This post originally appeared at Rock That Collar, a blog from The Rev Catherine Healy
Reading through hundreds of #metoo stories this week, I caught myself thinking that I was lucky.
Lucky” that I have never been sexually abused or raped. “Lucky” that my experiences of sexual harassment have been relatively minor. “Lucky” that I can tell stories about those experiences without traumatic flashbacks or the threat of harm.
If you are a clergy woman or femme reading this blog, you don’t need me to tell you that sexual harassment and assault are problems in the church. You probably got a fresh reminder of that last Sunday, when someone gave you a hug in the receiving line that lasted just a little too long.
And yet, I feel kind of like the Ancient Mariner: I have been working in the church for a decade now, so even if no one wants to hear them, I have my own set of stories to tell. I’ve picked a handful to share with you here, and included the details I always want to know when I hear these stories: what I did and whether it worked.
Note: Some identifying details in the stories below have been changed to “protect the innocent,” by which I mean “protect me from the guilty.”
The Powerful Guy
The situation: I was 21 and working in my very first post-college job — yes, a church job. And there was this (older, male) guy on a powerful board of the church who would always come say hello to me, every time he was at my workplace for a board meeting. He would do that thing where he stood a little too close, and he would take hold of my forearm, and hold onto it for a little too long. It’s been a decade and I don’t even remember this guy’s name. But I still remember how creepy it felt.
What I did: Nothing. I was afraid that if I told him to stop, or asked my boss for help, he would tell the whole board — and, because this guy knew everybody, God knows who else — that I was “bitchy” or “sensitive” or “high-maintenance.” Word travels fast in the church, and I had no idea what the career repercussions might be down the road. So I did my best to grin and bear it.
The result: I got real good at scheduling out-of-office appointments when I saw board meetings on the calendar. If I forgot to do that, I put up with the close-talking and forearm-gripping. I used up untold mental energy on avoiding and/or dealing with this guy, once a month, every time that board met, for my entire tenure at that job.
The Predatory Guy
The situation: I was at a clergy thing that featured a cocktail hour, which was unfortunate in itself because giving free drinks to two hundred clergy is never a good idea. I was chatting with a (young, female) friend of mine when an (older, male) priest shouldered his way into the conversation and started talking at me — only me — taking up all the airspace. My friend and I exchanged miserable glances, but we didn’t want to be rude.
The dinner bell sounded, and my friend and I said farewell to this creep and headed downstairs to the banquet hall. When we found a table and took our seats, I was startled to see this guy dropping into the seat on the other side of me. He had followed me to dinner.
“I thought I’d join you,” he said. “You seem harmless enough.”
Then he leered at me. “I’m not.”
What I did: I decided that if there was ever a time for rudeness, I had found it. Without another word, I turned my back and ignored him.
The result: He gave up and wandered off to a different seat before the food arrived. I never had to think about him again … until a more recent clergy event, when, mysteriously, I found him sitting at my table a second time.
The Immature Guy
The situation: Through youth ministry, I got to know an (older, male) guy who had somehow managed to get ordained as a deacon in my denomination. This surprised me, because this guy was … uh … not that smart. He seemed kind of childlike to me, so although I thought it was weird when he always wanted to greet me with a big grabby bear hug and a kiss on the neck, I figured it was because he didn’t understand socially appropriate physical boundaries, not because he was trying to be a creep.
What I did: I treated him like a damn child, and it seemed to sort of work. When he tried to hug and kiss me, I would push him away by the shoulders and say, “It is not appropriate for you to kiss me. You can greet me by shaking my hand.” He was always apologetic, but somehow, the scenario repeated itself every time we met.
One day, I mentioned his name to an (older, female) coworker at my church. She started shaking. She was a survivor of sexual abuse, and she had suffered the same invasions of physical space from this guy, but she reacted to them very differently. For her, getting grabbed and kissed by a strange man slammed down on a big red trigger button, and sometimes caused her full-blown panic attacks. She said that she had even broken down and explained all this to the guy, and that his behavior hadn’t changed. If anything, it had escalated. It was almost like her reaction of panic and fear made him more eager to invade her personal space, not less.
