It’s not something you quickly forget, telling your team leader how you are experiencing sexual harassment.
I’d had weeks of inappropriate attention 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. “You just don’t get my sense of humour.”
It was so persistent and confusing that I knew my comfort level didn’t interest this man. Eventually, I got up the courage to come forward. It was humiliating and heartbreaking.
But what made it even more jarring was that this behaviour had been happening in a Christian context. Here, we prayed together and talked about faith together. This was a place where we were supposed to share the same values and respect each other. It was one place where I’d hoped it 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. My sense is it shocked a few people out of complacency. Even though abusive behaviour is the antithesis of Christian values, this kind of behaviour was rearing its ugly head – yet again.
This movement was another reminder of how naïve Christians can be about the reality of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. Possible reasons are numerous, and they could include:
“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. 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.
Abuse has no place in the teachings of Jesus. But, like it often has been, 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 tantamount to criticising God. So they stay silent, or try to keep it “in-house” – and enable the abuse to continue.
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.”
Don’t we think this is unacceptable?
What can we do?
My report was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I have not regretted it.
For me, it was the end of a chapter. But it’s not the end of the story.
Because this isn’t a finished issue. We are in a time of not only #ChurchToo, but also major sex scandals and church abuse scandals here and overseas. Around us, Western culture is hypersexualised, where pornography, prejudice and misogyny are all too normal. Churches can do a poor job of teaching sex education, and young people can grow up without a real understanding of appropriate flirting, dating and relationships.
So what do we do?
On an organisational level, there are an increasing number of resources to help Christian decision-makers. Individually, there are some ways we can respond, too. Here are some.
Any report needs to be taken seriously.
There is a large amount of evidence to suggest that false reports are very rare – as little as 1 percent. It’s also been found that, unconsciously, we tend to assume the rate is much higher.
Be that as it may, surely the rule of “innocent until proven guilty” applies here, too.
Weighing the evidence and due process are important. But survivors coming to you with an incredibly vulnerable story need the dignity of belief in the first instance.
Forgiveness can’t be demanded.
Forgiveness can take time, and it doesn’t always lead to reconciliation.
Feeling hurt and needing to heal isn’t sinful. Demanding that a victim forgive their abuser is another kind of abuse.
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 canvas them when it matters.
What’s more, fear is a powerful motivator to silence when victims are in these situations. You don’t know who’s struggling before you but is too afraid to share. Appearances can indeed be deceiving.
Know how to respond.
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?
More broadly, this may look like training our core leaders in specific responses. It may also involve more vigorous checks and balances on who’s working in our communities.
I hope that Christians can start to think more deeply about this issue – and not only that, but have awareness of what to do if it happens to you or someone you know.
If there’s ever a time to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), it’s now.
I have had misgivings about whether to write this article, as it alludes to some of my personal dealings with abuse. My aim has been to offer general reflections that apply to a wide range of situations, but there may be some who are aware of my personal circumstances. Please maintain privacy of all parties.