A few days ago, possibly in preparation for the coming triennial general convention of The Episcopal Church, the House of Bishops extended an invitation to those who have experienced abuse or harassment to share their stories. The purpose, the House stated, would be to offer a pastoral response to the burgeoning #metoo movement. While no doubt well-intended, the announcement misses the mark and demonstrates how thoroughly clueless The Episcopal Church is when it comes to the dynamics of abuse.
For those who have not seen the announcement, feel free to check it out here.
So, where to start?
Let’s begin with a look at the announcement itself. Things begin promisingly enough, with the comment, “In the Episcopal Church, our practices have not always reflected the values we say we hold. We do not always practice the reconciliation we proclaim.”
Fair enough. The church has not lived up to its rhetoric; of that, there is little doubt.
Things quickly head downhill, however, with the church’s press release adding, “The House of Bishop’s Pastoral Response “will focus on listening, liturgy and steps for healing….”
Um, that’s an issue.
Is listening important? Of course it is. Is liturgy important? Given that The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church, the obvious answer is yes. Is healing important? No doubt.
The problem comes when the three are linked. I doubt there is an Episcopal bishop out there who has no heard of sexual harassment or abuse within the church. More than a few have, themselves, engaged in such misconduct. Yet, as an organization, and as the individuals who make up the organization, too little has been done for far too long, with many bishops turning a blind eye to these issues. And now suddenly we’re going to listen and trot out some liturgy, and voila!, the problem is solved? It doesn’t work that way.
Part of the problem is that The Episcopal Church still doesn’t recognize that sexual harassment need not involve sex. As our legal system recognizes, gender-based harassment, abuse or discrimination is illegal. It is morally wrong. Yet a careful look at the announcement reveals that much of the language is couched in terms of sexual abuse.
Moreover, sexual harassment rarely occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it typically happens in an environment where people are not treated with respect, and where there are not adequate protections in place to ensure that the organization is a safe place. So, while I in no way minimize sexual harassment, it’s important to understand that its prevalence indicates deeper problems with boundary violations and lack of accountability.
The announcement also fumbles when it offers “guidelines” on sharing one’s experiences. As anyone who has worked with victims of abuse knows, the secret to effective listening is to, well, listen. But the church bollixes this by asking people to focus on their reactions to the abuse, versus the specifics of their experiences. A far better approach would be to listen with no preconceived notions, agendas, or guidelines, thus allowing victims of abuse to share what is important to them, and to avoid those topics too painful to be shared. But The Episcopal Church trots out the “father knows best” routine, and talks about how sharing specifics could re-traumatize victims. That’s certainly true, but I am prepared to bet that the vast majority of victims of abuse can decide for themselves what is traumatic. They don’t need the church to make that decision. Nor do they need to have their experiences trivialized by being told not to share the ugly details.
Also problematic is the assurance that responses will be confidential. As anyone who’s spent time in The Episcopal Church (or any other, for that matter), can attest, there’s very little that’s truly anonymous, confidential, or secret in the church. And given that the church has no canonical protections for whistleblowers, what is a victim going to do if their comments are leaked? Or if the person reading the comment is, themselves, the abuser? My own experience makes clear that the church considers retaliation acceptable conduct, so I would be very cautious about claims of confidentiality. At a minimum, any comments that may be offered are made at the victim’s own risk. That much is very clear.
Then there is the mention in the announcement that Title IV disciplinary resources will be available in cases where this may be appropriate. That’s a real problem, for based on my experiences, the best way to be retraumatized is to file a Title IV complaint. If it doesn’t involve sex or jail time, your complaint will be dismissed, and, as in my case, the person about whom you complained will be free to retaliate against you for making a complaint. Nor will the diocese do anything about the retaliation, or offer any meaningful pastoral response. In fact, your diocese will treat you as a troublemaker and persona non grata. In other words, if you fall into the Title IV trap, you’re a goner.
Am I saying that it is a mistake to take the House of Bishop up on its offer? No, I am not.
Do I think the invitation misses the mark? Yes, I do.
Should victims of abuse or people who have reported abuse approach this offer with caution? Definitely.
Participating in a process that so clearly reflects a lack of understanding about the dynamics of abuse, and that comes from an organization with such a dismal track record on these issues, carries inherent risks. These include, ironically enough, the possibility of being retraumatized by a church that undoubtedly means well, but simply doesn’t know how to handle allegations of abuse.