How sexual harassment happens in churches, and how we can heal
BY ALEX NEWMAN
When Jules Woodson was 17, her youth pastor in Texas sexually assaulted her in the cab of his pickup truck after driving down a deserted road. Late last year, almost 20 years later, Woodson came forward with her story.
The disclosure in the wake of the #MeToo movement did not go as she might have hoped. The disbelief and victim blaming that had met her initial disclosure (to a senior pastor way back then) repeated itself.
"The Church should have been the first to say they would not permit this," Woodson told Faith Today. "And here they are still glossing over it."
Her former 22-year-old youth pastor Andy Savage is now a 42-year-old teaching pastor in Memphis. Although he didn’t respond to her initial email, after she went public he addressed his church – "Today I say, Jules, I am deeply sorry for my actions 20 years ago" – and received a standing ovation as a gesture of support.
It was the applause that rippled around the world. News media, including The New York Times, reported on the strange response. A new and deeper conversation about sexual harassment in churches broke wide open, and it has not stopped since.
Back in 1998 just after it happened, Woodson reported the incident to the associate pastor. He grilled her about whether she had participated, and then did nothing about Savage. The experience was humiliating. She suffered in silence until a few weeks later when she told her discipleship group. Some of those girls told their parents who immediately went to the pastors. Instead of firing Savage the leadership allowed him to resign quietly, which only started the rumour mill, Woodson says.
"Nobody was told what happened, so everyone assumed it was a kiss. And because Andy was super popular and could do no wrong – he was a charismatic youth leader who really grew the group – the assumption of guilt was on me."
Reports of "inappropriate touching, remarks, pressures to perform in inappropriate ways" are all too common "in church settings which should be some of the safest places in the world," according to Marion Goertz, director of a team of psychotherapists at Toronto’s Family Life Centre. Goertz has seen many victims of sexual harassment in churches walk through her office doors on the campus of Tyndale University College & Seminary.
In Woodson’s case church leadership at the time assured Woodson they’d handle it – after Savage apologized he was given a going away party Woodson did not attend. "People were celebrating him, and showering him with love and telling him how much they’ll miss him, while I was being blamed. In their eyes it was a consensual sexual sin because I engaged in premarital sex."
The new openness today around assault precipitated by #MeToo has emboldened other victims to come forward with disturbing accounts, like the seven women who claim they were sexually harassed by Bill Hybels, the well-known and loved founder of Willow Creek, a leading evangelical megachurch near Chicago. Hybels retired six months earlier than planned as a result.
Hybels and Savage are high-profile American examples, but of course Canadian ones are not difficult to find. Basyle (Boz) Tchividjian, a Virginia law professor who has prosecuted sexual abuse cases, contends the record of sex abuse in evangelical institutions is abysmal – as bad or worse than the sex scandals that have rocked the Catholic Church in recent years. Tchividjian, executive director of GRACE, an organization that trains churches in abuse prevention, also happens to be Billy Graham’s grandson.
"The Church has become a safe place for people to abuse their power," says Jules Woodson. "Leadership and Christians in general need to recognize that abuse in the Church is for real. It’s an epidemic. And it’s a crime."
Defining sexual harassment
When Baylor University conducted a study in 2008, more than 3 per cent of women said they’d been the object of clergy sexual misconduct at some time in their adult lives, with 92 per cent of these advances made in secret and 67 per cent of the offenders married to someone else. Eight per cent of respondents reported having known about clergy sexual misconduct occurring in a congregation they had attended. Diana Garland, dean of Baylor’s school of social work, says she was surprised by the magnitude of the problem and had never imagined the extent of it, that it was prevalent across all denominations. A 2017 Abacus survey of 1,500 Canadians found 53 per cent of women felt unwanted sexual pressure. About 12 per cent said sexual harassment in the workplace was quite common, and 44 per cent said it was infrequent, but does happen.
It’s not just women – in Canada 12 per cent of sexual assaults reported to police in 2010 involved male victims. A 2009 study of clerics charged by the RCMP between 1995 and 2002 for sexual offences against youth showed 67 per cent of victims were male. One U.S. study found 46 per cent of men who experienced abuse reported the perpetrator was female.
Defining sexual abuse or harassment is a challenge. When children or minors are involved it’s quite clear-cut, but when two adults are involved (Woodson was 17 at the time), it’s more difficult. People are confused about whether it is abuse and harassment or just another workplace affair. As noted by Monsignor Stephen Rossetti, formerly of St Luke’s Institute in Kentucky, "The abuse of minors is abhorrent, but there are many more cases of sexual exploitation of adults in churches that get less air time."