Huh. That didn’t seem very innocent or childlike after all. In fact, it seemed kind of sinister.
Together, we decided to call this guy’s priest, an (older, female) woman who was quite new to the region from out of state. The pastor didn’t stammer. She didn’t cry. In a flat voice, she told us that this man had made her life a living hell since her first day on the job — spreading rumors about her to the congregation, consistently attempting to undercut her authority, and telling her that nobody had wanted to hire her, but that the church had settled for her because they couldn’t afford to pay what a male pastor would be worth.
Why hadn’t she done anything about it?
Here’s why: In our polity, priests and pastors can’t fire deacons. Only the bishop can. Our (older, male) bishop at the time was no friend to women clergy, and was, for some reason, a great defender of this guy (guess who signed off on his ordination even after he failed his diaconal exams?). This guy’s miserable new pastor was new in town, needed the job, and didn’t want to rock the boat.
I was kinda hoping to convince this bishop to ordain me to the priesthood, so I didn’t really want to rock that boat either. But my lay coworker wasn’t afraid of the bishop. Once we had the full story on this guy, she wrote it all up and marched into the bishop’s office. The bishop made a few phone calls to rally the guy’s defenders, but it turned out he didn’t have very many defenders at all.
The result: In the end, the guy was permanently removed from parochial status, but not defrocked. He still gets to attend clergy conferences, wear a clerical collar, and go by “Reverend.” Good for him, I guess.
The Unstable Guy
The situation: In my early twenties, I attended a church with a large presence of homeless and marginally housed people. Most of them were cool. One (older, male) was scary.
I never knew quite what was up with him, but I did know that his behavior could be very erratic. He sometimes wandered into the middle of the service, shouting at no one in particular. Occasionally he would stand on a pew. None of that was too unusual in this church. More troubling, though, it was really hard for me to get him to leave me alone.
He always wanted to sit up close next to me, or “help” me carry things out to my car by grabbing them out of my arms. He was a whole lot bigger than me, and I had seen him yell at and occasionally threaten other members of the congregation, so I was — as mentioned — pretty scared.
What I did: I decided this was not the kind of situation I should try to handle alone. Instead, I asked my (older, male) priest for help. He was a proud feminist and a father of daughters. I figured he would be willing and able to help me handle it.
What I did not expect was for him to say in a patronizing tone, “Have you talked to him about it?”
NO, YOU ASSHOLE. I JUST TOLD YOU WHY I HAVEN’T TALKED TO HIM ABOUT IT. I AM SCARED OF HIM.
I aid something approximating that. My priest answered patiently, “Just talk to him. It’s not fair to complain about it if you haven’t talked to him first.”
The result: Did I mention I was too scared to talk to this guy about setting appropriate physical limits? I went to church a little less often and otherwise just lived with it until the guy was finally asked to leave the church. What triggered that, you ask? Well, he loudly threatened to kick the ass of the (older, male) senior warden/board president one morning during coffee hour, and the senior warden insisted that he not be allowed to return.
Good to know the priest was willing to listen to somebody.
The Very Affectionate Guy
The situation: Oh boy, this was way back in my first-ever church job, when I was still a college student! There was an (older, male) guy there who was a hugger. That’s what he would say, every time he swatted away the hand I had proffered for a handshake and instead went in for a long, intense hug: “I’m a hugger.”
When the holidays rolled around, I went to the staff holiday party, which included the entire church staff and a handful of volunteers who did staff-like things. This guy handled the payroll or something, so he was there. I arrived a little late, and it was clear that everyone had already been drinking for a while. Mr. Hugger Payroll Man strolled up to me and said, “Catherine! It’s so good to see you!” And then he gave me a long, intense hug.
But this time, he also grabbed my butt.
Right in front of all my coworkers.
At a party.
While his wife stared, curling her lip in disgust.
What I did: I took a big step back and said loudly, “WOW! I THINK THAT’S THE CLOSEST I’VE EVER BEEN TO A MAN!”
He turned bright red and jumped away from me. His wife snickered. Everyone around us giggled uncomfortably.
The result: That motherf____r never touched me again.
But wait, there’s more! The next week, I mentioned this encounter to the (wait for it — older, male) priest I was working for. He smiled ruefully and said, “Oh, yes. Mark, he’s a hugger.”
