How do churches address sexual misconduct by clergy members?
By Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans
January 01, 2018
Recently a group of 140 evangelical women representing diverse theological and social perspectives released a statement asking churches to break their silence on violence against women.
Yet when it comes to addressing sexual assault, it’s not only conservative Christian denominations that are in denial, say experts.
Many denominations have policies and statements that address sexual harassment and assault, some for decades. In many cases, boundaries training is mandatory for clergy, lay staff and volunteers. The United Methodist Church has a whole website focused on sexual ethics. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recommends that each congregation have its own policy for preventing sexual misconduct.
But policies and statements aren’t nearly enough, say victim advocates and those who train future clergy.
Despite those institutional guardrails, they argue, many churches remain unsafe territory for victims, spaces in which there is often a lack of accountability and an unwillingness to address sexual harassment and assault in ways that give victims a voice.
Writing for Ministry Matters (an online resource for church leaders) in October, Episcopal priest Kira Schlesinger argued that many churches still protect harassers, even when their behavior is an “open secret.”
“As a young clergywoman, I am cautious of those colleagues with whom I am not close who greet me with a hug that lingers a bit too long or a kiss on the cheek that lands too close to my mouth. There are the comments about what kind of body my vestments might be covering up.”
In an article posted on the United Methodist Church website titled “Sexual misconduct at church: What every member should know,” denominational staff member Joe Iovino wrote: “United Methodists have committed acts of sexual misconduct. Adults have been sexually harassed by their pastor. Children in our care have been abused. Staff members have viewed pornographic material on their church computers.”
When that takes place, it divides congregations, devastates families and derails careers.
“Sexual harassment and abuse is not limited to a church or a denomination,” says Julie Owens, a domestic violence survivor who now travels the country consulting with and training professionals in the public and private sectors.
“Faith groups don’t spend a lot of time worrying about this,” she said. “It’s mostly not talked about in churches. It’s bad enough when they get a pass from society. But when they get a pass from the church, it’s doubly sinful.”
In a 2009 study of clergy sexual misconduct with adults, the late Diana Garland, then dean and professor at the Baylor University School of Social Work, found that “survivors hailed from 17 different Christian and Jewish affiliations.”
In Lancaster, some female faith leaders are currently grappling with how to address this combustible issue in their own congregations.
Daniela Szuster, a rabbi at Lancaster’s Congregation Beth-El who leads the synagogue with husband Rami Pavolotzky, told members recently that she thought they were witnessing something historically unprecedented.
“Usually women suffer in silence. Now they are speaking out, and we are listening to them.”
In addition to writing an article for the newsletter, Szuster tackled the subject in a recent sermon drawing on the book of Genesis as well as the Mishnah (the first major work of Rabbinic literature) and a November statement from the Rabbinical Assembly of her Conservative tradition.
Response from women in the congregation has been positive, she says, adding that she intends to raise the topic at a future women’s meeting.
“They are very open to talking about this and happy to do something to change the society.”
“We need to protect the victim and call out the injustice, but we need to do it as a community together,” says Barbara Seras, assistant priest at St. John’s Episcopal Church. “It should not turn into an ‘us versus them’ situation.”
But Seras says she’s not convinced that a sermon is the best place to start such a conversation.
“How do I serve my people as pastor and teacher and do it in way that they hear me and open up and look at the situation? That’s difficult to do. I’m trying to find that way.
The Rev. Bonnie Oplinger, pastor of the Jerusalem Evangelical Lutheran Church in Rothsville, says it’s time to address the role patriarchy and sexism play in the church.
“If these aren’t dealt with, then you are going to have these kinds of problems.
Last week an ELCA committee charged with developing a policy on women and justice released a draft statement on the subject for consideration and comment by member churches. Oplinger intends to offer opportunities for her congregation to offer their opinions on the document.
With expertise that comes from a prior career in the mental health field, Oplinger is also going to highlight sexual offenses in a workshop on protecting children she’s offering in March.
“If you lift up stories in the Bible that talk about this (sexual assault) and counter them with the Gospel message Jesus gave of loving and respecting everyone, loving God and neighbor as yourself … there is no room for anything else,” she says.
“I think the role clergy play in addressing the issue of sexual harassment and assault and its prevalence should start at a more basic level,” says the Rev. Mandy Mastros, pastor of Lancaster Moravian Church.
“We have to challenge the patriarchal male-dominated culture that is exceedingly prevalent in Scripture, and in many ways still exists, without creating a feeling of competition or divisiveness between genders. There are good men out there, and we need to be sure not to ostracize them.”
Her recommendations for addressing the topic in a congregational setting include lifting up the sometimes-overlooked women featured there and considering the “ugly” stories like the rape of Tamar in a way that makes clear it was a sin against God and fostering candor in prayer time so vulnerable parishioners feel safe sharing their concerns. She also suggests including women in every aspect of community life.
At St. John’s Episcopal Church, one-on-one discussions with parishioners are already happening, Seras says.
“The teachable moment comes when you least expect it.”
n Elizabeth Eisenstadt-Evans is a freelance writer and nonparochial Episcopalian priest.