April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. In this day and age of #MeToo and #ChurchToo, churches are on the front lines. Assault victims sometimes confide in clergy and other church leaders when they feel there is nowhere else to turn. Churches are also places of violation.
Yesterday, yet another report of decades of abuse and coverup was released. Every week I read news reports about another church leader abusing their power by taking advantage of someone in their care. Of women who attend church regularly, 1 in 33 reported being the victim of sexual harassment or abuse by their own pastor. A 2017 survey of thousands of United Methodist laity and clergy revealed that more than 50% reported having been sexually harassed or abused in the church, its agencies, or seminaries.
Churches have a poor track record of responding justly to sexual assault by their own leaders. Victims too often encounter coverup, denial, and institutional betrayal when reporting sexual abuse by ministerial leaders. The problem is not confined to Roman Catholic clericalism and Southern Baptist mishandling. The United Methodist Church (UMC) also fails to care appropriately for victims and others adversely impacted by sexual abuse perpetrated by church leaders.
Rather than prioritize the care of the vulnerable, church processes are often written to reduce liability and deny responsibility. Denominational procedures are designed to protect the institution. Churches can do better when responding to sexual abuse and harassment. The General Commission on the Status and Role of Women provides resources, such as Do No More Harm: A United Methodist Resource for Responding to Sexual Misconduct, to advocate for better practices. To provide justice for victims of sexual assault by clergy, churches must become trauma-informed and display institutional courage. Procedures must center the needs of the victim.
A common failing among churches is the attempt to handle an allegation of abuse through a process that does not take into account power differentials. When power differentials are maintained and secrecy is encouraged, victims suffer re-victimization. Thus, in this article, I focus on the injustice use of “a just resolution” process in the UMC. When there is credible evidence of sexual misconduct by clergy or other ministerial leaders, an informal process of resolution is inadvisable and unjust. When caring for a victim of sexual assault, the procedures are as important as the outcome.
Inadequate Supervisory Response
The UMC provides a supervisory process for handling complaints of sexual misconduct (Book of Discipline 2016, para. 362). “A complaint is a written and signed statement claiming misconduct” and may be written by anyone with knowledge of the alleged offense—either the primary victim or a third party. The person writing the complaint is identified as the complainant; the accused is the respondent. When a bishop receives a complaint, one of the options available to the bishop is to begin a “supervisory response.” This is a point where the UMC’s procedures can begin to fail victims of abuse.
The supervisory response is an informal process for handling allegations. “The response is pastoral and administrative and shall be directed toward a just resolution among all parties. It is not part of any judicial process.” This is an admirable goal: “a just resolution among all parties.” It is important to note that sometimes the supervisory process does not fail the victim. However, the process includes many potential pitfalls. Not only does the UMC’s supervisory process fail to center the well-being of the alleged victim, the process does not even include the victim if the complaint is made by a third party.
The UMC’s supervisory response process is problematic in several other ways. The process assumes no guilt. “The complaint shall be treated as an allegation.” The process treats the parties as equals having a disagreement. Additionally, the process is secret. There is no written record and parties are usually asked to sign a confidentiality agreement. Fundamentally problematic, the process to reach a just resolution is patterned after mediation.
The UMC’s informal procedures treat a complaint of ministerial misconduct as a conflict between two persons. “The supervisory response may include a process that seeks a just resolution in which the parties are assisted by a trained, impartial third party facilitator(s) or mediator(s), in reaching an agreement satisfactory to all parties.” However, sexual assault or abuse is not a misunderstanding between two equal parties.
Sexual misconduct by clergy and other ministerial leaders is an abuse of power. When a pastor or ministry staffperson abuses the power of the ministerial office by taking advantage of a congregant sexually, the congregant is in a vulnerable position in relation to the clergyperson.
Mediation in cases of harassment or abuse is inappropriate prior to a determination of guilt. On college campuses, for example, Title IX policy prohibits mediation as an alternative to formal hearings in cases of sexual violence because mediation is not appropriate when there is a power imbalance between the parties. The same is true for churches faced with an allegation of sexual misconduct against a clergyperson or others representing the church. According to the FaithTrust Institute, “If an authorizing body suggests mediation before it has investigated the allegations, it is inappropriately using mediation to avoid action” (p. 135).
In the case of alleged sexual abuse perpetrated by a church leader, the supervisory process can replicate the imbalance of power that enabled the abuse in the first place if proper safeguards are not put in place. If the complaint is treated as a mere allegation, the victim-survivor is still vulnerable in this process, only more so. During the supervisory meetings, the bishop (or designee) may bring the respondent and complainant together, each with a support person. In cases of abuse, this is highly inadvisable: the complainant would be faced with a bishop and multiple clergypersons representing the best interests of the person and institution alleged to have caused the violation. The prospect of multiple meetings prior to determination of guilt creates an environment ripe for revictimization, in which the victim would be asked to repeat their story hoping to be believed. I cannot in good conscience recommend to any victim of abuse within the church to subject themselves to this kind of process prior to a determination of guilt.