Some of Canada’s churches have published helpful resources on this issue. A 2011 booklet from Mennonite Central Committee says, "Even in those cases when a parishioner may appear to initiate an inappropriate relationship and does not see oneself as a victim, it is a violation of pastoral ethics for the church leader to accept such advances. Because of the power imbalance, it is always the responsibility of the caregiver to maintain appropriate, ethical boundaries and immediately refer a counselee to another professional when a situation like this arises" (Understanding Sexual Abuse by a Church Leader or Caregiver).
Marion Goertz agrees. A "paternalistic hug, pat, cuddle and sexualized humour is not and never has been okay," she says. "Not too long ago we raised our daughters to be sweet and accommodating, and our sons to stride forward confidently and assertively naming and claiming what they wanted." Times have changed.
"Every teenager wants to be liked," says Woodson, "but that doesn’t mean they are looking for sexual attention, no matter how much they might idealize someone. When he drove me down that road and asked me to do things, I was confused, scared and caught by surprise. Being raised in the Church, you are taught to listen to and respect authority."
The onus, as the MCC report clearly states, falls on leadership not to cross a line, especially with younger, vulnerable populations like teenagers often confused about boundaries.
In an article about Hybels in Christianity Today, Maureen Girkins, former president of Zondervan, told the magazine that, "Hybels made no overt sexual advances towards [her], but spoke in sexually inappropriate ways and pressured [her] to meet him alone outside [their] professional relationship."
That murky middle ground is why it’s important for every church to clearly define what’s appropriate, and include specifics like touch and hugs, as well as create parameters around social media, offsite trips and transportation, says Melodie Bissell of Stouffville, Ont., director of Plan to Protect, a Canadian organization that trains groups, including churches, in abuse prevention
"Abuse triggers some of the deepest hurt a person can ever experience," says Bissell. When it happens inside the Church, "it’s an assault on someone’s soul," pulling into question their belief and faith in God because someone of faith has let them down. "The more you trust someone, the deeper the betrayal."
The MCC report goes even further, suggesting the person who experienced abuse "may feel that God is on the side of the perpetrator and therefore that God has betrayed them."
This is one reason why recovery is so challenging – wounds are deep, and survivors need a safe place where they’re believed and free from further abuse. Churches should be such places, but sometimes they are clearly not.
Forgiveness and turning the other cheek, while profoundly Christian, must never be at the expense of the victim, Goertz says. "Perpetrators should not be welcomed back to the church where the abuse occurred, not until the victim has healed and has indicated that they are open to this idea."
It’s essential for someone who has been abused to know their church stands against abuse. "When they hear it condemned from the pulpit, they feel the pastor gets it," says Bissell, who is writing a doctoral thesis at Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto on spiritual healing of victims of sexual abuse.
The process of healing takes time – and everyone’s timeline is different. There are constant triggers, says Bissell. "I know people who go to church every Sunday, but never step inside the sanctuary because that was the place. Going from victim to survivor to victor takes a lifetime of healing."
And forgiveness is not easy. "Because we [Christians] focus on new life, we want the healing process to be short," Bissell says. "But telling someone they need to forgive, expecting it before they are ready, does not validate the pain they went through. We talk so much about the resurrection of Christ, but how often do we talk about the suffering on the cross?"
To become safe a church must admit abuse can occur, take a firm stand against it, even preach about it from the pulpit, and then make every effort to prevent it from ever happening. Too often "churches drag their feet," Goertz observes. "They are not wanting to offend, seeing their role as being one of redemption versus condemnation. [But] our churches must strive to be one of the safest places on earth for those who are wounded … and never, ever, a platform for those who wound."
It takes pastoral skills – church or professional or both – to help victims deal with the abuse, particularly when they have held it inside for years. Just having an opportunity to tell their story helps with healing, according to the MCC report. "To feel safe, the victim needs to have the harm acknowledged and their reactions and responses validated. They need to know that they will not be judged for their behaviour. Eventually they can come to a place of resolution and let go of feelings of anger, rage and injustice … recognize the abuse was not their fault, and they are able to set healthier patterns of behaviour."
