider participation.

Building this sense of ownership of and investment in the project was a valuable lesson learned.

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Other lessons learned focused on—. The VS staff recommend that victim service programs planning to partner with a faith community take specific steps related to program startup, relationship building, and sustainability efforts.


VS proposes that faith leaders and victim service providers offer collaboratively designed cross training because often one group may have expertise that illuminates an otherwise inexplicable experience. Victims sometimes avoid service providers, for example, because they may remind the victim of the crime. Clergy whose parishioners have avoided them after they have conducted a funeral service may have been puzzled by this experience. Such avoidance, known as second-order conditioning , is a valuable concept that the victim assistance community can impart to clergy members.

For a detailed definition, see the "Elements of Collaboration" page. Ongoing cross training would not only educate both groups about how their members can assist crime victims but also improve communication between faith communities and victim service providers. Increasingly in congregations, pastoral care is done by the laity, either by individual members of the congregation or through the efforts of community partners.

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Congregations often include people with a mental health or medical background who are willing to be trained in victim assistance as a focus of their lay ministry. They can act as liaisons between crime victims and other community services. In addition, a congregation may include members with particular skills or knowledge who can help crime victims fill out victim impact statements or victim compensation applications, accompany them to court, or translate materials into their primary language. In the final phase of the VS training workshops, participants frequently identified the need to engage lay leaders within congregations and to collaborate with victim resources in their communities.

Keeping the Faith: Guidance for Christian Women Facing Abus

Interviews with faith leaders clearly revealed that clergy are not adequately prepared to deal with what James Gilligan 11 calls a "national epidemic of violence. Moreover, clergy need to be trained about when it is appropriate to offer assistance and when it is best to make a referral. In domestic violence cases, for example, a faith leader should not counsel both parties, especially when the criminal justice system is involved.

The most obvious remedy is to enhance the curriculum at theological schools and seminaries to include a more comprehensive study of victimology, including the latest information on trauma; the mechanics of the criminal justice system; the dynamics of domestic and sexual violence, including child sexual abuse; and the services available to assist victims. Although such an enhanced curriculum has been developed and piloted by Denver Victim Services and the Denver Seminary see Other Initiatives , implementing this curriculum in local seminaries is beyond the scope of what most victim services programs can directly accomplish.

Through collaboration, however, it is hoped that clergy will recognize the need and press for such reform within their own faith communities. Clergy can play an important role as members of an interagency council or task force, and protocols should be provided to faith leaders so they will know a community's procedures for assisting victims. Few clergy who responded to the VS survey knew of the existence of such protocols. In communities that are establishing new task forces, clergy should be invited to participate in the initial planning of these groups.

Faith communities can participate in community initiatives in many ways. In Vermont, for example, faith communities are working with community justice centers, volunteering to serve on reparative boards, and working with the Burlington First Response Team to help victims of vandalism and property crime.

Faith leaders can also play a valuable role in organizing and maintaining community crisis response teams, and can provide resources such as meeting spaces at their houses of worship, clothes collections for sexual assault or domestic violence victims, transportation to court or medical appointments, and help with completing victim assistance or compensation paperwork.

When resource directories, such as the VS Victim Services Resource Directory, are created, religious institutions should be included in the distribution plan so they can make informed referrals to other services.


Communities that have been shattered by violent crime need public rituals to help them recover, and awareness of this need is growing. Houses of worship have traditionally opened themselves to such public rituals, from the days of the civil rights movement through the antiwar protests of the s, to the spontaneous response to the events of September 11, when houses of worship overflowed with people distraught and bewildered by the terrorist attacks. The ritual may take the form of a community's protest against violence, or it may demonstrate support for individual victims, or both.

Such public rituals can be healing for the entire community.

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In Burlington, for example, the Unitarian Church has for the past 3 years allowed the Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force of Chittenden County to hold a remembrance vigil in its sanctuary during National Crime Victims' Rights Week, and its pastor has officiated at the ceremony. In Warren, Vermont, Susan Russell, a Vermont victim advocate and herself a victim of crime, organized an awareness event called "Come Unite!

She invited local faith leaders to attend and get involved; one minister spoke about how neighbors, including faith communities, can form a circle of support around victims of crime.

They can invite representatives from local domestic violence shelters or rape crisis programs to speak to their congregations, and they can invite the survivors themselves to speak. According to Russell, "this opportunity offered everyone in that faith community a story about hope and healing. It has also opened the door for that community to serve crime victims, as they now know they have someone to call for information and resources.

Common sense dictates that no one program, clergy person, or victim advocate can address all victim needs.