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Dynamics of abuse in the church

Dynamics of abuse in the church

by Eric Bonetti


Last November, the Anglican Communion’s Safe Church Commission began work on draft procedures to implement the 2012 “Charter for the Safety of People Within Churches of the Anglican Communion.” The latter is intended as a, “framework for promoting the physical, emotional and spiritual welfare and safety of all people, especially children, young people and vulnerable adults within the churches of the Anglican Communion.” This is welcome news, for the language of the documents suggests that we are moving towards a more holistic understanding of what it means to be safe in churches, as well as the dynamics of abuse.


The problem we have faced for many years is that we made excellent progress in discouraging and responding to sexual misconduct, only to rest on our laurels. This left issues like relational, financial, spiritual and emotional abuse waiting in the wings, akin to evil specters lurking in the night just beyond the shadows of a campfire. Or, as one intake officer I know told someone who had brought serious Title IV charges against his parish priest, “Oh, you just mentioned sex. Now there’s a serious charge.”


Of course, all these forms of abuse share a common denominator, and that is misuse of power. In a hierarchical church such as ours, there are both real and perceived disparities of power between clergy and laity. Yet when allegations of abuse arise, there is an organizational tendency to treat laity as being the equal of clergy when it comes to power dynamics.


Consider the struggles the Diocese of Los Angeles has faced in healing from the +Bruno disciplinary proceedings. One of the common themes in the conflict was that members of the church of St. James the Great had behaved badly, and that this somehow absolved  +Bruno from liability, or somehow “balanced the books.” But Title IV only applies to clergy, and clergy are always responsible for maintaining boundaries. When those boundaries are violated, victims may react with pain and irrational behavior, up to and including suicide. This reflects badly on the relevant clergy, not the victims, yet the church is all too quick to seize on the behavior of the victims as an excuse to avoid dealing with clergy misconduct.


Nor is there a threshold at which the church is absolved of its obligation to work towards healing. Even when victims bring legal action against the church, they remain members unless they request otherwise, and are entitled to be treated with care, respect and concern. While the church may appropriately raise valid legal defenses in court, any action that suggests that complainants are not welcome or cared for only serves to exacerbate the situation and lessen the standing of the church in the eyes of onlookers. Indeed, it may be appropriate for diocesan officials to thanks persons who complain of possible abuse, for in doing so they demonstrate care and respect for the church. When people no longer care about possible abuse in the church, it means the church has become irrelevant to them. Indeed, the old adage from nonprofit management, which is that the best board members may be the most contrary, suggests that diocesan officials might consider asking complainants to share their reaction to the church’s response to allegations of abuse, for it is in these painful conversations that one gains perspective.


Speaking of perspective, the recent press release from the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies about sexual harassment is troubling. Seemingly suggesting that the Episcopal hierarchy now is examining the issue, it both pays scant attention to spiritual, emotional, relational and other non-sexual abuse, while conveniently overlooking the fact that this has been an issue since the very beginnings of the church. Victim advocates have been complaining of these issues for years, yet diocesan officials still appear reluctant to address these issues and remain painfully clueless when it comes to the dynamics of abuse. At the same time, as a denomination we appear to minimize and overlook the very real suffering that occurs in cases of non-sexual abuse.


To deal effectively with abuse, it is particularly important that victims can come forward in safety. In this author’s own experience with spiritual abuse by a member of the clergy, the diocese of Virginia not only refused to mediate the issue, saying it was not of “weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” it repeatedly turned a blind eye to repeated written complaints that the respondent clergy had launched a retaliatory campaign of shunning and harassment shortly after the complaint was dismissed. Subsequently, the bishop diocesan issued a letter stating that he supports the two clergy who engaged in retaliation.


Needless to say, following situations like this, those aware of the fact that diocesan officials will not protect complainants will face an additional, powerful incentive to avoid disclosure. Victims in these cases, already instinctively aware of the imbalance of power between clergy and laity and the tendency of diocesan officials to close ranks with fellow clergy, as well as the reflexive instinct of other parishioners to side with clergy, face daunting obstacles to disclosing potential misconduct. In other words, only the bravest or most foolish will come forward if it’s not safe to do so.


