Women tell of assaults, harassment in #ChurchToo

By Peter Smith
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
December 10, 2017

When United Methodists’ Council of Bishops met recently, it held break-out discussions on the topic of sexual harassment and misconduct in their churches.

The discussion had been scheduled before the Harvey Weinstein scandal unleashed a tsunami of revelations of sexual misconduct in media, politics and other fields, but the news of the day underscored the gravity of the discussions, said Pittsburgh Area Bishop Cynthia Moore-Koikoi.

“We had an opportunity to share our own stories,” Bishop Moore-Koikoi said. “For me to be able to say to my colleagues, ‘Me too,’ was valuable to hear.”

In both her previous career as a school psychologist and as a minister, “there have been times I have had unwanted advances from people who were my superiors.”

The United Methodist Church has long had policies against sexual harassment and other kinds of misconduct, and the Western Pennsylvania Conference adopted an extensively revised policy about five years ago. But the growing awareness is important, Bishop Moore-Koikoi said.

That’s true whether it’s protecting clergy from each other, staff members from clergy, or clergy from parishioners, she said. “Typically it’s not an if, it’s a when,” she said. 

As revelations have emerged about sexual misconduct by movie mogul Mr. Weinstein, politicians Roy Moore and Al Franken and numerous others, women took to social media to tell their own experiences of harassment or assault.

That #MeToo campaign soon prompted a #ChurchToo thread of stories about sexual harassment, abuse and rape taking place in church settings.

Women clergy have been telling stories that range from receiving leering looks and sexualized comments to working with male superiors who try to exploit them sexually.

Other women, clergy or not, have told of suffering rape as adults or children in church contexts. They’ve told of how church leaders sometimes compounded the damage by urging women to return to abusive spouses or to forgive sexual assaults without the offender being brought to justice.

“For most women in the church, particularly female pastors, none of this is really all that surprising,” said the Rev. Susan Rothenberg, a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and co-moderator of the Pittsburgh Presbytery’s Commission on Ministry.

More than four out of five clergywomen in the denomination have reported experiencing some sort of gender discrimination — a third of them sexual harassment — according to a 2015 survey by the Presbyterians’ Research Services.

This is in one of the more liberal mainline denominations, in which women have been ordained for decades and have held top denominational leadership roles, and in which feminist theology is taught at its seminaries.

But even there, leadership opportunities often are not equally distributed.

The 2015 report found that “although male and female members … are about equally likely to be asked to serve in a leadership role, the nature of that role varies by gender. Men are more likely to hold an official leadership role, in which they have an official title and/or receive a paycheck, whereas women are more likely to hold a voluntary leadership role.”

Rev. Rothenberg said she often hears lay leaders at churches say they’re not willing to consider a woman as pastor.

Amid the current revelations of sexual assault and harassment in the culture, churches need to recognize how this is affecting women in the pews who are reliving their own traumatic memories, she said.

Ideally, she said, church should be a safe place where “you can bring in the good and the bad, the joys and the deep sorrows,” she said.

But like families, some churches can handle that better than others.

It’s almost easier to say, “I was diagnosed with cancer,” than for a woman to say, “I was raped 20 years ago and I’m still not over that,” she said.

“Everyone will want to pray for your cancer and bring a casserole, but we’re not as good at praying for someone who is raped,” she said.

One way to broach the subject, she said, is to preach from the dark passages of the Bible that preachers often ignore — those with stories of brutal sexual assault. The book of Judges includes an account of the gang rape of a concubine. The book of II Samuel tells of the rape of Tamar, a daughter of King David, by her half-brother.

“This is a part of our holy text,” Rev. Rothenberg said. “Maybe we should be preaching sermons on that. How does God look at that kind of violence?”

Bishop Moore-Koikoi said such discussions often can be productive in smaller groups, such as Bible studies. The Western Pennsylvania Conference also plans several of its mandatory training sessions on clergy ethics early next year, which will include discussions on sexual harassment.

The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh has long had policies against sexual harassment of adults — policies that have been put in place as part of the wider church response to revelations of sexual abuse of children by priests and others associated with the church.

“We really do have to have values that respect the dignity of every person,” said Bishop David Zubik. Workers, including clergy, lay workers and volunteers, are required to report others’ misconduct and their own. The policies, in addition to upholding the expectation of celibacy by clergy, also spell out why sexual harassment involves the abuse of power, such as when a supervisor demands sexual favors in return for better pay or a promotion.

Amid the #MeToo movement, many have called for more women in positions of authority, throughout society, to curb the culture of harassment.

Bishop Zubik said that while the Catholic Church has longstanding doctrine of ordaining only male priests, it has women in numerous positions of leadership in the diocese.

Wade Mullen, who directs the master’s of divinity program at Capital Seminary and Graduate School in Lancaster, has been researching how evangelical Protestant organizations try to manage their public image amid crises.

He has found news accounts of at least 188 Protestant pastors arrested on sex-crime charges around the country in just the past year and a half. He has pushed back on social media when men have tried to dismiss women’s accounts of sexual misconduct as a witch hunt.

“The evidence that I've been collecting gives more weight to the reliability of the #ChurchToo stories,” he said.

He hopes the campaign will “bring awareness, and that awareness will lead to some needed changes. There’s a saying, ‘Once you know what is true, it becomes clear what you should do.’”

There are several things that can help, Rev. Rothenberg said.

People should practice the phrase, “That’s not cool,” in church settings when people make sexist comments or when they say they won’t consider hiring a women minister, she said.

People need to learn to call women by the same titles they would use for men, such as “Rev.”, and avoiding condescending terms such as “sweetie.”

She encouraged a better appreciation of women in the Bible such as Mary, the mother of Jesus, as active and not passive participants in the divine plan.

Policies can help prevent and respond to harassment and outright discrimination, but responding to the more subtle cases of harassment, such as disparaging comments or leering looks, will require difficult conversations.

“You don’t have policies on that,” she said. “You have to change the hearts of people in the pews. Which is a whole lot harder.”

The Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister for the ecumenical group Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, wrote in its most recent newsletter that churches have been “humbled into silence” on this issue because they know “we are as wrapped up in this sin as every other sector of our society.”

She wrote that while various Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches differ on the ordination of women, “surely all can agree that men and women are created together in God’s image. We can agree that people of all genders deserve dignity and respect. We can agree that our sanctuaries, our church offices, our committee meeting tables are no place for harassment.”



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