April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, a time to increase awareness about the causes and risk factors for sexual assault and empower individuals to take steps to prevent it in their communities.

“Sexual violence is a sexual act committed against someone without that person’s freely given consent,” said Sharon Trani, a nurse practitioner and a marriage and family therapist with Vermont Catholic Charities Inc., adding that consent cannot be granted under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

There are many types of sexual violence including rape, incest, childhood sexual abuse, date/acquaintance rape, intimate partner violence, sexual harassment and sex trafficking.

According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Sexual violence is common. More than one in four women and one in five men have experienced sexual violence involving physical contact during their lifetimes. One in three female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11 and 17 years old and one in eight reported that it occurred before age 10. Nearly one in four male rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11 and 17 years old and about one in four reported that it occurred before age 10. Nine percent of high school girls said they experienced sexual assault before graduation.

Catherine Ducasse was 19 when she was raped. “Through spiritual direction, prayers, adoration, retreats and the sacraments I have been able to persevere on my path of healing and wholeness,” said the parishioner of Christ the King-St. Anthony Parish in Burlington. “Every time I receive the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist, I remind myself that I am strengthened through Jesus Christ, that He is my strength, my courage, my light and my hope, that He and I are united in suffering, and through Him I will find inner peace and freedom from that horrific event.”

She is a victim advocate and associate director for H.O.P.E WORKS (Healing, Outreach, Prevention, Empowerment) serving Chittenden County.

“Advocacy entails listening, supporting, showing empathy, educating and empowering survivors of sexual violence and their loved ones,” she said. “It is to be present to survivors and their stories and to remind her/him that ‘I believe you,’ ‘It’s not your fault,’ ‘I’m sorry this happened to you” and “You are not alone.’”

Her faith strengthens her advocacy work in various ways. Before she returns a crisis phone call, she prays that the Holy Spirit guide her. She reminds herself that she is sharing God’s love in a dark moment of a person’s life and that she can be a vessel for His hope and light. “I have often asked the intercession of Our Lady of Guadalupe in dire situations, and I surrender the survivors to be wrapped in Mary’s mantle and be in Her comfort and care,” she said. “I believe Our Lady of Guadalupe is an advocate for victims of sexual violence and praying to her and our Lord Jesus definitely strengthens me to be the person I need to be.”

She also asks for the intercession of other saints like St. Maria Gortetti, St. Joan of Arc, St. John Paul II and St. Padre Pio. “Spiritual direction, prayer, retreats and daily Masses are all part of my self-care routine to help me face the vicarious trauma I encounter in my daily advocacy work,” Ducasse said.

According to Tran, everyone plays a role in preventing sexual violence and establishing norms of respect, safety, equality and helping others. “Empowering women to resist violence and protect themselves … is a positive and sensible part of sexual violence prevention, and there is a long history behind these kinds of approaches,” she said. “However, women-focused approaches used in isolation for prevention not only deflect responsibility from potential perpetrators but also represent only a partial solution. We can have a greater effect through combined efforts that also focus on potential perpetrators, bystanders and broader community-level influences.”

For more information, contact Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence at rainn.org/about-national-sexual-assault-telephone-hotline or call the Office on Women’s Health Helpline at 1-800-994-9662.

“If you or a loved one needs help after sexual violence or are in an abusive relationship know that you are not alone,” Ducasse said. “You can reach out to speak to an advocate and they can assist you in making a safety and a healing plan.”

Reach H.O.P.E WORKS at 802-863-1236 for victims of sexual violence or Steps to End Domestic Violence at 802-658-1996 for domestic violence. “You can reach out to a trusted family member, friend, counselor or speak to clergy,” she added.

There are also options for safety and accountability such as filling for protective orders, reporting to police and going to the hospital. “It is important that survivors feel empowered to make their own decision after a traumatic event or if they are in an abusive relationship,” she said. “Advocates can educate and provide information on different options, but it’s ultimately the person’s decision on how and when they are going to proceed.”

To reach out to Ducasse directly, email catherine@hopeworksvt.org.