by Eric Bonetti
The recent General Convention was noteworthy not just for the extensive discussions on revisions to the Book of Common Prayer and on marriage equality, but also for the numerous provisions that were enacted to address sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation, particularly of women and girls. Addressing the scourge of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct is both vital and long overdue, but that begs the questions: Did these measures go far enough? Did they reach the root causes of sexual abuse, harassment, and misconduct?
This author believes the answer is no.
Before we go further, I want to be very clear: I wholeheartedly endorse efforts to address sexual misconduct, particularly as they involve women and girls. Indeed, I know of few women in ministry — lay or ordained — who have not experienced mistreatment based on their gender, ranging from dismissive attitudes to sexual assault and battery, to egregious disparities in compensation and access to high-profile leadership opportunities. Further, it is well documented that gender-based disparities in compensation and opportunity are more egregious in The Episcopal Church, versus the private sector. Thus, I in no way intend to diminish what was accomplished at General Convention, nor its importance.
At the same time, at several points in the discussion, the debate seemingly focused heavily on sexual misconduct, to the possible detriment of issues involving gender-based harassment, exclusion and discrimination. That comes as no surprise, for it is openly sexual misconduct that is the most visible, shocking, and appalling. Yet equally appalling instances of gender-based harassment and discrimination are all too common, insidious, and difficult to address. My sense, too, is that for every instance of overt sexual harassment, there are dozens of small put-downs, instances of bullying, and situations in which church members, clergy, and employees are belittled, dismissed, or assigned roles based on unspoken assumptions about gender and identity.
For example, how often are Sunday children’s chapel or nursery workers women? I have encountered very few men in these roles, yet I think few would argue that men can be every bit as caring and nurturing as women. At the same time, I know of more than one otherwise progressive Episcopal parish that routinely turns aside applications for these positions when the name on the resume suggests that the candidate may be a male. Why is that?
Did gender-based harassment, versus sexual harassment, get enough attention? I don’t know the answer, but the true test will come as the national church and the dioceses implement these provisions. I note, too, with some dismay, that several of the provisions that would have incentivized dioceses to act by requiring them to adopt implementing provisions and report on progress were removed in the House of Bishops. This suggests that, behind the scenes, more than one bishop wanted to avoid having to be accountable over these issues.
The other risk with implementation is that, instead of treating the events of General Convention as a starting point, the church will treat them as an outcome. That would be unfortunate, and I believe I speak for many when I say my hope is that this will mark the start of a concerted effort to reform and clean up the church, with the goal of truly making it a safe place for all persons.
Of course, the devil often is in the details, and some worrisome issues came up during General Convention.
For example, a key component of the #metoo efforts was passage of anti-retaliation as a component of Title IV. Such a measure did pass, but it was not the originally proposed language of resolution D075. That contained a definition of retaliation that made clear the term was to be interpreted broadly, and that it applied to laity. The measure that did pass, D076, added protection for opposition to practices forbidden under Title IV and offered anonymous reporting. But by eliminating a definition, leaving open the question of whether retaliation is forbidden if a matter is found to be outside the purview of Title IV, and omitting specific reference to laity, there remains the risk that bishops who don’t want to be bothered will respond to claims of retaliation by saying, “Well, you didn’t lose your job, so how could there have been retaliation?” Thus, diocesan officials may fail to respond appropriately to the smear campaigns, innuendo, and subtle forms of exclusion that are the stock in trade of an accomplished bully and often function as the behind-the-scenes component of retaliation.
This underscores the heart of the problem, which is that sexual- and gender-based abuse and mistreatment are often just one manifestation of a larger problem, which is the willingness of persons in positions of real or perceived power to misuse that power in order to intimidate or control someone less powerful.
These issues, which often amount to spiritual, emotional, or relational abuse, typically are difficult to recognize and hard to address. As Robin Hammeal-Urban, Canon for Mission Integrity for the Diocese of Connecticut notes in her excellent book, “Wholeness After Betrayal,” such conduct spiritual may be difficult to distinguish from other congregational dynamics. As a a result, Title IV intake officers and adjudicatories may dismiss initial complaints, not realizing that reported incidents all too often are just the tip of the iceberg.
It is in this space that both the church and future General Conventions have much work that remains to be done. By committing to recognizing and promptly addressing abuses of power in the church, and creating a safe place for the disclosure of potential misconduct, even when these abuses may not be as immediately recognizable as sexual harassment or discrimination, the church may, over time, preempt the sense of dominance and control that leads some to exploit their role in the church. It is from this place of entitlement that sexual- and gender-based harassment, discrimination, bullying and mistreatment flow, as well as myriad other forms of social injustice and oppression, all of which are alive and well in many corners of the church.
This same power dynamic is also the same paradigm that may prevent bishops diocesan and other adjudicatories from addressing complaints in an effective manner. Bishops and other persons in power often surround themselves with loyalists and friends, thus creating a nearly impenetrable barrier to outside accountability. Thus, when a complaint or allegation surfaces, decision makers may all too quickly say, “Well, no one else has complained,” or, “Well, his standing committee/vestry support him,” or “in her thirty years of ministry, there are no previous complaints,” all the while forgetting that this often has zero probative value. And in so doing, church officials readily overlook one of the key lessons of #churchtoo and #metoo, which is that the deck is stacked against those who complain, even when multiple victims exist. Indeed, many of the biggest sexual abuse scandals to emerge from Hollywood involve criminal conduct spanning decades and multiple individuals, which is a testimony to the disparate power of these abusers, not to the lack of misconduct over the years.
So what next? My hope is that church officials will:
- Examine the full range of abuse in the church, including spiritual, emotional, and relational abuse, including inviting those who have experienced it to share their stories.
- Take the time when a Title IV complaint of any sort is filed to consider the heavy spiritual, emotional, and psychological burdens that come from sharing one’s experiences of abuse; most victims come forward acutely aware of the price they may pay for complaining, and thus do so with profound reluctance
- Understand that an effective pastoral response under Title IV is required by canon every time a complaint is made to a Title IV intake officer, and involves far more than bland assurances that you will pray for the complainant.
- Work towards finding solutions for bullying and other forms of spiritual and emotional abuse that work hand-in-hand behind the scenes with sexual-and gender-based harassment and discrimination to disempower women, girls and others.
- Expand on work done to date within The Episcopal Church to identify, address, and prevent bullying, including ensuring that bullying is not treated by adjudicatories as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” All abuse is important.
- Reach out to those who have been bullied, abused, or faced retaliation in the church for opposing unjust conduct and work towards healing, wholeness and health.
In short, the recent work to address the sexual harassment, abuse, and exploitation of women and girls in the church is an excellent start, but it is only a small part of a larger tapestry of abuse in which power and misconduct are intertwined. It is only as we unravel these complex issues that we will come to understand and fully address abuse in The Episcopal Church and other faith communities.