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Q&A: Sexual harassment and misconduct by United Methodist leaders

Foto: Mike DuBose, UMNS
Foto: Mike DuBose, UMNS

Becky Posey Williams, senior director of sexual ethics and advocacy, General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, The United Methodist Church
Aileen Jimenez, manager, Hispanic/Latino leader communications, United Methodist Communications
(Edited for length and clarity with final text approved by Ms. Williams)

Aileen Jimenez: Tell me about your role at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women (GCSRW)?

Becky Posey Williams: My role is 100% about helping the denomination have resources that are focused on the prevention of sexual misconduct and on our response when sexual misconduct happens. I also have the privilege of serving in an advocacy role for victims and survivors. I am that person who receives the calls on the 1-800-number that is located on every page of the United Methodist website, which GCSRW manages. In receiving those calls, I am in a position of hearing the person’s story, offering guidance as to  possible next steps, and if needed, being a voice for that person in their process with the leadership – specifically the bishop or the district superintendent.

AJ: How would you define sexual harassment? Can you define sexual misconduct? What’s the difference?

BPW: Sexual misconduct within ministerial relationships is about the abuse of power and the betrayal of a sacred trust. Sexual misconduct is a chargeable offense, and there is a continuum of behavior. It includes sexual abuse and sexual harassment, and the use of pornography.

Sexual Harassment: Sexual harassment is a form of misconduct of a sexual nature and is defined in ¶ 161J (Book of Discipline, 2016) in the Social Principles.  To clarify further, it is unwanted sexual or gender-directed behavior within a pastoral, employment, ministerial (including volunteers), mentor, or colleague relationship that is so severe or  pervasive that it alters the conditions of employment or volunteer work or unreasonably interferes with the employee or volunteer’s performance by creating a hostile environment that can include unwanted sexual jokes, repeated advances, touching, displays, or comments that insult, degrade, or sexually exploit anyone within the life of the Church.

AJ: You’ve talked about the continuum of behaviors when it comes to sexual misconduct. In your experience, what makes ministerial leadership feel believe it is ok to continue this behavior?

BPW: I’m struggling with your wording of “what makes people believe that it’s ok to do this,” and I shiver to think anybody thinks it’s ok to do it. There are people, such as ministerial leaders who have inherent power in their position and role. Some do not do a good job of taking care of themselves in the healthy ways. They choose – and I’m very clear about that word – they choose to misuse their power and violate boundaries and involve themselves in sexual behavior with people they serve for their own needs. They have forgotten that they have been given a sacred trust, and they have forgotten that they have a fiduciary responsibility to always act in the best interest of the people they serve.

AJ: Is there a difference between cultures when it comes to what sexual harassment is? Would you say that certain actions or comments that are unacceptable in some cultures might be acceptable in other cultures?

BPW: Absolutely! There does have to be cultural sensitivity and consideration in responding to allegations. Some cultures greet one another with a kiss on the cheek, so that a woman (from that culture) might not find that offensive, but another woman from another culture might. I think the main message in this is that cultural differences have to be considered when addressing different behaviors. However, if a person comes forward with an allegation, then that needs to be responded to very seriously and not discounted with “well, that’s acceptable in this culture” or “it’s always been done that way so we’re going to continue to do it that way.” I would caution us on getting stuck in a place where we say, “Well, kisses have always been acceptable in this culture.”

AJ: You have said, “At some level, people may not be aware of how offensive their actions are.” How do you support that claim?

BPW: I have said that I believe that a lot of the subtle discrimination, as well as the chargeable offense of sexual misconduct, comes from deeply rooted beliefs and attitudes about gender, power, race and authority. These beliefs and attitudes are deeply imbedded. They are part of a person’s make up. I think sometimes people aren’t even aware of how offensive a statement about one gender being superior to another is. Or how offensive is a statement made about one race being less than another or making a statement that [certain] rules don’t apply to me because I have power over. Are we willing, as people of faith, to help hold one another accountable to the highest level of being in relationship with one another? To me, that is all about being in a relationship with one another from a place that is saturated with integrity, deeply respecting and deeply honoring one another.

AJ: We usually hear of situations where clergy are charged with misconduct/harassment because of power dynamics. However, there are also situations where clergy – especially clergywomen – are harassed by parishioners in leadership roles. Share a little of how to reach out to these victims.

BPW: There are definitely clergy who are survivors – that would be the word I would use – of behaviors of sexual misconduct in The United Methodist Church. I think a statement acknowledging their courage to come forward could be helpful in a story like this. Just as with lay survivors – survivors who are laity -- the courage to come forward is to be commended. Clergy like laity do not have to tolerate sexual misconduct. Certainly COSROW is available as a resource when clergywomen feel discriminated against, harassed or abused. We are clear that retaliation will not be tolerated.

AJ: When clergy or other church leaders are found guilty of sexual misconduct, people often hear comments like “Oh, that doesn’t surprise me.” According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission comprehensive report for 2015, three-fourths of the incidents of sexual misconduct are not reported. Why do you think people are not reporting, and what would you say to encourage people to report it?

BPW: In my experience in the church, the reasons people don’t report are fear of not being believed, fear that their allegations will not be taken seriously or anything done,  fear of retaliation in some form and a feeling that they must have done something wrong for this to happen – that it must have been their fault. That feeds into “I don’t want to file a report because I don’t want anyone to get in trouble. I don’t want this to potentially ruin a person’s life.” We must continue to educate all about our complaint process and encourage reporting sexual misconduct.

AJ: All annual conferences are required to have behavioral ethics trainings that touch on sexual harassment and misconduct once every four years. You’ve been with GCOSROW for five years. Have you seen a change in the cases reported during this time? What are some contributing factors to that change?

BPW: As a result of the #MeToo movement, we definitely have had an increase in the calls that come into our office. The other thing I would say is that in the past 18 months, there seems to have been more calls that involved harassment by lay leadership.  We have developed a free curriculum, “The Way of Integrity” which encourages relating to one another in a way that deeply respects each other. Additionally, we have seen an increase in calls from adults who were sexually abused as children by leaders in the Church.

AJ: What would you like the overall church to understand about sexual harassment and misconduct by leaders?

BPW: When that boundary is violated, and clergy engage in sexualized behavior, they have shaken the foundation – certainly the spiritual foundation – for the other person. I use the term “spiritual violence” when I describe sexual misconduct in the church. When people say to me, “I cannot imagine the day I would ever walk into a church again,” this is the ultimate betrayal. I don’t know what else is going to have to be said for this to be a priority in the church.


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