It’s not a pastor’s job to determine culpability – that’s the responsibility of the courts or family and children’s services agencies. The pastor’s job is to listen and be supportive. Too often the victim is blamed for encouraging sexual advances. Recently social media picked up a sign on the lawn of an Indiana church that read, "Stop sexual harassment. Wear clothes."
There are three ways to safeguard your church, according to experts – screen staff and volunteers, and train them in sexual abuse prevention; abuse proof the physical environs; and set in place a solid policy and procedure manual.
In Canada screening and training volunteers and staff is not yet legally mandatory. And Bissell says most churches who do screen don’t do it thoroughly enough. A police check is just a first step. "You need to interview and get reference checks. Ask tough questions, anything that determines integrity. Training must include clearly defining sexual harassment, how to recognize it, when to blow the whistle, how to challenge the person and how to respond to reports."
Staff and volunteers should also be aware of a predictable pattern of harassment, which usually starts with grooming the victim – complimenting their appearance, mentioning how hard they work or how unhappy their marriage is, and encouraging mutual dependence if the victim is similarly unhappy. Sexualized behaviours are introduced gradually – they seem innocuous at first, like a hug. If the person is also the boss, there may be fear of losing a job. Initial disbelief is normal – most victims will question their judgment, or at least their perception of what is happening with a person in a position they have always respected.
Experts say harassment may appear to be about sexual attraction, but ultimately is more about power. According to Aimee Patterson of Winnipeg, sexual ethics expert with the Salvation Army, clergy need self-awareness about their power which is meant to serve others. "It’s not like the professional who runs a business and their power is to make the business a success. A pastor’s role is to serve, so the power they have is not for their own benefit."
Plan to Protect recognizes this power imbalance and aims to equip churches with proper guidelines for abuse prevention. It starts with training church leaders to understand boundaries, power and authority, and sexual misconduct – by trainers who know the topics well and know the provincial legal requirements. Plan to Protect’s orientation training, for example, takes about two to three hours, and covers a wide range of topics such as abuse awareness, protection, reporting, how to ask nonleading questions, and how to manage and mitigate risk.
The church policy should also encourage ongoing education, regular performance evaluations, and the creation of manageable workload and stress levels, says Bissell who co-wrote Plan to Protect’s materials. The policy should include definitions of abuse, discrimination and harassment, what is appropriate interaction outside programs, and a procedure around documentation management, such as creating incident reports. There should be policies in place around which volunteers interact with vulnerable members of the congregation. The church’s policy should also include what kind of counselling and how much could be made available to a victim. If the abuse happened in the church, the church should cover all expenses.
Premises modification should be covered as well – such as installing windows in interior doors so offices are visible to the public, controlled access to toddler and children’s rooms, and adequate lighting. False accusations do occur, which is even more reason for pastors to have firm boundaries in place, like never being alone with someone in a closed room without effective window viewing.
Jules Woodson says her life and path toward healing would have been very different if the head pastor to whom she had initially reported the abuse had believed her. "Not one person reached out and said, ‘Can we talk about this?’ No counselling was offered. I was told not to share what happened with anyone, as well as that I was not to speak to Andy again," she remembers. Although she still describes herself as a Christian, Woodson has not affiliated with a church for years. The wounds run too deep.
Inside the hearing, healing and hope process
Psychotherapist Marion Goertz says healing is a process that takes "as much time as it takes. This is not a linear path … but often a multidimensional undertaking that involves hearing, healing and hope."
HEARING is about really listening, making a "commitment to helping to hold the sometimes messy, not always cohesive story, the pain, confusion, self-doubt, loss and grief that has filled and unsettled one’s world."
HEALING, Goertz says, is not something that needs to wait for justice to be served. Sometimes justice is "an internal coming to terms with a situation." It has to do with speaking up about what happened, and then relinquishing a desire for revenge.
Once someone has been able to move forward, they will find themselves sleeping better and breathing more easily, which benefit their health. Healing isn’t about settling for or accepting bad behaviour – it’s choosing whatever brings shalom into our lives, deciding whether that wounded relationship can provide those gifts or must be abandoned.
Sometimes we must choose that those who wound us may never again be in our inner circle, but released to God’s perfect will for their lives, allowing us to take back peace, power, passion and potential.
HOPE doesn’t deny or dismiss the pain of a relationship wound, but is something open to the passion, purpose and people the Lord had for us all along. God knew we would be walking this painful path even before we were born. Hope comes from knowing He will never leave us nor forsake us. –AN
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today. Read more articles like these with a subscription to this EFC magazine.