Hearing Addresses Sexual Abuse by Laity

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By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The Episcopal Church needs to update its means of holding offenders accountable for sexual misconduct, including situations involving parishioners.

That theme emerged July 5 during a hearing convened by General Convention’s Joint Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV. Too often, speakers said, laypeople not employed by the church are involved in sexual misconduct, but no mechanism exists to hold them accountable.

Examples came from Trinity Cathedral in Sacramento, where the Very Rev. Brian Baker had served as dean until a month ago. Five women served as priests on the cathedral’s staff, he told the committee. Their accounts of sexual harassment and abuse by laymen was “profoundly eye-opening,” he said. During his tenure, these priests experienced unwanted physical touch and persistent sexual advances.

“We had to learn to call the police, file police reports, ask people to not come to church,”  Dean Baker said.

“To ask women to work in the church and then subject them to this hostile work environment with no resources and no conversation around it – that’s just not okay,” Baker said. “I’m embarrassed that the church is being led by the culture in the #MeToo movement.”

The committee discussed Resolution D016, aimed at creating a “Task Force for Women, Truth, and Reconciliation for the purpose of helping the Church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms.”

The proposal calls for audits exploring what’s needed in the Episcopal Church and what other denominations have done. It would also impanel a task force, conduct a survey, and possibly establish an office that would be both embedded in the national church structure and empowered to function semi-autonomously.

“We find ourselves in the midst of a movement that has already begun with our other mainline denomination partners,” said Julia Angela Harris, who proposed the resolution. She noted that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America took a similar path in 2009.

“This is not uncharted territory,” she said.

Stories of unchecked sexual misconduct continued to emerge during the hearing, much as they had the night before at a listening session convened by the House of Bishops.

“The way to be reconciled is the path of forgiveness, but for far too long the burden for that has been placed on the victim,” said the Rev. Cindy Taylor. She said she had been abused and harassed as a South Carolina priest in the 1990s. Yet when she reported incidents, she was told to spend time alone in a room with her abuser and work out the reconciliation.

That occurred before Title IV reform, she said in response to a committee member’s question. But she added that she would expect the same direction today if the abuse were to unfold in that diocese.

Members of the committee said they would consider broadening language in the resolution to encompass not just sexual harassment, which has a narrow legal definition for employment, but also sexual misconduct.


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