Sexual misconduct tests denominationLatest News Monday, January 31st, 2011
By Heather Hahn (UMNS)
The United Methodist Church has made strides in preventing and responding to sexual misconduct, but the denomination still has more work to do in helping people hurt by the church.
That was the message of M. Garlinda Burton, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, at the Jan. 27 opening of “Do No Harm 2011” at First United Methodist Church in Houston.
The second denomination-wide event on sexual ethics since 2006 attracted about 320 lay and clergy leaders from 58 annual (regional) conferences, including representatives from as far as Germany and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“I estimate that at least one-third to one-half of the dozens of victim-survivors I’ve counseled during the past eight years have left the church – either in shame or frustration – because they found no justice or healing,” Burton told the gathering. “We want people to come in, yet we have a lot of places that it’s not safe for them to be.”
In the past six months, she said, her agency has received 20 complaints of sexual misconduct. Burton also has worked with bishops, district superintendents, other clergy and laity in trying to bring healing in 10 additional cases.
And those 30 cases only represent the complaints Burton has been told about. At present, she pointed out, there is no central repository for reporting or tracking sexual ethics complaints across the denomination.
A survey of 6,000 United Methodists found:
- Half of all laywomen and one-third of laymen witness or are victims of some degree of sexual harassment or misconduct in their congregations, from inappropriate comments by the pastor or laity in leadership to physical assault and stalking.
- 77 percent of United Methodist clergywomen and 50 percent of clergymen say laity have violated their boundaries through unwanted sexual behavior or comment.
- Half the people who make sexual misconduct complaints at the local church level say the pastor or laity in leadership routinely “trivialize” their concerns.
The good news, Burton said, is that the church as a whole is becoming more aware, more vigilant and better equipped to “prevent, address and bring justice in cases of misconduct and malfeasance of a sexual nature.” On Jan. 26, during the pre-meeting for the “Do No Harm” event, 41 United Methodist bishops and district superintendents participated in a daylong workshop on best practices in preventing and responding with justice in the aftermath of misconduct complaints.
Burton challenged the church leaders at the event, which will conclude Jan. 29, to spend the next few days thinking about how to build into conference budgets sufficient funding to educate about and provide support for “victim-survivors” of sexual misconduct and their families.
“Instead of merely hoping survivors and their families won’t leave the church, can we formalize the process of helping them become a part of another United Methodist congregation where they will be welcome, respected and kept safe?” she suggested.
Provide for counseling
Burton also urged that district and conference budgets be reshaped so that victim-survivors of sexual misconduct and congregations can receive at least six months of counseling once abuse is reported.
That message resonated with the Rev. Vickie White, a district superintendent in the Mississippi Annual (regional) Conference. “One of the things I’m aware of that we have not done as well as we could have is providing resources for victims,” White said.
The Rev. Gary Beach, director of connectional ministries in the Kansas East Conference and one of the event’s presenters, said a congregation can still be deeply divided and hurting even 25 years after a case of misconduct.
Burton stressed that dealing with complaints of sexual harassment or predatory behavior is not just important to help the church avoid lawsuits; it also is a vital part of the church’s ministry.
The Rev. Will Green, pastor of St. Nicholas United Methodist Church in Hull, Mass., and a member of the New England Conference’s response team, agreed.
“If we are to be authentic in our witness, then we must be prepared and eager to engage in real, significant ministry to people in pain,” he said.
Heather Hahn is a multimedia reporter for United Methodist News Service. For complete story visit www.umc.org.