The Common Good

'Here is the Steeple:' Church Leaders Take on Sexual Violence Within Their Walls

A movement of lay advocates speaking out against sexual violence is gaining steam in the faith communities. But are similar efforts happening inside church doors?

 'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com
'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

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When it comes to leading denominational conversations on sexual violence, clergy across traditions express twin reactions: encouragement over the protocols already in place and the efforts of fellow advocates; and frustration with a culture of silence around sexual violence in the church. Despite strikingly different experiences across denominations — and church by church — the clergy, church staff, and seminarians who spoke with Sojourners are in agreement that addressing this issue in one’s own house is complicated at every level.

First, the good news: Several major Protestant denominations, across progressive and fundamentalist strains, subscribe to a practice of what the United Methodist Church calls “safe sanctuary” — a commitment to ensure their church buildings and leadership are free from sexual predators. These policies generally include running background checks on any volunteers working with children and establishing protocols (many developed by Marie Fortune and the Faith Trust Institute) for interpersonal interaction at the church. 

These denominational policies are the first line of defense against abuse, particularly of children, in houses of worship. So what else, if anything, beyond this basic groundwork is needed from leadership?

This is where consensus breaks down, and in speaking with clergy and seminarians across denominations and traditions, various barriers and fear patterns were revealed. The common thread through their insights is an underlying inability on the part of the church to actively share stories that may shed broad light on this issue.

The result: a loss of potential by the American church to be a leading and vibrant institution of radical vulnerability and transformative healing.

Risk Management vs. Holistic Healing

The Catholic Church has suffered high-profile sexual abuse scandals more than any other denomination in recent years. And their leading response, according to groups like Catholic Whistleblowers, has largely been an attitude of risk management.

“[Abuses] are treated not as a cataclysmic event, but an indiscretion,” said Sister Sally Butler, a Dominican sister and member of the Catholic Whistleblowers. “Their main concern is that it is contained.”

This trend is by no means exclusive to the Catholic Church. Indeed, according to Chilton Knudsen, Assistant Bishop for New York's Episcopal Diocese, faith communities became aware of the issue about 25 years ago, “primarily through the legal system and this idea of lay people feeling empowered with legal authority."

Though a hugely positive step for the church in its initial iteration, Butler noted the repercussions that prioritizing legal concerns has had within the church itself — for example, reinforcing a reluctance among church staff to speak up on abuse.

“Very often, women [working in social ministry] know about abuse, but are dependent on their jobs. If those were protected, people could come forward,” Butler said.

In reality, this issue is deeply personal for many in the community — nearly every clergy member interviewed was a friend to, relative of, or themselves a survivor. And taking the conversation beyond risk management often requires a community-level investment.

In fact, Bishop Knudsen pointed to contentious legal battles in the late 80s and early 90s as motivation for her and other leaders in the Episcopal Church to develop more comprehensive training, an approach that now blends screening and prevention policy with training, disciplinary investigation, and healing/recourse programs for both victims and accused.

Julie Taylor, from the Office of Children, Youth and Family Advocacy for United Methodist Women, helps oversee a similar program aimed at increasing educational and story-sharing programs in Methodist congregations.

“You really can’t work on women’s issues without talking about sexual violence,” Taylor said. “We are thinking, ‘How can we work with people to talk about whether church is a safe place, whether we have support, and how we handle situations when both persons are in the congregation?’”

The UMW, a denominational faith organization for women with about 800,000 members, runs trainings for churches at the national, conference, district, and local level, appointing female, male, and youth leaders to initiate conversation in their churches.

Taking an even more comprehensive approach, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Unitarian Universalist Churches (UUA & UUC) have developed a faith-based sexual education course, “Our Whole Lives,” that invites clergy and health educators across denominations to lead positive, comprehensive conversations about sex. Aimed at reclaiming the idea of sex as a positive act that builds community, the curriculum educates congregants of all ages in respectful interactions, healthy questions about sexuality, and setting appropriate boundaries.

Tradition vs. Lived Experience

Clergy from historically conservative traditions point out a different point of tension — the fight to address current realities of sexual abuse in traditions that stress biblical inerrancy or gendered hierarchy.

“The term microaggression comes to mind,” said Michelle McClendon, one of the first women in Texas ordained in the Baptist church, on acceptance of women in position of church leadership. “In 1986, there were no ordination tickets that said ‘her.’ I’d hear comments like, ‘We have to deal with equality in the workplace, why do we have to deal with it in church?’”

While her current church is “at the forefront of gender equality,” many traditions currently reject women’s ordination. Indeed, McClendon’s father didn’t agree to see her preach until 2008. But “he was really thoughtful” about her sermons and has grown more used to the idea — to the point where he now participates in women’s ordinations, said McClendon, who currently serves as Minister of Christian Education at First Baptist Church in Greenville, S.C.

Rev. Dr. Meredith Holladay, Associate Pastor of Spiritual Formation at First Baptist Church in Lawrence, Kan., noted a tension in her approach to teaching church youth about healthy sexuality.

“When you’re part of a denomination that by nature takes the realities of sex into consideration, it’s much easier to talk about sexual violence,” she said. “[In Texas], Baptists are still evangelical, and if you say ‘safe sex’ the reaction is, ‘So you’re saying sex before marriage is ok.” It’s tricky to talk about, if parents aren’t in a place of reality about this.”

Sister Butler affirmed the importance of real, engaged living for the Catholic Church as well.

“The bishops have shown their power in these [sexual abuse] cases,” she said. “They have the money, the buildings, the power. But none of that matters. The people coming together over this, the people in the pews still have their faith. I believe that.”

Though in tension, these discussions highlight the positive change that an openness to storytelling can introduce to these denominations. “As people put faces to names on these issues, it’s harder to stay in one place,” Holladay said. “We don’t need to fear strangers — we need to better discern what is evil.”

Generous Creativity 

For all the creativity among individual voices, several noted a tendency for the church to be fairly tight-lipped when it comes to sharing best practices, advocacy, or storytelling with their community.  

“The church often operates as a closed system,” said Amee Paparella, Director for Women's Advocacy for the United Methodist Church General Board of Church and Society. “It’s a complicating factor.”

Paparella pointed to a recent event on sexual violence in Maryland that drew a notable crowd from the UMC network but, absent a press release or coverage of the event, failed to register in the local community.

“We have to make that bridge to the community,” she said. “That’s the only way the church is going to make an impact.”

Minnie Wright, a deaconess for the United Methodist Church and divinity student at Vanderbilt University, noted a similar reluctance to reach out in her childhood denomination and subject of her research, the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church.

Once, after becoming of aware of a harassment situation in the church, Wright attempted to gather church members to discuss the situation in a larger social context. But leaders resisted attempts at a broader conversation.

“Then I went to the local sexual assault center, and they said, ‘We’ve been waiting for someone to ask us to help!’” she said. “We have to share these resources if the church wants to open our doors to people in the community.”

This preference for handling issues in-house can create ecumenical barriers as well. Wright mentioned only recently hearing of faith-based training and educational curriculum, despite working on sexual assault for years. 

“We just don’t hear about it,” she said. “The black church is not in the conversation. We need seminars to hear what others are doing, what is working. This is the point where the church can get creative.” 

Paparella echoed Wright’s calls for creative thinking. She pointed to the recent publication of recommendations to end human trafficking from the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships, calling the effort “encouraging.” 

“Clearly someone in the White House is concerned about solidarity among faith leaders. This shows serious ingenuity on what can be done with very little funding,” Paparella said.

Casey Kloehn, seminarian at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary and Pastoral Intern at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Littleton, Co., agreed. 

“What’s happening now is not working,” she said. “Asking how we make change is important. Even if it’s a tiny change, it’s worth doing. We are a community of humans. We need to get back to a space of vulnerability.”

Churches in America are confronting a major question: What else can be done to prevent, educate about, and heal from sexual violence?

“We get nervous,” Holladay said. “We want to be places of tolerance. Rooting this out anywhere would be tough, but we’re called to be people of compassion in our communities — it’s particularly tough for us.”

The solution may start with a simple challenge: overcome fear.

“There are a lot of really good tools out there,” McClendon said. “We need to not be afraid to use them.”

This is the fourth in a Sojourners series on sexual violence in Christian communities. 


Catherine Woodiwiss is Associate Web Editor at Sojourners. Find her on Twitter @chwoodiwiss.

Image: 'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

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