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Virginia Beach, Virginia - More than 100 Navy chaplains and religious program specialists (RP) met for a professional development training course at Joint Expeditionary Base (JEB) Little Creek-Fort Story February 25-27.

The training, hosted by the Naval Chaplaincy School and Center, focused on pastoral care for sexual assault victims with a particular emphasis on confidentiality and the role chaplains play in the healing and recovery process.

"I appreciate the invaluable role of the chaplain for sexual assault prevention and response efforts," said Capt. Frank E. Hughlett, commander of JEB Little Creek-Fort Story stated in his welcome remarks to the group. "This training addresses real people and real problems, and I thank you for what you do to care for our people, our nation's treasure."

Rear Adm. Margaret G. Kibben, deputy chief of Navy chaplains and chaplain of the Marine Corps, reflected on the current war on sexual assault in the military in her opening remarks to the group.

"Sexual assault is an area into which we, as chaplains, must bring a divine presence. This is a time to prove ourselves and build trust with our Sailors, Marines, Coast Guardsmen and families, a time to demonstrate our ability to listen and walk with them in their suffering," Kibben said.

"When we do so, we can have a profound impact on their ability to heal and regain a sense of wholeness and hope," she added.

During the course, chaplains and RPs received refresher training on SECNAVINST 1730.9, Confidential Communications to Chaplains. The policy defines and protects the right of service members and families to complete confidentiality with a Navy chaplain.

According to the policy, chaplains are bound by an 'inviolable trust' and required to guard and protect what is disclosed to them in confidence.

The policy also states chaplains are not bound by mandatory reporting requirements in the DoD or DoN. The confidentiality belongs to the individual alone. They hold the key and decide whether or not the waive it.

While chaplains are responsible for educating service members on reporting options, they do not receive restricted or unrestricted reports. This allows victims of sexual assault complete confidentiality with a chaplain, whether they choose to file a report or not.

Dr. Kristen Leslie, a professor at Eden Theological Seminary, was a contracted subject matter expert for the training.

Throughout her training, Leslie emphasized the importance of standing with victims and acknowledging their suffering. "The role of the chaplain is not to adjudicate what happened, but to provide them a safe, confidential space to tell their story, without judgment. A safe place to heal," said Leslie.

"Chaplains help victims find the spiritual language to make meaning of their suffering," she added.

She also discussed the importance of empathy to break a victim's isolation.

"When they feel believed or heard, their grieving becomes less complicated and healing can come more readily, and chaplains are in the business of healing," she said.

A subject matter expert from Navy Medicine provided insight into the psychological impact of sexual trauma and helped explain the neurological responses behind fight, flight, or freeze.

When discussing the partnership between mental health professionals and chaplains in sexual assault response, Cmdr. Mary Neal Vieten, a board certified clinical psychologist, emphasized, "it's the relationship that heals, so don't underestimate your role as chaplains, as a healing tool."

Chaplains operate within the command with a degree of flexibility that mental health professionals do not enjoy. The fact they are embedded also allows them to provide care for victims in a distinct way, said Vieten.

A representative from the Navy Judge Advocate Corps discussed ways chaplains can best support victims as they navigate through the pressure points associated with the legal process.

"Chaplains are truly partners in the justice process. Very often we forget that there are two important goals in military justice: one is victim health and wholeness and the other is offender accountability," said Teresa Scalzo, deputy director for the office of the judge advocate general corps' trial counsel assistance program.

"If we are able to support a victim and help a victim heal, they are far more likely to want to cooperate in the process, to testify, and get through the stresses and trauma of the military justice system," Scalzo added.

At the close of the training, Cmdr. Charles Luff, command chaplain for Naval Air Station Whiting Field, shared that the training was one of the best professional development training courses he'd been to. "It was extremely practical to my ministry as it faces a current trend, and I applaud the Chaplain Corps for jumping in to provide training to address this critical issue," said Luff.

"This training taught me the importance of holding each other accountable in maintaining confidentiality, knowing the policy behind it, and my role as an RP to support our chaplains and anyone who comes to us in confidence," said Religious Program Specialist 2nd Class Michael Judge, currently assigned to USS Theodore Roosevelt.

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