I was still in college. I was getting paid peanuts to run the church youth group for two hours a week. What did I have to lose?
“You’re right,” I said. “Mark sure is a hugger. Let me show you the hug I got from him on Friday night.”
I marched right up to my boss, wrapped my arms around him, and pressed my whole body up against his. I let my hands wander down his back and gave his butt a little squeeze.
He backed away from me, horrified.
“That Mark,” I said again. “He sure is a hugger. I just wanted to make sure you could experience one of his hugs too.”
The Pedophilic Guy
The situation: In that same first youth ministry gig, when I was living in Pennsylvania, I got to know another (older, male) lay youth pastor from a different church in my denomination. There were a few things about him that made me feel weird.
He preferred the company of children and young teenagers to that of adults. At youth events, he was always that one grown-up sitting at the kids’ table.
He volunteered with several different youth organizations, which any paid youth worker will tell you is strange. Even those of us who love kids enough to work with them for a living find them to be kind of a pain in the ass and want a break from them on our time off.
He sought out the children of isolated, overwhelmed single mothers. And I mean REALLY isolated. I remember one youth retreat in particular where I was assigned the task of organizing all the registration forms. I was surprised to see that several mothers from his church had listed him as their child’s sole emergency contact.
Then, one day, he started talking to me about the extraordinary attractiveness of some of the young teenage girls in his youth group. He mentioned that he had become “smitten” with a middle-school girl a few years before, but reassured me (and himself?) that these feelings were “normal” and “happened to everybody.”
That settled it. This guy was a pedophile out of central casting. Albeit not a very savvy one.
Imagine how you would feel if you had to deal with such a scenario now. Then, imagine how you would have felt back when you were nineteen.
What I did: I didn’t have a whole lot of power over this guy — I saw him only occasionally, and we didn’t work for the same church. What I could and did do was document every single interaction I had with him. I saved his emails. I printed screenshots of his Facebook profile. I happened to have a copy of his resume, and I called every employer he had listed. In each case, he had either been fired or left on terms where the boss was not sad to see him go. I asked all of these former employers whether I could share their concerns and use their names, and every one of them said yes.
Then, I assembled my packet of documents, went to my (older, male) boss, and said, “We have a problem.”
The result: I wound up having a meeting with my boss, my boss’s boss, and the priest and senior warden from the church where this guy worked. Just four fifty- or sixty-something men and teenage me.
The meeting — and this will shock you — did not go well.
I don’t remember much of what was said — something about why I was trying to ruin his career? — but I do remember the senior warden leaping out of his chair and shouting at me as he loomed over the couch where I sat. He was triple my size and triple my age. I knew, rationally, that he probably wasn’t going to hit me, but it sure felt like he might.
The other thing I remember about that day is that my boss and his boss sat there stone-faced, like they were watching the whole encounter through soundproof glass. They let this man raise his voice and insult me and physically intimidate me. And they just sat there and watched.
Everything else I’ve described in this post was more or less forgettable, but that is one I will never be able to forget.
That guy was eventually let go from his position, not because of my heroic efforts, but because a new (older, male) priest arrived at his church and instantly identified him as a risk to minors. I guess the senior warden didn’t push back against the decision too hard, because he still goes to that church. Maybe something about the new priest made the senior warden more inclined to take him seriously.
And the now-former youth pastor? As far as I’m aware, he still volunteers with kids.
The Next Guy
The situation: I don’t know yet. But I know there will be a next one. And a next one, and a next one, and another one after that.
What I’ll do: As I hope these stories have indicated, I’ll decide how to respond based on any number of factors: how much power I have in the situation, how I think the benefit of acting will stack up to the cost, how worried I am about my physical safety, whether I have a superior I think I can trust. This is a very detailed calculus that women perform in their heads all the time.
The result: Wish me luck.
Catherine Healy is an Episcopal priest who loves reading, writing, and riding her bike. She and her wife Heather are Chicago natives who spent several years living in the Pacific Northwest before taking a leap of faith and moving to Boston in 2012. She is a passionate follower of Jesus Christ, who is “blown away by the privilege and honor of serving His church.”