Sexual harassment and the Church

October 16th, 2017

Harvey Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes, Bill Cosby — every few months, a new sexual harassment scandal. And who can forget the now-infamous Access Hollywood tape featuring the so-called “locker room talk” by our current president, Donald Trump? Most troubling is how many of these accusations have been bubbling under the surface for years before the perpetrators suffered any consequences at all.

The diversity of the stories of people who have experienced sexual harassment or assault shows that this is not a partisan issue. Conservatives and liberals, rural and urban, religious and non-religious, sexual harassment and assault cross every boundary. It happens on college campuses, in the workplace, on the street, and, yes, in church. Wherever there are those wielding power over others, there is the potential for sexual harassment and abuse.

When we think of sexual abuse scandals and the church, many of us think of the extensive nature of those scandals in the Roman Catholic Church. The Netflix documentary series The Keepers portrays a Catholic culture in 1960s Baltimore where priests could do no wrong and were given utmost authority, which was unfortunately and tragically abused in several cases. Though most Protestant denominations don’t have the same kind of rigid hierarchy and institutionalism, power still functions in a way that protects abusers.

I can almost guarantee you that there is someone in your conference, your diocese, your presbytery whose behavior, like Harvey Weinstein’s, is an open secret. Or perhaps that person was quietly shuffled to another church, another geographic location after perpetrating their damage on a local congregation. The victims (usually women, but not always) were thought to be hysterical or overly dramatic about what happened. The authorities wanted to protect the life and career of the clergyperson at fault, maybe requiring some sort of therapy or oversight.

Those are the worst cases, but far too often, sexual harassment and abuse are subtler. The perpetrator laughs off an inappropriate comment as a joke. A victim convinces herself that inappropriate contact was unintentional. As a young clergywoman, I am cautious of those colleagues with whom I am not close who greet me with a hug that lingers a bit too long or a kiss on the cheek that lands too close to my mouth. There are the comments about what kind of body my vestments might be covering up.

The church must do better. The church must believe women when we talk about our experiences. Part of our struggle is reconciling what we know about someone who might be a good leader or a talented evangelist with allegations of sexual assault or harassment. Certainly no one is perfect, but we cannot continue to sacrifice the spiritual health and bodily integrity of women to salvage the careers and reputations of men.

First and foremost, this is not a problem for women to solve. We cannot make this go away by being more or less attractive, by wearing more modest or more revealing clothing, by making ourselves smaller or larger. This is on men, and the church can work to educate and form men to view women as fully human, not objects upon which they can exercise their power. In the church, often we are not good at respecting others’ personal space. A refusal to hug might be seen as an insult, regardless of whether that level of touch is desired. We can still be bound as a spiritual community while respecting what individuals are comfortable with in terms of touch.

I do not pretend this will be an easy issue to solve, either in the church or in our wider society. But if harassers and abusers see that there are consequences to their behavior, it would be a start. If we taught concepts like enthusiastic consent instead of perpetuating purity culture, it would be a start. If we acknowledged the ways that power functions and gets abused, it would be a start. We must commit to starting.

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