Another challenge when it comes to responding to abuse is that our theology in this space seemingly is weak. Jesus not only challenged wrongdoing and corruption, but there are times he appeared to really enjoy a good run-in with the Scribes, Pharisees and other religious leaders of the day. Nowhere do we hear of someone coming to Jesus and being told, “Sorry, not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Yet the average Episcopalian in the pew seems quite unlikely to stand up and challenge ethically questionable church leadership, and the baptismal promise to “respect the dignity of every human being,” all too often seems like a bunch of pretty but meaningless words.


We also conflate reconciliation with forgiveness, and with healing. There is no requirement that one be reconciled with one’s abuser. Instead, victims of abuse must do what they need to do, within the bounds of the law, to heal and recover. Sometimes, healing happens quickly. Sometimes, slowly. Sometimes, it happens in fits and starts. And sometimes it comes not at all. When church officials call for reconciliation, or express unhappiness that it has not occurred, they demonstrate that they neither understand the dynamics of abuse, nor their role in finding healing.


Healing occurs when victims are believed, taken seriously, treated with dignity and respect, assured that they are safe. There typically also must be restitution and repentance, for it is difficult to heal when one feels that the abuser has gotten off easy, or will readily engage in the same behavior in the future. In this vein, diocesan officials also should be careful in offering assurances that they will pray for the victim. Yes, prayer should be a given, but if it’s not accompanied by the factors mentioned above, it will be seem hollow and an easy out.


Similarly, forgiveness, also part of recovery from abuse, often is part of healing, but it occurs for the benefit of the victim, not the perpetrator. By finding forgiveness, victims find closure, which in turn allows them to move on to better, possibly healthier phases of life.


Reconciliation, if it is to happen at all, typically emerges from healing and forgiveness. If these have not occurred, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for reconciliation to occur.


The timing of these issues also may be an issue. Church officials faced with allegations of abuse may feel that, after a certain period of time, victims should be ready to move on, or to “give it a rest.” But victims of abuse often take years to fully find closure, and that process likely will be protracted if complaints of abuse are not handled well from the start. Insisting that victims move on before they are ready to do so only adds to the trauma, and often produces a contrary result, for victims who are pushed to adhere to a certain timeline may feel that all church officials really want is for the issue to go away.


Speaking of timing, it is vitally important when allegations of abuse arise that there be an immediate pastoral response. Not days later, not weeks later, not once the intake officer decides whether a complaint is valid. Silence is deadly to complainants, many of whom may already wonder if they have made the right choice in coming forward. And even if a complaint is dismissed, there needs to be careful attention given to providing care. Even just in coming forward, victims experience trauma and anxiety.


Disclosure and pastoral care for the congregation also are vital in cases of misconduct. Simply bouncing out a member of the clergy who has been found guilty of serious misconduct is not enough. The very fact that a member of the clergy has been accused of misconduct is painful, and diocesan officials who ignore this issue may find the congregation still suffering lasting harm years later. In short, healing often is a very deliberate, volitional process that takes extensive time, attention and resources. It doesn’t happen just because a church gets a new rector, no matter how good that new rector may be.


Looking forward, it is my hope that the church, perhaps through CPG and its model policies, will provide materials and training to ensure that church is a place that offers safety from all forms of abuse, whether spiritual, emotional, relational, financial, sexual or other. At the same time, there is a pressing need to expand training of church officials at all levels on how to prevent, recognize, respond to and explore issues of abuse. And there is a need to provide implementation guidelines and other support materials to ensure that Title IV is applied consistently, fairly, and with a view towards addressing all forms of abuse, not just “the biggies.”


In short, our response to sexual misconduct remains is much better than it was even 20 years ago, although there is still a long way to go. Our understanding of, and response to, other forms of misconduct, however, is downright shocking. As a denomination, The Episcopal Church has a long way to go before we live into our call to “respect the dignity of every human being.”


Eric is a lifelong Episcopalian who has stepped away from the church after his own experience with abuse. He lives in Northern Virginia and happily retired last year, now working just for fun. He enjoys writing, cycling, teaching kids’ cooking classes, and good food and wine.


image by Matt Chase, Dallas Observer

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Irene Lawrence

In the context of abuse, perhaps “hierarchy” is another name for “privilege.”

Ann Fontaine

Forgiveness – as least as the church talks about it — is highly overrated in healing. Rage, properly used can be more effective.

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