Thursday, September 27, 2018

#WhyIDidn'tReport: Will the Church Respond?

As I sit down to write this, it seems as though much of American society as a whole is going through a collective, public conversation over the issue of sexual assault and misconduct against the backdrop of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford detailing her experience of sexual assault by Brett Kavanaugh.  This reflects deeper issues within our culture as a whole.  It has sparked a powerful reaction from those who experienced sexual assault, sharing their own stories of why they did not report under the hashtag #WhyIDidntReport: revealing systems which often blames accusers, normalizes abhorrent conduct, and protects the perpetrators.  While the issue of the nomination of Justice Kavanagh is what is galvanizing this current discussion, this is something that has been brewing and building for years.  There is the ongoing revelations of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, which is about abuse of power both by those who committed acts of predation and in the coverup by the church to protect the institution at the expense of victims.  The crimes of Bill Cosby, for which he has been convicted and sentenced to prison.  The #MeToo movement.  And, of course, the pushback from those who have benefited from power and privilege.

Yet along with these powerful testimonies, there also is the need for men, especially those with authority, power, and privilege by virtue of gender -- and those in the church by virtue of ordination -- also to speak up.  To refuse to accept "boys will be boys" as an excuse.  To refuse to allow the normalization of abusive behavior.  It is shocking, but sadly all to predictable, to hear religious and political leaders offer some version of "What 17 year old boy hasn't done something like this?"

What 17 year old boy?  I went to an all male high school.  I turned seventeen a four years after Judge Kavanagh.  This one.  Not me.  Never did anything like that.  Nor the people I associated with.  Not because I'm a hero:  this is the insanity of the whole "What 17 year old boy hasn't done something like this?".  It normalizes abusive behavior and somehow makes non-abusive behavior that which is considered extraordinary.

Crusty has not commented much publicly on the #WhyIDidntReport, apart from a tweet here or there.  This is for a couple of reasons.

For one, I have tried to use what voice I have to amplify those voices of women that are speaking out: for instance endorsing, supporting, and lifting up my female colleagues who have rightly called out former Senator and Episcopal priest Rev. John Danforth for his comments devoted solely to Brett Kavanagh and not for Dr. Ford.

Another is that my understanding of sexual misconduct and abuse has been profoundly shaped by experiences of two people very close to me, who, while have shared their stories with me, but they are not not mine to share.  These stories are their stories, and for them to share.  One experience was shared with me at the time I myself was entering into my teens, by someone very close to me.  The person said they were telling me this so that I would try to make sure what happened to her didn't happen to other people.  When I saw something, to do the right thing; when I had a chance to try to change things, to try to change them; to in turn raise my own children some day to reflect these beliefs.  I keep a picture of her on my desk, and every time I am faced with a difficult choice or decision, I look to that picture to remind me of the cost can be of not doing the right thing.

Another is that I was taught growing up that doing the right thing in this world isn't something that one should be rewarded or brag about.  My father used to tell me, "You do the right thing because it's what you're supposed to do.  Rewarding people for doing the right thing just accepts a world where not doing the right thing is somehow considered normal."  

It may seem crazy to stand up and say, "Don't be a predator and treat people with dignity and respect!  Treat people who bring accusations of abuse or misconduct justly and fairly!"  But in this world we live in we must do so, otherwise other voices will drown out, shape, and dominate the discussion.  And I also realize that those with privilege have a responsibility to use what that privilege affords to try to shape a world that accords with values of equality, inclusion, and justice.  We can't pretend privilege doesn't exist; to do so is itself dependent on privilege.

Crusty also prefers to let his actions speak, since he has often found in the church, let alone in the world, words and speeches are empty unless they are translated into real, actual, tangible actions.  And, well, I have tried to act when called to do so.  COD has reported a male colleague for sexual misconduct. Crusty has advised students who have shared experiences of sexual misconduct or harassment with him what their options are under the disciplinary system of the church.  As academic dean, Crusty updated the Title IX policies at the institution where I served to provide processes for reporting sexual assault and misconduct that did not place undue burdens on persons bringing forth complaints, and which tried to reflect both mandates from the US Dept of Education and who we are as Episcopalians and the promises we make in our baptismal covenant.  As a Rector of a parish, I have incorporated a sexual misconduct and sexual harassment policy into the Employee Handbook where there had previously been nothing.  This has included definitions of harassment and misconduct and processes for reporting, and also extended and applied these standards of accountability to volunteers who are not employees.  In my 2 1/2 years in my current position I have preached four times on issues of sexism, sexual misconduct, and harassment in the church as part of broader reflections on the #MeToo movement.   

