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A Zero Tolerance Approach to the Weinsteins in the Church?

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The following is written by a serving Church of England clergywoman, who has asked for her identity to be kept anonymous.

What a den of iniquity Hollywood is! Harvey Weinstein accused of molesting all those women – even a man – and yet no one felt able to speak out till now!

But what of the Church?  The place where we speak of the love of God, of His forgiveness, where Holy Communion is celebrated. Church, we preach, should be a safe haven for all – safe from the likes of Weinstein.  Shouldn’t it?

I am now middle aged and have been intimately involved in the Church all my life.  For most of that time, I have felt loved and nurtured in the faith community. However, sadly I know from personal experience and observation that we, the Church, have people like Weinstein in our midst…even amongst the clergy.  I speak of clergy who flirt and make inappropriate remarks to women, making it impossible for that woman to feel that they can safely access pastoral care from that priest.  Clergy who touch women without their consent – no matter how “innocently”, who make sexual advances, who sexually assault and even rape.  We have clergy in our midst who prey upon women at vulnerable times in their life, luring them with their “best pastoral skills” and then using the opportunity to emotionally and sexually abuse.

Surprised?  Like any other walk of life, it happens!  But why do women not report these clergy?  Why do they not speak out?

Let me explain – based on my own experience.

Many of these clergy are married and so the victim often knows the perpetrator’s wife and family.  They are aware that if they report the matter, in reality the abuser will receive minimal justice and if he is found guilty, then it is his wife and family who will pay the highest price.  You may say that that I’m being melodramatic, but what do you think happens to the perpetrators’ families in these circumstances?  It is they who lose their home and as many do not have any other housing provision, they are left with nowhere to go.  The victim knows this will be the price, so they choose to stay silent.

Sadly, many of us women are very used to being assaulted or molested – you only have to look at the significant number of people responding to the #metoo campaign to see this.  However, arguably one of the saddest findings from these public revelations is that so many thought it was not bad enough to report.

I have often heard male clergy talk of ‘Cassock Chasers’; that is, women who “fancy clergy and chase after them”.  In the same way that woman are terrified of being labelled ‘bunny boilers’, church women are afraid of being called ‘cassock chasers’. So, they say nothing.  This is also tied in with a fear of not being believed.  “Remember that Father So and So? He does such a lovely funeral.  He has wonderful pastoral gifts and does fantastic work in the community”.  Who is going to believe that he is capable of such a terrible sexual assault?  No, it is the woman who must be deluded – she must be making it all up.

Many women think they are the only ones that this has happened to and in a culture where ‘victim blaming’ is so prevalent, women often blame themselves, wondering if they somehow provoked the assault.

It is not until accusations are finally made that others then come forward.  This in turn can lead to accusations that people are just ‘jumping on the bandwagon’. Not at all!  It is a realisation from victims that they are not alone and that finally, collectively they will be believed. It can take a long time for victims to come forward, sometimes not until after the death of the perpetrator, because only then does the victim feel safe enough to do so.

Most will agree that talking about even a positive sexual encounter with someone who is unknown to you, such as your doctor, is difficult.  However, talking about a sexual encounter that violated you, made you feel dirty, ashamed and frightened with unknown “officials” is almost impossible.

As a newly ordained person, I am even more acutely aware of the power of the clerical collar.  I have felt incredibly privileged to hear the personal stories of strangers, who felt trust in what I stand for when wearing my collar.  It breaks my heart thinking of people – often the most vulnerable in our midst – who have put their trust in their clergy, the very same who go on to misuse that trust for their own ends.

It seems to me that we need to develop Zero Tolerance attitude in our churches for inappropriate sexualised behaviour of any kind, however “low level” it may seem.  If people are to encounter God, they need to be an environment that feels safe.  Clergy promise to fashion their lives in the way of Christ and this should be apparent in their conduct and engagement with others, especially those who are vulnerable. Victims must be heard and believed. Even if their case doesn’t end up in court, knowing that the Church listened lovingly and carefully, and then disciplined clergy appropriately, will go a long way to making our church a safer place to be.  It will send a very powerful message that the church is not a soft target for those who choose to do evil.

At our Baptism, we promise to resist evil.  That promise is revisited in the ordination vows.  Clergy and lay people alike must be committed to that promise, even when it means resisting the evil in our midst.

In writing this article, I have focused on the experience of women only because I feel that it is not my place to speak for men.  I would like to acknowledge however that there are many men out there who have experienced similar situations to the ones I have highlighted, and it would be good to hear their voices too.

I have not felt able to put my name to this article because I have seen at very close quarters, how victims are treated and made to feel that they are the ones who have issues and need to ‘get over it’.  We never ‘get over it’, but we learn to live with it and those of us who go on to be ordained do so, in part, because we believe it must be better to do pastoral ministry better and because we believe strongly in those ordination vows.

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