Today churches are often rocked with sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by priests and clergy. Yet, sexual harassment and abuse to clergy, specifically clergywomen, is often swept under the rug.
A 2007 study by the United Methodist Church on sexual harassment and abuse found that nearly 75 percent of Methodist clergy women have experienced sexual harassment and abuse. The common settings for such harassment are church meetings and offices where perpetrators are mostly men and increasingly laity. “Sexual harassment destroys community. This alienating sinful behavior causes brokenness in relationships,” the study states.
Despite the prevalence of increased boundary training and education, the 2007 study found that only 34 percent of small churches and 86 percent of large churches have policies to handle such situations.
In 30 years of ministry, diaconal and ordained, I have seen that church politics, ignorance of or lack of policies and procedures, tolerance for inappropriate behavior, status of perpetrator, and money are obstacles to dealing with sexual harassment and abuse to clergy in a healthy way.
In 2005, a couple — let’s call them Mr. and Mrs. S. — assisted in a two-day move to a new parish. I rejected Mr. S.’s suggestion that I share a hotel room with his wife and him as a cost-savings measure. When I reported the request to a denominational leader, I was told the couple were such good givers to the church, lifelong members of the parish, and active on the denominational level. For five months, Mr. S. stalked me at the church, demanded my attention at church functions, was touchy-feely in uncomfortable ways, grabbed me in an unwanted hug at my installation, wanted just the two of us to take communion to shut-ins, and attempted to hug me at a Bible study.
Saying no to Mr. S. or just trying to ignore his behavior failed. I had kept regional church leaders apprised of the situation, and when I called for an investigation, the region’s trained sexual harassment response team was not involved. Instead , four church council members — two of them related to the Mr. and Mrs. S. — handled the investigation. A mentor woman pastor was chosen to support, but not advocate, for me. The area denominational leaders refused to assist and advise me.
Mr. S. had excuses for everything. He claimed that his hug was a Christian hug to welcome me, and I had not turned away; that I had not been visiting shut-ins so he wanted to show me where they lived; and that he had only wanted to shake my hand, not hug me, at the Bible study.
The investigating committee concluded that while Mr. S.’s conduct was rude and boorish, it was not sexual harassment. I was accused of trying to destroy Mr. S., that if I had just said no, he would have stopped. I immediately resigned, citing an unsafe working environment and both the church’s and denomination’s failures to resolve the situation. My requests for a reasonable length of time to move from the parsonage and for severance pay were denied. I was given two weeks to move, with no severance pay; payments for pension and health insurance stopped immediately.
The state Department of Human Services refused to take my case. A male representative said employers may require employees to share hotel rooms to save money. A female representative from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission stated that people were always hugging in churches. One regional church leader advised taking a career assessment and inventory because I was in the wrong profession. The other regional church leader approved sending my clergy credentials to other parts of the country, but only if I conducted myself properly. He cut off contact with me, because he believed I was taking the matter to court.
In professional terms, what can be done?
- A clear understanding of sexual harassment and abuse as defined by stated and federal laws.
- Clear procedures and policies for handling sexual harassment and abuse, whether it is to clergy or by clergy, including immediate protection for the victim and suspension of the perpetrator from duties until the investigation is complete with clear consequences if the perpetrator seeks contact with the victim or seeks to interfere in the investigation process.
- Continuing education and boundary training on an annual basis.
- Trained individuals unrelated to the perpetrator or the victim should conduct investigations of harassment and abuse.
- The victim, perpetrator, and the congregation each need advocates.
- Confidentiality must be maintained, with the alleged perpetrator relieved from duties and leadership roles.
- Depending on the situation, it may be in the best interest of the victim to take a leave of absence or leave all together.
- A clear role for non-local church leaders.
- If the allegations are proven, the perpetrator must face consequences. A slap on the wrist, an apology, and a promise not to do it again are not sufficient.
In my situation, Mr. S. was informed that he could not be in my presence if no one else was present. He was not suspended from his council position nor were his church keys taken away. When he failed to observe the few restrictions, I indicated that I would contact the authorities. This angered the investigating committee.
While the investigating committee and I observed confidentiality, Mr. and Mrs. S. did not.
Sadly, the area denominational leaders took an adversarial role. After my resignation, they admitted that they had failed, but did nothing further.
State and federal laws are clear that there be no retaliation against the victim and/or the perpetrator regardless of the outcome. In some cases, it may be in the clergy victim’s best interest to take a leave of absence or seek another call. Retaliation is inevitable on some level. And the victim needs time to heal without being burdened with helping others in their healing process.
Are there ways to keep incidents of sexual harassment and abuse in check? The answer is a conditional yes. As I mentioned, it is useful to provide church leaders and members alike with annual education and training in boundaries and appropriate conduct.
Someone facing sexual harassment should keep a notebook handy. When someone engages in inappropriate conduct (of the mild variety), the target can tell the perpetrator: “What you are doing is sexual harassment. I’m writing down the date and the time. This is what you said. Do you have anything to add?”
After a year of living in a financial wilderness, supported by the Lord’s strength, family, and friends, I am serving in a much healthier two-point parish in another state. The Lord has turned this experience into a Joseph of the Old Testament one — good has come from evil as I have a renewed eagerness for ministry. My parish and I have much love and respect for each other.
The writer, whose name was withheld for her own protection, has 30 years of diaconal and ordained ministry experience serving in parishes and overseas, a medical hospital, state hospital, and teaching Christian education in a secondary school. She has also served in nursing homes and assisted living centers.
Photo: Alexander Motrenko/Shutterstock