Clergy and Claims of Abuse

My Confusion Regarding Claims of Sexual Harassment

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury

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Part of my partner’s job is to deal with disciplinary complaints in his workplace. Among the matters he has to investigate are allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour. As an outsider to his working environment I can easily see how people get themselves into trouble on this matter. Close working relationships blur professional boundaries, signals are misinterpreted, social media compound the problems, and sometimes personal slight, hurt, mental health issues or even a desire for revenge become the pretext for launching formal complaints. In the complexity of human relationships, genuinely bad, dangerous and harmful behaviour clearly occurs. Scripture reminds us that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. We do well to remember that all of us leave behind us a trail of damaged human relationships of some sort or another.

In my naivete I like to think that such matters are black and white, and that anyone who has been harassed or assaulted will want to come forward and make their allegations known to be dealt with by due process. But it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that. I recognise that there is a power dynamic that exists between (mainly but not exclusively) powerful men and less-powerful women, often compounded by seniority in the workplace/parish, that makes coming forward or challenging bad behaviour hugely risky. I also see that there needs to be robust enough processes to ensure that there is confidence to know that allegations, when made, will be dealt with appropriately.

When matters are not addressed formally, for often understandable reasons, we find ourselves in a very unsatisfactory situation, where claims of harassment are shared between friends and supportive colleagues outside of due process, in a way that make them entirely unsubstantiated rumour. In such cases one is naturally forced to assume that the person who claims harassment is telling the truth, or has understood what can often be a complex situation accurately. Hence the large amount of rumour swirling around, with very little firm allegation. This is deeply confusing to me and I fear it easily poisons the wells of reliability when it comes to formal processes.

ViaMedia has recently published anonymous testimony of two clergy people who told stories of harassment in church contexts. None of us are in a position to judge the claims made because they are by their nature anonymous and as such there is only one side of the story known. This is made more complicated by inadequate institutional responses which diminish the seriousness of the accusations, or the bad advice of sympathetic friends, who advise a complicit silence.

Having been the victim of serious false allegations of an entirely different sort myself – whether malicious or foolish I don’t think I’ll ever know – I have a degree of human sympathy for those who are accused without proper process. But I am acutely aware that I have, culturally and by dint of my personality, a lot of power, which can prevent me being as aware as I perhaps need to be about the problem. Therefore, I feel genuinely confused about the current swirl of concern about sexual harassment in the church and in wider society. I need some help.

If I’m brutally honest what won’t help is inverse mansplaining about how I don’t understand the problem because I’m a man. But if I and others who are as confused as me can show our willingness to understand better, then we should take a stand by providing safety and support to those who need to come forward and turn their silent suffering and often their sense of shame and humiliation into empowered formal complaint. Without that, I fear I’ll just remain confused!

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As a clergy-person who knows something of the process of the resolution of grievances in the parish situation, I am acutely aware of the fact that there are always two sides of the matter being investigated by the official Church authorities.

There is, of course, legitimate reason for some claims of power-based harassment by clergy of people in the congregation, and these are generally understood as needing to be resolved – if only to quell the gossip that might surround the issue and the resultant confusion among the members of the congregation affected.

However, there have been glaring cases of clergy being falsely accused of a standard of behaviour that would indeed be untenable if they were proved to have been true. This is why an independent facility for investigating complaints is absolutely essential for the health and well-being of the individuals concerned – and of the parish in which the situation is alleged to have taken place.

Although clergy – because of their pastoral role in the congregations in their charge –  may be seen to have a notional ‘power’ over their congregants; there is always the possibility of  a parishioner making false claims about clergy behaviour, in a situation where it might be difficult to prove either the truth, or otherwise, of the allegations made. This is why the diocese needs to provide adequate means of external investigation as to the truth, or falsity, of such allegations.

Of course, there are always particular reasons for someone to wrongly accuse a priest of misbehaviour – some can be connected to a person’s dislike of a particular member of the clergy team. Another reason can be that of the social, mental or spiritual health of the complainant. In every case of complaint, therefore, a fair and rigorous investigation must always be available from a source outside of the parish, to ensure justice prevails for all concerned.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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