Sexual misconduct: making church a safe place
by Marion Van Driel
Allegations of Kevin Spacey’s sexual misconduct unleashed a spate of long-held, shameful secrets in the world of entertainment and politics. Given the prevalent guilt and embarrassment victims typically experience, one can only guess how many other women have hidden their pain away.
Sadly, the Church has been far from immune to the sins of sexual harassment and abuse. It has happened within a number of denominations. Legally there is no ‘statute of limitations’ in this area. It is quite possible that the church will continue to deal with allegations of past misconduct.
Faye Martin, Abuse Prevention and Response Coordinator for BC and Alberta within the Christian Reformed denomination, anticipates victims coming forward, who have previously only told someone close to them.
“When the world says, ‘This standard is not acceptable for us’, within the context of the church, we have, and need to have, a higher standard,” Martin says. She believes that part of the reason there are so many allegations against Roy Moore, is that he “touts all these Christian values – he is elected on that platform – and yet seems to have somewhat of a shady past when it comes to how he interacts with women…”
Policies for prevention
Although we cannot rewind and alter the past, it is possible to mitigate future incidents through adoption of and adherence to Safe Church policies and education. This is the first step in prevention. What this means for the church, according to Martin, is acknowledging that, “any of us working in a position of trust need to be very cautious, and we need to be exemplary in how we behave and act with those around us.” She explains that the expectations within the church need to be clear – knowing what respect looks like, beginning with our view of male and female roles.
Historically, many of us come from a patriarchal society that placed all power and authority on the male as ‘head of the family’, giving them absolute power. “Only God has that power,” says Martin, observing that statistically, abuse thrives in church circles that still have a patriarchal view; where there is no freedom to speak out.
Any time someone holds a position of power, there is a risk of abusing that power. Leaders of ministries – from the pastor, to children’s ministry leaders are at risk. Being given a role of leadership means that “we are to serve the best interests of others,” says Martin, “understanding that our position is one of service and privilege.” When we truly understand that, the abuse of power greatly diminishes.
Obligation to provide safe environment
For liability and insurance risk, having a Safe Church Ministry, including a policy and education for all church leaders, is highly recommended. “Any organization is obliged to serve its members in a safe way,” explains Martin. She adds that while having a policy doesn’t prevent incidents completely, it certainly gives less opportunity, and provides a better structure for dealing with offenders. A distinct process ought to be in place in churches – Martin has an advisory panel to go to when dealing with allegations coming from an adult. If allegations come from a minor, however, the offence is reportable, and the law is always involved.
But just having policies isn’t good enough. “It’s all about policies that are implemented, volunteers who are trained and a leadership that is committed to safe ministry,” she emphasizes. “This is not a silent issue; creating a safe ministry environment is something that requires everyday dialogue.”
Martin knows that there are deep-rooted issues contributing to the behaviour of leaders who have lifetime patterns of sexual misconduct. “These perpetrators need intervention and help. As a church we have prevented them from getting that help, in our silence.” When she sees church leaders – pastors in particular – being deposed, it often becomes apparent that there were other leaders who knew of the misconduct, but did not come forward in order for confrontation to take place.
Having knowledge about someone is difficult. Sharing it can open up the ‘can of worms’, which has potential for an incredibly messy outcome. Turning a blind eye could have major consequences for more and more victims.
If a red flag goes up, “I always say, trust your gut,” says Martin. But she acknowledges it’s not easy.
If your church has no Safe Church Ministry the BC Safe Church website is a resource: www.bcsafechurch.com.