“Shhh…Let’s Not Talk About That”

It was October 5, 2017, when a New York [1] Times article was published that gave voice to years of rumors that sexual abuse and assault were prominent among Hollywood’s circle of A-list stars.

The news article exposed what had been hidden to many, yet painfully known and experienced by others; the reality that sexual abuse and harassment affects almost everyone. Data provided by the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN)[2], the largest anti-sexual violence organization in the United States indicates that:

  • Every 92 seconds, another American is sexually assaulted.
  • 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted).
  • About 3% of American men, or 1 in 33, have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.

Following The New York Times article was an outpouring of stories by countless women and men from all over the country of sexual abuse and assault that occurred in their places of employment, at school, in public spaces and unfortunately, in their places of worship.  Yet, we often don’t hear the voices of those who have become victims of such abuse within our communities and places of worship.

Tarana Burke coined the phrase, “MeToo” in 2006, in an effort to shed light on a growing problem of sexual abuse and sexual assault within American society.  The phrase took on greater meaning in 2017 when every day Americans were forced to engage in conversations about the intersections of gender and power, therein becoming the #MeToo Movement.  Americans were recounting their experiences of sexual abuse, assault, harassment, and in some cases, outright sexism. 

Research conducted in 2018 by the University of California San Diego’s Center on Gender Equity and Health[3] found that in a national representative sample, 81% of women and 43% of men said they experienced sexual harassment or assault at least one time in their lives.  This study also found that despite the improved awareness of sexual harassment and abuse, 18% of women and 16% of men reported recent sexual harassment or assault during the previous six months.  This indicates there has been little or no change in the rate of incidences of these abuses. 

The #MeToo Movement changed the complexion of our country forever.  The tangible casualties of persons ousted from their positions of power affected nearly every level of the public space from CEOs, politicians, clergy, and disgraced public figures.  Though persons may now be more willing to come forward with allegations of abuse, the rates of incidence have not declined.  The #MeToo Movement is probably most directly the source of heightened awareness and reporting.  Despite this, one place we try to avoid these conversations is within the church. 

A recent 2018 study[4] was conducted in The United Methodist Church by Rev. Dr. Karen McClintock to explore the procedures, policies and effective responses when a district superintendent receives an allegation of sexual abuse and harassment.  The emphasis was to identify problems district superintendents and bishops face when allegations are raised, with an effort to find ways to correct any problems and provide justice and healing for victims, clergy and congregations.  The survey that was sent to all 401 district superintendents (DSs) in the United States to better explore their procedures, processes, and policies as it relates to their receipt of allegations for sexual harassment and abuse.  Though the total number of responses of the DSs was not at 100%, an adequate number did respond and provide feedback that is underscored by this article.

The initial design of this research was to determine what impediments existed with the disclosure of harassment and sexual abuse in the church.  Unfortunately, the results of the survey revealed systemic problems which in some cases increased the negative outcomes for individuals and congregations when harassment and abuse occurred.  Rather than find the reporting of abuse to be an effective way to address problems, the reporting created negative outcomes for those involved.  This was largely due to a lack of adequate training, inconsistent policies and procedures, failure to consult with mental health professionals for the DS, clergy and/or congregation to address trauma, and poor documentation of incidents.  There was also an overall lack of transparency with regard to information on all sides, including the DS, the congregation, the bishop and cabinet as well.  The multiple layers of poor administration around these issues results in far too little effectiveness to address this type of problem.

Proper training is vital to ensure everyone involved in the clergy appointment process is aware of the resources needed to respond appropriately to an allegation of sexual abuse or harassment.  It also helps to clarify the differences between acceptable and unacceptable behavior of clergy and laity.  Many clergy, who are now serving as DSs reported having little to no training on this subject, despite often having the responsibility to serve as first responders.  Training gives the DS or clergy member the capacity to be competent in their roles as well as help them respond appropriately when someone discloses sexual assault, abuse or harassment.  A well trained DS or clergy person can provide a safe and supportive space for survivors which will aid them in their ability to seek appropriate counseling services, and if needed, medical attention.  The failure of the DS or clergy to respond effectively can lead to a life-long process of injury, pain, and hurt for everyone involved, including the congregation.

The second area of concern is regarding policies for handling complaints of sexual abuse, harassment or violence.  Uniform policies across conferences and/or jurisdictions will help to ensure victims are being afforded the same level of care and consideration regardless of where the alleged incident occurred.  Clearly, having robust policies across the church is difficult to implement in every context.  However, there can be consistency with regard to procedures that can ensure every concern is appropriately considered. 

McClintock’s research found that some DSs reported having no idea if a congregation has a policy to address sexual abuse or harassment because they have not inquired of the church to review it.  All congregations are required to have Safe Sanctuary policies but often fall short on having policies and/or procedures for handling complaints of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately, many persons within congregations do not realize they can report complaints to their DS or cabinet members.  Others may choose not to make their complaints due to fear of retribution by the accused.  Consistent policies and/or procedures for handling these matters will ensure everyone within a conference or jurisdiction is aware of how to report complaints or how to effectively respond to one. 

The research also showed that oftentimes the DS or bishop’s cabinet took efforts to swiftly close a complaint which may impede a thorough review of the matter.  There is no conclusive data to indicate why this occurred.  However, one may consider the lack of preparedness of the clergy and others involved, along with fear of disruption within a congregation may have an impact on the desire to see complaints closed quickly.  Finding a balance between all the involved parties is critical to ensuring the incident is handled with confidentiality and care. 

Our goal when addressing concerns of misconduct of a sexual nature should be to ensure that everyone who worships and attends our services and programs, is able to do so in a place that is respectful and safe.  Galatians 3:26-39 states, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.”  We are all created in the image of God, and therefore must be treated with equity, respect, and hospitality.  Let us support equity of all persons in our congregations regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or defining attributes.  Let us work to ensure our ministry settings are healthy, wholesome spaces that are free from any form of sexual misconduct and encourages unity within the body of Christ. 

[1]Jodie Kantor and Megan Twohey, The New York Times, October, 5, 2017
[2] Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. https://www.rainn.org/statistics/scope-problem
[3]UCSD Center on Gender Equity and Health
[4]K. McClintock Research with Louisville Institute’s Pastoral Study Project 2018