Here a chaplain consults with a sailor. Officials say chaplains can be a source of support in event of a sexual assault or harassment in your unit. (MCSN Gregory White/Navy)
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Beyond the staff at a Sexual Assault Response and Prevention program office, chaplains are available to provide care for not just victims of sexual assault, but those who have been accused, and anyone else affected by a sexual assault in their community.
In January, the Navy Chaplain Corps will roll out a new training course that focuses on pastoral — that is, clergy-facilitated — care for SAPR cases, to hone chaplains’ existing counseling skills.
That knowledge, combined with the existing relationship forged between chaplains and the units they serve, makes chaplains an ideal resource for sailors, said Lt. Cmdr. David Thames, the deputy executive assistant to the Chief of Navy Chaplains.
Though they aren’t sexual assault response coordinators or uniformed victim advocates, chaplains are well-versed in both the legal processes and the emotional hardships involved.
“The first thing that we want to emphasize to our chaplains in the training is that, when a person presents with something like that, the initial response is to believe them,” Thames said. “The second issue is to reassure the person of the absolute confidentiality of their communication with the chaplain.”
Conversations with chaplains are covered by federal confidentiality laws, which means that they legally cannot share what they’ve heard without consent.
That includes legal privilege, Thames said. Chaplains cannot testify in a trial about what they’ve been told in confidence.
“Chaplains are not mandatory reporters under federal law, and particularly under the manual for courts-martial,” he said.
That confidentiality extends to anyone, including those accused of committing a sexual assault, or any other crime.
While chaplains make an effort to educate anyone who comes to them claiming to be the victim of sexual assault, they are not part of the reporting process.
Though a chaplain will provide information on medical care, mental health resources and the legal processes, Thames said they are careful to encourage without manipulating.
“As officers, we wear that shiny rank stuff on our collar, and in a rank-structured organization, the line between asking and telling can get a little blurry,” he said.
Chaplains can also be a resource in prevention. If an assault hasn’t been committed but a sailor is experiencing harassment or otherwise feels unsafe in his or her unit, chaplains can provide counsel on how to deal with the issue.
Chaplains, Thames said, are also able to bring the issue up with a commander. Names can be given, only with the confiding sailor’s consent, however. A chaplain, with consent, could also relay the concern without names, possibly triggering a stand-down.
Even if you aren’t the slightest bit spiritual, Thames said, there are still benefits to seeking out a chaplain.
“Their role may not be as a religious spokesperson, but maybe more as a companion traveler, who’s willing to sit and listen and share their own experiences,” he said.