The resulting backlash turned 2017 into a watershed year in the long-overdue development of sexual misconduct awareness and response.
In the 2017 Sexual Misconduct in The United Methodist Church report from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women in the UMC, there was this sobering finding: “Over the previous 25 years, although many famous men were accused of sexual misconduct, most enjoyed few or no repercussions.”
While there has been progress on issues surrounding sexual misconduct, society and churches still need to do more, said Rev. Morgan Whitaker Smith, an ordained elder in extension ministry in Lakeland.
She attended last month’s Do No Harm 2018, along with Deacon Cathy Hart, Gulf Central District Superintendent Rev. Dr. Candace Lewis, Provisional Deacon Madeline Luzinski and Rev. Dr. Tapiwa Mucherera, a professor of pastoral counseling at Asbury Seminary in Orlando.
The summit was organized by the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the United Methodist Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force.
“Overall, I felt it was very hopeful,” Whitaker Smith said. “We have a long way to go but we've come a long way also in terms of making the church and our other institutions safer for all people.”
|The Rev. Ruth Marston-Bihl takes her turn at the microphone during a discussion period at Do No Harm, The United Methodist Church’s sexual ethics summit. The event, held in San Antonio, drew about 280 people, including seven United Methodist bishops. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS|
The United Methodist Church has held similar summits in the past, although this one was especially timely. More than 300 people attended this year’s conference in San Antonio, including clergy, conference staff and laity from Alaska to Africa.
That global approach resonated with Rev. Madeline Luzinski, chairperson of the Florida Annual Conference’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW).
“The conference really spoke to issues of sexual harassment, sexual ethics and sexual violence that are worldwide,” Luzinski said.
“(The conference shows) we're having conversations not only in the United States. It was something that gave me a lot of hope to see the ways that we're addressing these topics, not only here in the U.S., but also with our brothers and sisters around the world.”
Luzinski also takes heart from the fact that more victims feel able to share their stories today.
She said more church resources are being allocated for this issue so that victims can feel comfortable telling their stories and receive much-needed support.
This, she said, made her feel “really encouraged.”
Bishops sent representatives from each annual conference to receive training in administrative/judicatory response, advocacy for the accused and the alleged victim and integrity and healthy boundaries.
Once trained, it is hoped those representatives return to their conferences and develop plans and training to both prevent and respond to sexual misconduct.
|Dawn Wiggins Hare, top executive of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, speaks at the 2018 Do No Harm conference of The United Methodist Church. The sexual ethics summit was held in San Antonio, and drew clergy and laity from across the denomination, including the Central Conferences. Photo by Sam Hodges, UMNS|
Do No Harm comes on the heels of a joint statement earlier this year by the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women that “strongly encourage and support the reporting of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment allegations within the church.”
A therapist, Whitaker Smith has treated patients in cases of clergy sexual misconduct. Victims are sometimes traumatized twice in such cases.
“A lot of people experience levels of betrayal. There's the harm caused by the actual incidents, but then there's the levels of harm caused by the church not always responding appropriately and not being helpful,” she said. “People also don’t necessarily know how to support (victims), so a lot of times, if you're a victim survivor, you also will have this secondary loss of many different kinds of relationships.
“You become very isolated. You can almost become a pariah; and that adds a whole other level of trauma onto the trauma that happened initially, and it can make it so much worse.”
The issues raised by #MeToo movement are familiar to Dr. Sharon Austin, the Florida Conference’s Director of Connectional and Justice Ministries. COSROW is a part of that ministry.
“It’s a convergence of issues about the voices of women (being heard), the concerns around the credibility of women and concerns around the safety and security of women … because clearly if women are still in the struggle to be accorded first-class citizenship, then clearly every other issue I mentioned remains compromised,” Austin said.
Whitaker Smith’s advice to another who has suffered is to reach out for help. Victims may also need to contact authorities immediately, especially in cases involving children or vulnerable adults.
“I would advise them to take care of themselves, to seek help through a mental health provider and to know that they have options if they chose to report the misconduct or the abuse,” she said.
“Know that they will be believed and that the church will respond appropriately; that there will hopefully be proper support given to them through the church. But first and foremost, to do the things that they need to do in order to keep themselves healthy.”
It's still difficult for a victim survivor of sexual abuse to come forward.
“In many cases, they are risking a lot of things to come forward, so it takes a lot of courage and a lot of bravery,” Whitaker Smith said.
“As a society, I think we're moving in the right direction … I wish we moved faster but at least we're taking the right the right steps.”
--Kevin Brady is a freelance writer in Tampa
Who to call1-800-96-ABUSE - Any incident involving a child or vulnerable adult should be reported immediately.
1-800-523-8390 – A confidential number for support to talk with someone at The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women.
#MeToo Toolkit - The toolkit offers resources of printed materials, links to important websites, as well as suggestions for participatory conversations designed to encourage dialogue to help people identify, understand and respond to the reality of sexual misconduct. All is intended to help guide people to a deeper understanding of the problem of sexual misconduct and resources/beliefs of The United Methodist Church in response to this problem.
UMSexualEthics.org is a dedicated website to provide information for laity, clergy, church leaders and anyone interested in finding resources on how to respond to and prevent sexual misconduct in The United Methodist Church.
General Commission on the Status and Role of Women - Free resources from the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women