It was years ago. But it’s hard to forget the time you had to tell your team leader that you are experiencing sexual harassment.
I’d had weeks of inappropriate sexual comments from a male team member. This wasn’t innocently showing interest in a girl. I was receiving overtly sexual comments, and when I reacted against them, he told me to stop being so serious. “Can’t you take a joke?” he’d say.
It was so persistent that I knew my comfort level didn’t interest this man. I had told him verbally more than once that what he was doing wasn’t right. It was time to come forward. But I could hardly believe this was happening, especially because it had been happening in a Christian ministry.
Here, we prayed together and talked about faith together. This was one place you’d hope this behaviour wouldn’t happen.
Sadly, it can and it does.
How does this happen?
When the #MeToo movement hit in 2017, it was a wake-up call for anyone who didn’t already know that sexual abuse is rampant.
The #ChurchToo movement – a Christian sister to the original concept – just reminded Christians that they weren’t immune. Thousands of women and men told their own stories of abuse and harassment in Christian spaces, using the hashtag #ChurchToo.
Like many others, it made me wonder: how do Christians not see or believe that this happens in their own churches? There are lots of reasons.
“It couldn’t happen here” mentality
Like anyone, Christians can simply have their blinders up. We think of our churches, Christian charities and other Christian organisations as places of trust and honesty, and that everyone is trying to do the right thing. Reporting serious misconduct is a big deal in any context, but especially in a culture where it’s often not even on the radar.
Given that sexual misconduct almost always happens in private, there are rarely witnesses to corroborate. Sexual abuse also classically involves a power imbalance, making it easier to believe the accused than the victim.
Without absolute proof, other Christians can easily second-guess themselves and not report their abuse. This, then, allows it to continue.
Plain and simple. Christians haven’t always spoken up because they feel embarrassed or afraid.
The Bible can be weaponized by humans to cause harm. This could include ideas of “radical forgiveness” (pressuring an abuse victim to return to their abuser), or men thinking they have the right of sexual dominance over women.
Others have the (frankly concerning) theology that criticising Christians or the church is the same as criticising God. So they stay silent, or try to keep it “in-house” – and the abuse continues.
Good intentions, lack of plans
Even if the victim is believed, many Christian churches don’t have a structure in place for what happens next. Across the West, churches tend to believe that they are safe spaces for victims of abuse – but, ironically, don’t have any policy for addressing issues when they come up.
Whether it was knowingly or not, the result has been the same: Christians haven’t supported victims.
And it can have extreme results. In one disturbing article I read, titled “Sex Offenders Groom Churches, Too”, many sex offenders practised criminal behaviour in churches because they believe “religious people are even easier to fool than most people.”
And as more pastor sex scandals emerge across the Western church, it could be the tip of the iceberg.
What do we do?
The hashtag may fade from memory. But the truth is, there’s no reason to believe this kind of behaviour has gone from the church. To prevent it, we need to act to make our Christian communities safer.
Our first response needs to be to take allegations seriously.
Reports should be taken seriously in the first instance.
This isn’t the same as taking a side, but it is giving the victim the dignity of having their concerns followed up and investigated. Historically, victims have tended to be ignored or dismissed, even though the rate of false reporting is very low.
When victims come forward, their case needs to be listened to and acted upon to find the truth.
Forgiveness can’t be demanded.
Keeping the peace can seem like a Christian thing to do, but not if it’s covering up a worse sin.
I remember being asked if I could forgive my accuser, but it was partly motivated out of protecting my accuser’s reputation. Demanding forgiveness because it maintains the peace is another kind of abusive behaviour.
Talk about abuse and harassment, even if you don’t believe it’s happening.
Christian communities need to be more open about these topics. When we never discuss them, it’s even harder to discuss them when it matters.
Shame is also a powerful motivator to silence when victims are in these situations. Appearances can indeed be deceiving.
Know how to respond.
Considering our climate, not having a plan in place to deal with reports of abuse is no longer okay. Church leadership needs to consider very carefully how they’ll respond. But it’s not just at a corporate level.
If we haven’t already, it’s up to each of us to educate ourselves on warning signs and how to respond. Who would you go to? What would you do if it were you? Are you confident you’d be believed?
What’s clear is that the church hasn’t dealt well with abuse, and now the problems are coming home to roost. We need God’s wisdom to ensure that this kind of behaviour can’t continue among Christian communities.
If there’s ever a time to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew chapter 10 verse 16), it’s now.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter for World Vision Australia in Melbourne, and blogs at Twenty-Six Letters (twentysixletters.org). You can follow the blog’s Facebook or Twitter.
Cheryl McGrath is a communications professional with a background in editing and publishing. She works as a copywriter and lives in Melbourne.
You can follow her blog on Christian issues, creativity and culture at Twenty-Six Letters.
Cheryl McGrath's previous articles may be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/cheryl-mcgrath.html.