By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Episcopal Church is on track to become the first major Christian denomination to confront a history of sexual harassment in the church in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has triggered a torrent of allegations across industries and toppled powerful men from Harvey Weinstein to Charlie Rose.

But early efforts to bring painful stories to light and seek justice are already consumed in debate about what is needed and what will work.

Observers agree that establishing a system can help assure due process, rather than finger-pointing that leads to abrupt firings and unresolved questions. Yet they differ on what will be needed to ensure churchwide buy-in and fairness for victims and accused alike.

That General Convention would take up the emotionally charged subject of sexual harassment this summer in Austin became a given on Feb. 28. That was when the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, announced the appointment of a 47-member special committee to propose legislation on sexual harassment and exploitation. One week later, the House of Bishops announced a July 4 forum at which victims of sexual harassment and violence in the church can tell their stories as General Convention begins.

“We know the church has fallen short of our responsibility to listen and respond,” the bishops said in a statement. “In this time of heightened awareness, it is with greater intention that we now invite the church to a deeper examination of what God intends for our relationships.”

In what ways has the church fallen short? If anonymous stories are any indication, sexual harassment has been an all too common experience for women in the priesthood. A new Litany of Penance for Ash Wednesday, compiled by conveners of two sexual harassment subcommittees, delivers a sampling of what women say they have faced:

  • “The rector I worked for called me into his office, and when I opened the door, he was standing there with his pants down. When I shared this with a male colleague, he said, ‘Oh, that’s just the way he is.’”
  • “A member said to me, ‘How am I supposed to concentrate on the Bible when there are breasts in the pulpit?’”
  • “When I shared explicit acts of sexual harassment I’d endured at the church where I served, the bishop told me, ‘Well, good luck getting another job if you make a big deal out of this.’”

“Any woman who wears a collar has these stories, seething just underneath the skin,” write the litany’s authors, the Rev. Laurie Brock and the Rev. Megan Castellan, in a postscript. “For most of us, we have so many they blur together into a giant mass of discomfort and scarcely-remembered sweeties, honeys, and forced grins at comments about our breasts.”

The committee will explore how such personal accounts might come to light and how perpetrators might be held accountable. One of five subcommittees will craft a truth-and-reconciliation process to address experiences with sexual harassment in the church. Another will examine potential changes to the Title IV disciplinary process.

But even before the committee’s work begins, its lack of gender diversity — all 47 members are women — is raising eyebrows and prompting concerns. Jennings said people have been asking why the committee has no men.

“There are no men in the church who have demonstrated significant public leadership on these issues,” Jennings said in a statement via email, sent by a public relations agency after she declined to be interviewed. “And of the many people who volunteered to serve on this committee, none were men.”

When asked whether any men were invited to serve on the committee, Jennings declined to respond. She said the appointed women bring relevant expertise to their work, adding that men will have ample opportunity to weigh in after legislative proposals have reached General Convention.

Some applaud the committee’s women-only composition.

“It is long past time that we privilege and amplify the voices of the women that have been the targets of systemic sexism and misogyny that have resulted in harassment and exploitation in the church,” said the Rev. Susan Russell, senior associate for communications at All Saints Church in Pasadena, California. “Men have been abused and exploited, too, absolutely. But what we’re talking about in this particular context at this particular moment is those who have been targeted as a result of systemic sexism and misogyny. And those are women.”

Others say the committee would have benefited from more perspectives on an issue that involves both women and men.

“I really think there was an opportunity that’s been missed” by leaving men off the committee, said Doug Billings, a member of Holy Cross Faith Memorial Church in Pawleys Island, South Carolina. “If a bunch of men are in a room talking with each other, you’re going to have a different perspective than if a bunch of women are in a room talking together. But if you get the two together and interacting, maybe we learn something.”

Outside observers said the decision to exclude men suggests experiences of sexual harassment in the church are still very raw. If sexual harassment in the church had been discussed more openly to date, then the issue might have garnered more advocacy among men, said Ron Simkins, director of the Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Creighton University.

“There seems to be no male buy-in to this process,” Simkins said. Buy-in will be crucial, he said, especially in the wake of a #MeToo movement in which “an accusation is enough to damn a person [and] suddenly their professional career is at a standstill.”

He wondered if a power play might be in the works to ensure the committee faces no resistance at General Convention.

“Maybe this is the point: by having an all-female committee that brings these things forth to the larger bodies, are we stacking the deck?” Simkins said. Deputies and bishops, he said, might think: I dare not vote against this because I’ll come across as a heel, a chauvinist, or a sexist.

Even if the committee’s resolutions do pass both houses, they will not be widely implemented because the process is not inclusive from the beginning, said Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center, a national nonprofit law firm based in Boston.

“That’s the issue with an all-female committee — it doesn’t work,” she said. “If you have a culture of sexual harassment against women and you have only women creating the policies and protocols, what man is going to think the policies and protocols are equal and fair? They’re not because the men are going to think they’re on a witch hunt.”

Having men join the process at General Convention is too late, she said, because by then the committee’s credibility has already been compromised.

“The first step of the process needs to have the most buy-in, the most credibility, because it’s the root,” Bruno said. “If you don’t have it at the first step, then it’s really hard to say you’re going to be able to implement it down the road.”

Unlawful sexual harassment refers to behavior that targets another person on the basis of the person’s sex. It can be sexual in nature, such as making unwanted sexual advances or requesting sexual favors, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. But it does not’ have to be sexual. For instance, when a hostile environment is created through offensive comments about women in general, that too constitutes unlawful harassment, according to the EEOC. The harasser can be a supervisor, colleague, or a non-employed person, such as a customer or parishioner.

How much sexual harassment has occurred in various Episcopal Church settings is unknown because incidents are seldom addressed publicly.

Misconduct of all sorts can be discovered, adjudicated, and punished through processes that run under the public radar. Likewise, when misconduct does go public, its nature can be withheld, leaving observers to wonder if the misbehavior was financial, sexual, or something else — as was the case in 2016 when, after a four-month misconduct investigation, two senior administrators at the Episcopal Church Center were fired for reasons that were never disclosed.

Thus, clarifying and classifying misconduct within the church is no easy task. The disciplinary processes, privacy of victims, legal injunctions, demands for justice, and the desire to prevent future victimization can all come into conflict when clergy and lay staff have failed to live up to the church’s standards. Under these conditions, discipline is quietly doled out for reasons unknown to many.

How public should accusations of sexual harassment be? By proposing legislation, the new committee aims to bring sexual harassment out of the church shadows and into the light, where it can be confronted. But questions abound regarding how best to structure a process that can lead to truth-telling, repentance, new safeguards, and reconciliation.

Some say alleged perpetrators must be named publicly, just as dozens already have been as a result of the #MeToo movement. It is necessary to call them out, even before an investigation has begun, Bruno said. Informing potential future victims may help prevent further victimization.

She said a fair process would involve an independent adjudicator, such as an attorney trained in evaluating evidence, assessing the merits of individual claims. If harassment charges do not pass muster, then exoneration would be publicized to clear the accused’s name.

A restorative justice process that aims to mediate agreements and reconciliation between parties will not suffice, in Bruno’s view, because power imbalances remain and parties are never truly satisfied with the results.

“I would caution against these informal processes where people think they’re going to solve everything,” Bruno said. “There are a lot of people out there who advocate for restorative justice. I just have never seen it work.”

When alleged behaviors involve lawbreaking and violence, the church should report such crimes to authorities and await adjudication in secular courts, Simkins said. In cases of sexual harassment, he said, public confession will be a necessary part of true repentance.

“I can see a person saying, I’m willing to confess to my bishop or even to a body of bishops, but I don’t want my parish to know,’” Simkins said. “But secrecy just breeds further abuse.”

Others, however, believe it’s often better for the church not to go public with accusations and names of the accused.

“Libel is definitely a big issue, particularly if you take an issue that could have been handled discreetly and make it a public event,” said Myron Steeves, an attorney and founder of the Church Law Center of California, a law firm that represents churches.

Steeves suggested parishes need processes whereby allegations can be heard discreetly and addressed promptly. These could include designating one person to receive complaints and establishing protocol for candid conversations with the accused. Rectors could summon staff, encouraging them with the accused privately and identify past incidents or patterns.

Parish leaders should communicate to their flocks that allegations will be taken seriously, Steeves said. But that does not mean a church has to invite publicity for scandals.

“To meet with a staff member and say, In light of what you have acknowledged, you ought to move on, is far superior to having someone from the congregation draw up the light and force a 24-hour firing,” Steeves said.

For its part, the House of Deputies’ special committee has not yet discussed how a truth-and-reconciliation process might work. Brock and others on the committee declined to comment. Castellan, convener of the Subcommittee on Title IV and Training, did not respond to request for comment.

Observers agree the church is wise to be proactive, design processes, and handle past events in an orderly manner, rather than wait and react to what could become a slew of public accusations. Having a system, they say, can increase the likelihood of due process and fair treatment.

But the particulars could have far-reaching effects on whether victims feel vindicated or once again ignored; whether the accused are publicly shamed, fired, or allowed to carry on; and whether acts of sexual harassment remain church secrets or become known to the world.

“Churches need to make sure that they are consistent with the current values of realizing there is a serious problem here,” Steeves said. “And we need to be prepared for it.”

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