Isaiah 60: 1, 5
Epiphany – a moment of sudden or great revelation or realization.
We were shaken awake in 2017 in America with the sudden realization that sexual abuse and harassment by powerful people of less powerful people is rampant in American society. Most common is abuse of women by men: Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and so many more. But it can be anyone who uses their advantage to intimidate and exploit someone at a disadvantage. As we know, abuse isn’t always by men of women, it can be between two people of the same sex, women of men, adults abusing children or youth, the rich abusing the poor, or as was reported just this week, parents trafficking their own children for sex to finance their opioid addictions.[i]
Sexual harassment and abuse occur when a person has an inflated sense of their own importance and a distorted sense of their place in the world, which leads them to go where they don’t belong and take what is not theirs. You can hear their distorted thinking, when abusers say, “I thought the feelings were mutual,” or “I thought the sex was consensual.” The first (original) sin the bible tells us about is taking what isn’t yours. That’s what happened in the Garden of Eden, when Eve and Adam plucked and ate the fruit that wasn’t theirs to eat.
In October I was with clergy and other professional ministers in Alaska, when we began to hear about the gross abuses of film producer, Harvey Weinstein. I found myself talking with clergywomen about the inappropriate ways laymen and clergy colleagues treat them. Hugs that turn into gropes. Suggestive comments about personal appearance or physical fitness. A “stolen kiss.” What is a “stolen kiss” if not one that wasn’t given?
Though I am constantly aware of these dynamics at work in our lives, I had fallen into complacency and given up hope of change. To shake myself awake again, I began a personal “Me Too” journal of the encounters in my life that crossed boundaries. I have 18 items so far. As I began to write, lost memories returned. I didn’t think there would be so many. They fall far short of criminal actions. I think of them as encounters that taught me to be wary – to watch out for unspoken intentions, for hidden messages, for intrusions into my personal space.
And then I began to count the cases of clergy sexual abuse I have had a role in responding to as a district superintendent or bishop. More than 25, overwhelmingly men who used the trust of their office to gain sexual access to vulnerable women.
Today, as we remember that God repeatedly shines new light and calls people out of darkness, I want to share three messages.
To women and others who have learned to be wary. I’m sorry. You can be the beautiful, whole, beloved daughters (children) of God. Own and honor the integrity of your personhood: body, mind and spirit. If you feel unsafe around someone, don’t “be nice.” Protect yourself. If you feel another person may want something from you that does not belong to them and that you are not offering, don’t give them the benefit of the doubt. If a person invades your space, your security, or acts without your consent – tell someone. Do not become compliant or make excuses for your abuser if your personal integrity is under assault.
To anyone who has been sexually harmed by a Church leader. Sexual abuse, misconduct and harassment by a clergy person violates a sacred trust. As your bishop, I take reports of misconduct by clergy very seriously. If you have been harmed by a member or officer of a local congregation, I encourage you to share your experience with your pastor, or other trusted leader in the church. If you have been harmed by a clergy person, or an employee or elected officer of the Conference, report your experience to a district superintendent or other trusted Conference leader, who will work with my office to restore the sacred trust of the ordained ministry, and to find a just resolution to your concerns.
To clergy and others in trusted leadership in the Church. Do not confuse self-giving love with self-serving love. It is never OK for you to become sexually involved with people in your care. It is always your responsibility to maintain healthy professional boundaries. Don’t put yourself in a situation where your intentions might be misunderstood. The Church has given its stamp of approval to you as a safe, trustworthy spiritual guide and companion at the boundaries of life and death. Just as you have the power to heal, you also have the power to harm. Your sexual attentions are not a form of ministry, or therapy. If there is something in your life that you can’t share with anyone – you may be a danger to the people in your care. Find a spiritual advisor, counselor, or mentor to help you sort through your “stuff” and ensure that you are a trustworthy pastor. If you do not or cannot maintain the sacred trust of your office, for the love of Christ, step out of ordained ministry.
Let this season of awakening open us to a new way of being in relationship, in which men and women of all sexual identities and orientations, and regardless of power or wealth, honor one another, until the radiance of God’s glory shines upon us.
Send me your thoughts.
Bishop Elaine JW Stanovsky | Greater Northwest Area
[i] NPR – W.Va. Officials Warn Of Increased Cases Of Human Trafficking
A link to the Oregon-Idaho Conference of the United Methodist Church personnel and sexual misconduct policy.