By Eric Bonetti
As sexual abuse scandals roil the Catholic, Southern Baptist and other churches, including the Church of England, one truth is becoming increasingly clear, which is that sexual abuse is endemic in society as a whole. No denomination, church, or organization can safely conclude that it has effectively addressed sexual abuse. Nor is any church immune from the effects of sexual abuse, for the prevalence of sexual abuse means that victims exist at every level, and in every location, within churches and denominations. Thus, none of us can breathe a sigh of relief and conclude that we are exempt from the need to respond to the scourge of sexual abuse. Indeed, my belief is that churches are particularly called to be safe places in which people can heal and recover.
Before we go further, I’d like to share something I have shared with very few people: As a child, I was sexually abused by a member of the Episcopal clergy. This is something even my parents don’t know, and it is both difficult and painful for me to write about this.
The details don’t much matter, and the person involved is no one that my family or friends would suspect. Indeed, that person has been dead for many years, and the case is well outside the relevant statute of limitations. But my hope is that I can offer some insights that may be helpful to others. Most importantly, I’d like to encourage you to make your church, diocese, or faith community a trustworthy place—somewhere that proactively works to prevent abuse and responds with compassion and love if it does occur.
So, what is abuse, and how do we recognize it?
In a nutshell, abuse of every sort — physical, verbal, sexual, emotional, financial, relational, spiritual — is about a misuse of power, in which a person (in the case of churches often a clergy person or lay leader) with real or perceived power over someone with less power, uses that power to meet his or her own needs. As such, abuse occurs along a continuum, ranging from petty power plays and slights, to verbal abuse, to sexual and physical abuse, and worse. And while we tend to focus on sexual abuse, no one type of abuse is worse or more harmful than others. Indeed, studies have shown that spiritual and emotional abuse can be every bit as damaging as sexual abuse, particularly if they occur over a period of time, or involve victims who may, for one reason or another, already be vulnerable.
Recognizing abuse often involves answering the question, “Whose needs are being met here?” If the answer is the needs of the person in the position of power, there’s a high likelihood that the conduct is abusive.
Of course, this can be tricky. Many clergy persons would say that they get satisfaction from serving their church and its members. This is normal and healthy. But when obtaining this satification becomes a priority, a line has been crossed.
Similarly, spiritual abuse, or the misuse of faith in order to bully or abuse someone, can be tough to recognize. For example, a priest who yells at a parishioner on a single occasion may have behaved badly, but this conduct, taken alone, doesn’t constitute abuse. If, however, this happens repeatedly, or the priest routinely manipulates or bullies, then the behavior certainly is abusive.
The old saw about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure is very true when it comes to sexual abuse. While complying with diocesan or parish guidelines may seem onerous, the burden pales compared to the lifetime of suffering that often arises when sexual misconduct does occur. Nor is the harm confined to the direct victim of abuse; congregations in which abuse has occurred may experience trauma for years to come.
So besides complying with diocesan sexual misconduct training and prevention requirements, what can a church or diocese do to prevent abuse?
From my perspective, the most important thing is to actively promote and develop a culture of safety. This means:
- Recognizing and responding to the continuum of abuse. If someone in a position of power is, for example, permitted to engage in verbal bullying, the door is being held open to other forms of abuse. Abuse rarely happens in a vacuum; abusive personalities tend to be willing to engage in a wide variety of misconduct, and may feel empowered when their conduct is overlooked or minimized by others. Keep in mind, too, that bullying is illegal in most public schools. Why, then, is it all too often regarded as acceptable in churches?
- Making the baptismal covenant part of every church decision and behavior by asking the question, “How does this fit with the baptismal covenant? Does it foster respect for the dignity of every human being?”
- Encouraging open communication. Abuse, by definition, occurs behind the scenes, so making it easy and acceptable for people to share information in a safe environment is a powerful weapon against abuse, even when we don’t agree.
- Being wary of secrets. All churches have matters that are confidential. This is appropriate and necessary. But churches should have few if any secrets. Children, especially, should be taught to be careful when they are told that a certain behavior is secret, or when something is supposed to be kept secret from parents or guardians.
- Setting an example of transparency. If your vestry or executive committee doesn’t see details of budgets, salaries, and other financial and governance matters, you’re not only opening yourself to trouble, you’re setting a bad example.
- Letting people know that if they see something, they should say something. All members of your faith community should know whom to contact if something makes them uncomfortable, even if they’re not sure that actual misconduct has occurred or can’t quite put their finger on what it is that is making them uneasy. Gut instinct can be surprisingly reliable. Make sure, too, that all involved know that retaliation won’t be tolerated.
- Developing and enforcing local policies that address abuse of every sort and provide a mechanism to do so. Saying abuse of any sort will not be tolerated is a start, but if people don’t know how to register a complaint, or don’t have reason to think that concerns will be taken seriously, such policies are irrelevant. Or, as the recent Houston Chronicle article on abuse in Southern Baptist churches noted, church officials far too often brush off warnings, sometimes going for years before taking action. Don’t fall into that trap.
- Being suspicious of environments involving a charismatic leader in which criticizing the leader would be seen as betrayal. Such situations are ripe for abuse. Similarly, if your priest or bishop is someone who seems like the last person who’d ever engage in abuse, recognize the danger inherent in these perceptions. If nothing else, the most accomplished abusers are often the most interpersonally adept.
- Understanding that there’s no safety in numbers when it comes to children. In one case in the Catholic diocese of Joliet Illinois, students at the relevant school not only knew about the abuse, but even cautioned each other not to be the last one out of the locker room lest they be groped. Despite this, the priest in question abused children for many years.
- Recognizing that, whether you realize it or not, chances are your church has one or more members who have been sexually abused. While conflict is normal and, handled appropriately, healthy; the bullying, gossip and other negative conduct that sometimes accompanies conflict can be highly traumatic for someone who may have spent a lifetime struggling to deal with abuse.
- Knowing that someone may be part of a vulnerable population without it being obvious. For instance, a verbally abused spouse may be more susceptible to sexual harassment due to issues with self-esteem. In my experience, abusers can be remarkably adept at sniffing out the weaknesses of others and using those weaknesses to their advantage.
- Understanding that abusers can be right under your nose. In my case, a member of my extended family was abusing others’ children in his own home, and no one, including his wife, had any inking that this was happening until he tripped up and was arrested in a police sting operation.
Responding to Abuse
- Believe victims. Every bit of evidence shows that the vast majority of complaints are legitimate. So, resist the urge to offer a knee-jerk response in defense of the abuser. If nothing else, victims instinctively recognize that they will be disbelieved, and will pay the price if they complain about clergy or others in positions of power. Coming forward takes tremendous courage.
- Make sure victims understand that they are not responsible for what happened to them.
- Maintain confidentiality to the extent possible, but don’t promise confidentiality if you are a mandatory reporter or otherwise cannot honor this commitment.
- If the allegations involve a child, an elderly person, or a person at risk, you must report the allegations to the appropriate authorities. When in doubt, make the report.
- Don’t urge the victim to keep silent; victims may need to discuss their experiences. At the same time, make sure victims understand the potential implications if they go public. The family system underlying most parishes all but guarantees that the victim will experience rejection if they are seen to criticize a beloved member of the clergy.
- Don’t make excuses. Far too many cases of abuse have been brushed off with glib assertions like, “Well, you may think that’s what happened, but I can assure you he would do no such thing.” Similarly, many situations involving abuse have gotten legs when parishioners or church officials have brushed off warning signs with, “Don’t take it seriously. Next week it will be someone else’s turn.” Abuse is abuse.
- Don’t assume someone else will respond to allegations. It many cases of abuse, multiple complaints are made before action is taken. In one prominent situation in Virginia, seven complaints were lodged over a period of years before a denominational official finally took action. If you receive a complaint, follow-up, pulling in bishops or outside legal authorities if needed.
- Know that victims of abuse may not always behave in ways we consider rational, especially when power dynamics are at play. Having felt powerless in the face of abuse, survivors may overreact in such cases, or respond in ways we might in other settings consider unethical.
- Be wary of wading in with amateur advice. “Just move on,” or “it’s time to get over it,” can be profoundly traumatic to survivors. Similarly, be very careful about advocating forgiveness. Forgiveness, if it happens at all, occurs at times and in ways that are difficult to predict, and it’s not our place to force the issue.
- Recognize that, if abuse has occurred in a church setting, victims may already be taking heart in hand to return to church. Your kindness, love, and willingness to provide a safe space make a far bigger difference than you realize.
Will we ever completely eliminate abuse? Of course not. But there is much that all dioceses, churches, and other Episcopal entities can do to reduce its likelihood and to respond more effectively when it does occur. In the meantime, let us recognize that no faith tradition or denomination is immune from abuse.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor
image by Matt Chase, Dallas Observer