Mediation in cases of alleged abuse is only appropriate after guilt has been determined, either by admission or adjudication. Only at this point should the bishop attempt a just resolution and then, only in the best interests of the victim-survivor and others harmed, with their consent. According to the UMC, “A just resolution is one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” A plain reading of this definition implies that this process is only suitable after guilt has been determined and harm acknowledged. Otherwise, there would be no harm to repair, nothing to be held accountable, and no need for healing.
Furthermore, the secrecy shrouding the supervisory response undermines the possibilities for healing and accountability envisioned within a just resolution. A confidentiality agreement serves to protect none but the guilty. So-called confidentiality serves only to allow the respondent a degree of control over how others may communicate about their violation of church law and to provide legal cover for the bishop and conference insofar as they might be found liable or complicit in any aspect of the matter. Transparency, not secrecy, is required for the church and its leadership to contribute to justice and healing.
The Church’s Accountability
The UMC’s supervisory process seeking “just resolution” too easily avoids institutional responsibility for holding clergy and other ministerial leaders accountable in cases of sexual misconduct. In many cases, it is up to the victim or a third party to prompt a supervisory response by writing a complaint. It is a lot to ask of a complainant to raise a concern, write a letter of complaint, invest time and energy to participate in a supervisory response, and insist that the terms of a resolution be just. This process seems unduly burdensome, if not punitive, to the whistleblower. What is the role of the church in holding clergy accountable?
In cases of alleged clergy perpetrated sexual abuse, why does the church not hold its own accountable? The Discipline allows anyone to write a complaint—including the bishop or a member of the bishop’s cabinet. For example, a district superintendent could take responsibility for writing a letter of complaint and serving as complainant when there is suspected wrongdoing by a clergyperson under their supervision. The burden of proof is minimal at this point, even less than the “reasonable grounds” required to move a case to church trial. The role of third-party complainant is an undue burden to place on anyone not in a role directly responsible for supervision and accountability.
Perhaps this is the crux of the problem with church accountability: Who is the church? If the church is the laos, the entire membership of the body of Christ, then every layperson needs to be equipped to hold ministerial leaders accountable. However, the secrecy of the supervisory process makes it impossible for laity to do so. Accountability requires transparency. If the church is the clergy, then clergy should hold each other accountable. But, as a layperson pointed out to me, can we realistically expect a clergy member to raise a complaint against a colleague? This is the problem of clericalism. Alternatively, if the church is the judicatory hierarchy, the bishop and cabinet, then it is the responsibility of the bishop to make sure that a complaint is filed, justice served, and healing achieved. This brings us back to the conundrum of supervisory response, in which the whistleblower, rather than the bishop, is expected to bear the burden of holding an offender accountable. Justice and accountability should never be the victim’s burden.
For the supervisory response to work well, even through a just resolution process, it must include agreed upon conditions for accountability and healing, and it must always include creativity, trauma informed responses, and transparency among all involved.
Increased accountability and a victim-oriented process would greatly improve the church’s response. The bishop should proactively assure laypersons, the Board of Ordained Ministry, and the broader church that the allegation is being handled with care. The judicatory should provide support for the primary victim, adversely affected congregations, and other clergy—whose ministry and integrity are implicated every time a colleague violates the sacred trust of ministry. Transparency throughout the process is paramount for restoring trust in the church.
The church can do better in holding ministerial leaders accountable and serving the best interests of those harmed within its structures. The Disciplinary process of supervisory response and just resolution can be implemented in ways that are more just, less traumatic, and more transparent. Bishops are in a position of authority to promote positive change in the way that The United Methodist Church handles complaints about and supervision of clergy. I pray that they will.
Revised April 11, 2023.
General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Do No More Harm: A United Methodist Resource for Responding to Sexual Misconduct, Lesson 14 of 20, Just Resolution, https://www.donomoreharm.org/#/ (in particular, the video “When is a facilitated just resolution process appropriate?”).
Sawyer, Lauren D., Emily Cohen, and Annie Mesaros, eds. Responding to Spiritual Leader Misconduct. Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2022. https://www.faithtrustinstitute.org/news/new-resource-responding-to-spiritual-leader-misconduct.
Shaw, Susan M. “Institutional Betrayal, Institutional Courage and the Church.” Baptist News Global. July 26, 2022. https://baptistnews.com/article/institutional-betrayal-institutional-courage-and-the-church/.
Stephens, Darryl W. “If Churches Were Frat Houses: Title IX Compliance and Clergy Sexual Abuse.” Feminist Studies in Religion blog, April 7, 2016. https://www.fsrinc.org/title-ix-clergy-sexual-abuse/.