And as a parish priest -- despite the title of this blog I'm now just a humble country parson -- my main response has been responding pastorally.  I have listened to parishioners who are revisiting their own trauma of sexual abuse as this conversation unfolds in our broader culture.  I will be preaching on these issues this Sunday, with the Book of Esther as my text.

For all those reasons I have perhaps not spoken out publicly all that much, but I also realize that as someone with the privilege of being white, male, and clergy, I have to.  If not, then other voices will pretend to speak for me, and normalize behavior that is wrong, sinful, and abhorrent. 

But all the blog posts, tweets, and hot takes are all meaningless unless we are actually to make something of this moment in our culture, to try to bring about change.  All too often when faced with complex issues, we can wonder "But what can we do?"  Yet the reality is there are often real, tangible things we can do.  

What's hard is often not figuring out what to do, but having the will and courage to do what is right in front us.

In a church position where I was serving, the parish administrator came into my office one day.  I had been on the job about three months. We talked through a couple of things, then I said I was going to step out to grab some lunch.  She asked me to stay another 15 minutes or so, and as she did there was a kind of edge to her voice. I said I would be glad to stay, and asked why.  She explained to me the technician who serviced the furnace was coming in, and every time he did, he always asked her out to lunch or a drink, even though she had said no every time and also made it quite clear she was married.  She even asked him to please stop asking, but he kept it up every time he came in. He would compliment her on how she looked, doing so in a way that she found uncomfortable. She told me she did not like being alone with him in the building.  He was in his mid-60s, some 30 years older than her.

I asked her how long this had been going on. She said for a few years.  Years? I blurted. Years? I asked if she had reported this behavior, and she said she had, to a previous person in my position.  The reply to this complaint -- from my female clergy predecessor, by the way -- had been, "This guy gives us a good rate on servicing the HVAC, he did it for years when he worked for the company and now does it in his retirement for us at a reduced rate.  Why don't you just put up with it, it's not much to ask and we're saving the church money than if we had to find someone else."

After she told me this, I apologized to her for my predecessor dismissing her claims, for refusing to listen to her, and said that my predecessor had been selfish and wrong to treat her that way.  I then told her to treat herself to a long lunch, I would handle the technician. When he came in he asked where the administrator was. I said she was out. I could tell he was disappointed. I let him into the furnace room.  When he came up to my office after finishing the job I told him we were going to switch providers, and his services were no longer needed.

When the administrator came back from lunch, I told her I had already called up a different company and set up the appointment for the next service.  She said, "But that'll cost more!" I said, "You getting sexually harassed and feeling unsafe is not part of your job description. What both he and my predecessor did is not only a sin, it's against the law."

I could literally see the tension flow out of her body, as her shoulders which had been hunched up kind of relaxed.  She stammered, “I never thought it’d change so quickly.”

This story doesn't make me a damn hero.  I don't recount it to puff myself up or buff my woke credentials.  Only to show that all too often the problem is not figuring out what to do, but having the courage to do what is right in front of us. The solution to the situation was straightforward.  Yet a predecessor of mine had refused to do anything.

Several weeks ago I preached on the gospel reading where Jesus healed the blind and mute man.  As part of that, I talked about how when Jesus healed those who were marginalized by disability -- leprosy, blindness, deafness -- he was not just curing them of their infirmity.  He was restoring them to fullness and wholeness of life:  in a society which saw disability as punishment from God (as in John's Gospel:  Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?), where those persons in addition could not work or be part of society, healing meant giving them back their lives and their humanity.  They can not only now hear or see or walk:  they can take their place in society and not live lives on the margins, begging on the outskirts of the village.

This is also something  personal to me. I'm hearing impaired, I was diagnosed at age 24 with a condition that is very gradually robbing me of my hearing, and I wear hearing aids.  I don't talk about it much because sometimes I find people treat me differently, or don't know how to treat me.  Some people have even joked about it, mimicking that they were speaking but not saying any words.  While not making a big deal about it -- plenty of people have it worse, I am able to be a husband and father and have a calling I enjoy, and am thankful for all the blessings of this life -- nonetheless my life changed when I was diagnosed and I don't have the same life as I had.

What does it means to try to restore someone's life? As we will hear this Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary from the Book of Esther:  "As they were drinking wine, the king again said to Esther, 'What is your petition, Queen Esther? It shall be granted you.' Then Queen Esther answered, 'If I have won your favor, O king, and if it pleases the king, let my life be given me.'"

Esther has not been able to be her true self:  she has hid the fact that she is a Jew from the king, her husband.  Esther has lived in terror: the king's advisor Haman has plotted to destroy the Jews in the Persian kingdom.  She asks for her life:  not just her physical safety, but for her humanity restored, to be who she truly is, along with all the other marginalized Jews in Persia.

As Christians who claim to who preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, this is where we stand at this particular moment in our society.  Will we -- can we -- be instruments which can help restore people to their authentic selves?  Or will we simply reinforce the sinful structures of power and privilege, which the church does so well?

Consider this: the 79th General Convention of the Episcopal Church responded favorably to many of the recommendations of the House of Deputies Special Commission on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation.   The Convention voted to life statutes of limitations for three years on issues related to sexual misconduct, to require awareness training in dioceses, to remove gender identifying aspects from Office of Transition Ministry profiles to address implicit bias, among other actions taken.  The House of Bishops held a powerful listening session at General Convention, which, while not perfect, nonetheless marked an important step. 

Consider this:  Of all the main, daily, official General Convention eucharists, only one presider was a woman, and that was the day when most bishops and deputies went to the Hutto Detention Center, so hardly anyone attended that eucharist.  This despite a Convention that proudly trumpeted the fact that for the first time ever a majority of Deputies in the House of Deputies were women, and who several years ago proudly celebrated the fact that the General Convention had elected a woman as Presiding Bishop and elected a woman to succeed another woman as President of the House of Deputies.  The General Convention that had done all those things also had only one woman as presider in the year 2018.  

That's bad enough.  What's also terrifying is nobody seemed to notice or care.  I brought this up in a clergy meeting in my diocese, and someone who had been at Convention couldn't believe me:  "Really? That can't be right," the person said. I replied, as calmly as I could, "I know perfectly well it's correct, because that one presider was my wife."

General Convention can pass all the legislation in the world, but it's meaningless unless we take actual, real, tangible steps to live into the principles that we claim.  Words and talk are cheap.  It takes the courage and will to do what we know is right, and for those with power and privilege to lay those things aside.

Someone asked me, "So what can we do to make sure that what happened at General Convention doesn't happen again?"  I said, "Good God, it's not rocket science. The way you make sure you don't have more than one woman presider is this:  Step 1.  Recruit a broad range of people.  Do you think if they had a planning team that was 50% women there would have been only one presider?  Step 2.  Listen to people.  People can make all the recommendations they want, but if those with power don't listen, nothing will happen.  Step 3:  Some people need to lay aside their privilege.  I'm sure there were all perfectly good reasons why all those other presiders were men, they are likely all very fine people.  But to make room for diversity, those who have dominated must be willing to let go of power, privilege, and control.  This had nothing to do with figuring out how to have diversity in presiders, and everything to do with the will to do it."

We must have the will to live into what we have laid out at General Convention in response to the issues of sexual misconduct, harassment, and exploitation.  We must also take up matters Convention was not able to resolve or address, such as churchwide accountability for lay persons with regards to sexual misconduct.

As I sit here, with the Senate Judiciary Committee meeting on as I write, I am thinking:

Some day soon, I will have a conversation with my own son, not exactly like the one I had when I was not much older than he is now, but one which makes clear how we respect the dignity of every human being, and be clear about respecting women's autonomy and not normalizing abusive behavior, and to always strive to try to do the right thing, even if it's difficult.

That's a conversation I can make happen.  I find myself then asking:  Will my church be able to have the conversations it needs to have, that I can't make happen in the same way as the one with my own son?

And that I honestly do not know.

Then as I always do, I look at the picture on my desk as I try to determine what to do.  

As she looks back at me across the years, I click publish for this post.  I'm still trying.