How long, O Lord? How long?
These words of the prophet Jeremiah have become my words most days as I turn on the news to hear of yet another sexual harassment or sexual assault allegation.
Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Matt Lauer.
Roy Moore. Al Franken. John Conyers.
How long, O Lord? How long?
How long must we wait for the day when sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of power have ceased?!
The list of sexual abuse allegations is ever-growing.
And not only are high profile abusers being exposed, but over the past few months, more and more #metoo stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault have been shared by individuals over facebook and twitter. However, these #metoo stories are not only taking place in Hollywood, Congress, peoples’ workplaces, or while walking down the street.
A few weeks ago, spoken word poet Emily Joy and writer Hannah Paasch started the hashtag #churchtoo to offer a space for people to share their experiences of sexual harassment and sexual assault within the church.
Because, yes, sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of power take place in the church, too. A lot. And when we don’t acknowledge this, call it out, and address it, we send some strong messages that can impact people in very harmful ways – whether they are the victims of sexual abuse or not.
I can attest to how harmful this can be based on an experience I had as a young high schooler.
My pastor at the time had shown a pattern of touching women in “inappropriate” ways (rubbing their backs, touching their hair, rubbing their legs under the table, etc.) Although the women were worried about speaking up, some of them did. What happened next was traumatic.
The women were made to feel “bad” and ashamed for speaking out, while the pastor became the victim. The women and the church leadership were told to remain quiet about the details.
I remember hearing at the time that when the pastor was first confronted about his “inappropriate” behavior, he insisted it was not inappropriate because it was the way he showed affection. That’s just what he does.
More people met to discuss their complaints about the pastor. After the pastor got wind of this, he quit, but he continued to come to the church office to use the computer. While doing so, he helped create a very hostile environment, which led to a painful division within the church. People were labeled as either those who were for the pastor or those who were against the pastor. The women and those who stood with the women were deemed “against him” and were ostracized.
After a complaint went to the regional denominational body, the pastor was found not guilty. His actions were only seen as overstepping “boundaries,” and this was placed on his record. As far as I am aware, no other steps for accountability or reconciliation were taken.
And yet, only a few years after this pastor quit and left our church, he started serving at another congregation in a neighboring state and has been serving at that church ever since.
As a female adolescent who observed what was happening at the time, I heard several strong and impactful messages the church seemed to be communicating.
I heard that I should downplay sexual harassment and even question what was considered harassment.
I heard that if the harasser or assaulter was a person I “knew” or “trusted,” that person was probably not harassing or assaulting me.
I heard that male pastors were invincible and could do what they wanted, even if their actions harmed others.
I heard that if a man touches someone in a way that is unwanted and makes that person feel uncomfortable and responds to complaints about that touch by saying it is just his way of showing affection, his touch is okay and he can continue to do it if he wants to.
I heard that it is unsafe to speak up about sexual harassment, sexual assault, and/or sexual abuse of power… especially if it is done inside the church.
I heard that women will not be believed if they speak up about sexual harassment or sexual assault and that women should feel ashamed for doing so… especially within the church.
I heard that it is also not safe for those who stand with the ones who speak out about sexual harassment… especially if it is done within the church.
And I heard that even if a group of victims speak up about sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual abuse of power and many others stand with them, the perpetrator will likely not be held accountable for his actions… And because of this: if he is in a position of power, he can move onto another community with little or no accountability that ensures he does not become a repeat offender.
What kinds of messages are we in the church sending to victims of sexual abuse – whether through our actions or through our silence?
What kinds of messages are we sending to our children and youth who are observing how we do or do not respond to the high and low profile sexual abuse allegations and to the #metoo and #churchtoo stories we hear from people in our own communities?
As difficult as it may be to admit that sexual harassment, sexual assault, and sexual abuse of power takes place in the church, too: we must do so!
We need to create safe spaces for victims to share their stories and to report harassers and abusers, and we need to offer pastoral care and support for those victims. We need to have and enforce just policies and procedures for addressing sexual abuse in all its forms, ensuring that healing, accountability, and reconciliation (when appropriate) are a part of the process. We need to be talking about this, calling it out, working to address it, and doing everything we can to change the culture and the systems that enable it… Not only within individual congregations, but also at larger denominational and institutional levels.
How long, O Lord? How long? How long must we wait until the day when nobody shares a #metoo and #churchtoo story because sexual abuse has ceased?
We may never know.
But we can do our part in helping to eliminate it. May we choose to do so.
For additional resources, check out this post by The Presbyterian Outlook:
Rev. Emily Heitzman is an ordained Presbyterian (USA) pastor serving as the shared Pastor with Youth and Households at three ELCA congregations in the neighborhood of Edgewater in Chicago: Unity Lutheran, Ebenezer Lutheran, and Immanuel Lutheran. Some of her sermons and reflections can be found at Musings from a Bricolage.
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