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Ten Truths Religious Leaders Must Tell in the Wake of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report

by Darryl W. Stephens

On August 14, 2018, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report detailing decades of child sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests across the state. The narrative of abuse and cover-up is horrific. The actions, harrowing. As Roman Catholic leaders seek various ways to respond, religious leaders of all denominations and faiths are searching for appropriate, faithful responses to share with their communities. As a United Methodist clergyperson and a Christian ethicist, I offer the following ten truths we as religious leaders of all faiths must tell in the wake of this report.

1. The problem of sexual abuse by ministerial leaders is not unique to the Roman Catholic Church and its priests. This is a problem facing all denominations and religious communities. The FaithTrust Institute, a leader in addressing sexual violence in faith communities, has drawn attention to this fact through its forty years of providing resources for prevention, education, and response in numerous denominations.

2. Children are the not the only victims of clergy sexual harassment and abuse. Movements like #ChurchToo, #GamAni, and #MosqueMeToo attest to this fact. Adults of every gender have been sexually abused by the religious leaders they trusted. For example, an estimated one in thirty-three women attending a faith community in any given month report being sexually harassed or abused by a clergyperson at some point in their adult lives. This means that in a congregation of 200 persons, there are likely at least three women who, justifiably, don’t trust the pastor — no matter who that pastor is — for the very basic reason that a pastor once violated that trust.

3. Clergy are not the only ones who abuse their power for sexual gratification, but they are the only abusers who represent the faith. The #MeToo movement attests to a history of abuses by powerful men (and some women) — leaders in areas as diverse as politics, medicine, sports, entertainment, the military, and the academy. The National Sexual Violence Resource Center provides important information and resources on how to understand and respond to sexual assault. Whenever a person is in a position to influence or coerce others, the potential for abuse is a present danger — doubly so when that person has been authorized by the community to speak on behalf of God.

4. Clergy sexual abuse is an abuse of religious power. Clergy and other ministerial leaders occupy roles within faith communities that give them significant power to influence others. They often accompany members through their most vulnerable moments. When religious leaders use this power to coerce or force those in their care into engaging in sexual activity, it is a violation of the ministerial office. Furthermore, abusive clergy often leverage their religious authority and expertise to interpret divine sanction for their selfish and harmful desires, telling their victims that “God meant this to be.”

5. Sexual abuse is a form of trauma, and the healing takes a long time. Survivors of sexual abuse need access to professional counseling, medical assistance, and other resources. Local women’s shelters and YWCAs can provide safe entry points for persons seeking assistance. The National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800.656.HOPE (4673) and online.rainn.org, is a safe, confidential service. These are initial points of entry. The work of healing is a long-term process.

6. Sexual abuse survivors are wary of going to religious leaders for help. Many people in our faith communities have experienced sexual abuse at the hands of someone they trusted. An estimated one in ten children in the US are sexually abused before their eighteenth birthday, carrying unhealed wounds of trauma into adulthood. Adult survivors of rape, sexual assault, and abuse also suffer long-term effects of this trauma. Because of the ways sexual abuse involves a violation of trust, survivors may not trust religious leaders enough to tell of their experiences of abuse.

7. Religious leaders are often unaware and ill-equipped to handle the range of needs of survivors of sexual abuse when they do seek out pastoral care. Most clergy are not trained about trauma and sexual violence, and some instinctively play into a victim-blaming dynamic, causing further harm. Yet, religious leaders can create a safe environment for naming the violation and establishing effective channels of referral to specialized, professional services. Religious leaders must improve the ways we offer assistance, help, and healing.

8. Faith communities often have trouble naming and addressing sexual abuse because they have trouble talking about sexuality (and power, too). Clergy can avail themselves of resources to lead congregations to break the silence and transform the conversation around sexuality. The Religious Institute offers sexually safer best practices and resources for congregational learning and becoming “a sexually healthy faith community.” Curricula, such as “Our Whole Lives,” offer congregants age-appropriate, life-long learning about sexuality. The FaithTrust Institute offers training and curricula for healthy boundaries in ministry and responding to sexual misconduct by religious leaders.

9. Remaining silent about sexual abuse contributes to the harm that has already occurred and perpetuates a culture of cover-up. One of the most shocking aspects of the Pennsylvania grand jury report is the degree to which decades of abuse were covered up and victims silenced by this church. All faith traditions share responsibility for breaking a culture of silence around the topic of sexual abuse. To do so, it is necessary to acknowledge the reality of sexual abuse through prayers, sermons, and educational programming in responsible ways that do not exacerbate past traumas or cause re-victimization.

10. Religious leaders must do more to educate themselves about ministerial power, sexual abuse, and healthy sexuality. As with any profession, continuing education is essential to professional development. To stay current with the latest knowledge about ministerial ethics, sexual abuse, and healing from trauma requires ongoing effort. Courses, workshops, and books are readily available for religious leaders through the institutions mentioned above.

These ten truths obligate us as religious leaders. We have power, the ability to influence people. To counter the abuse of power by some religious leaders, we must use the power we have to set things right. As an element of justice-making, we must engage in truth-telling. And being truthful to ourselves is one small but necessary step toward justice.

The Rev. Darryl W. Stephens, PhD, is Director of United Methodist Studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary and author of numerous articles and books, including Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach.