Leaders Respond To, Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse in the ELCA

12/11/1998 12:00:00 AM

     CHICAGO (ELCA) -- It may be one of the toughest jobs in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) -- listening very carefully to accusations of clergy sexual abuse, providing information about procedures to respond, providing pastoral care for all involved and taking action.  The key 130 people who deal with any reports of misconduct in the ELCA's 65 synods gathered here Dec. 4-6 for a leadership training event.
     "When a similar conference was held five years ago, the mood was much more anxious," said the Rev. Joseph M. Wagner, executive director of the ELCA Division for Ministry.  "This conference was a more relaxed sharing = of experiences, and demonstrated growing levels of competence by those who care for cases of sexual abuse."  The division sponsored the event.
     In 1992 the church adopted "an ELCA Strategy for Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Church," concrete policies and procedures for dealing with reports of clergy misconduct and for providing preventive education.  The document began with a theological base and concluded with the recommendation that after four years "some assessment be made of the state of the ELCA regarding sexual abuse."
     "The conference demonstrated that a lot of progress has been made in the ELCA regarding the prevention of clergy sexual abuse, and in the readiness of synod bishops and staff to respond to incidents of abuse," said Wagner.
     "The chief value of the event was to encourage, support and better equip those who provide this critical ministry to our church.  They are = the shock troops who walk into situations of great pain, and give direction = and hope for healing," he said.
     Sixteen workshops included such topics as "Hearing the Voices of Victims," "Healing in Congregations," the concerns of the families of offenders and discipline issues.  Plenary sessions featured three = speakers: the Rev. Pamela Cooper-White, Nancy Myer Hopkins and Phillip H. Harris.


     "Gender and power" and "the dynamics of sexual exploitation" were topics for Cooper-White, an Episcopal priest and author of "The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response," who maintains a private practice in psychotherapy in the Chicago area.
     "Unfaithfulness is not the only issue.  A pastor's sexual or romantic involvement with a parishioner is not primarily a matter of sex or sexuality, but of power, and the unequal ability of the parishioner to = give authentic consent," said Cooper-White.
     "Sexual exploitation is a betrayal of trust" placed in the pastoral office, said Cooper-White.  Such trust can also be placed in lay ministers,=

seminarians and others in a "supervisory, employer, counseling, spiritual
direction, evaluative or teaching relationship," she said.
     "We are talking about ethical matters that reach for each of us into the very heart of our own 'gendered' nature -- our sexuality," said = Cooper- White.  "As women and as men we do not come to this topic with the same experiences or perspectives."
     "Violence against men is commonly understood as violence, a crime, a violation of a person's rights.  Violence against women, however, in all its various forms, is all too often called something else ... just a = little joke ... seduction ... being in the wrong place at the wrong time ... poor communication skills ... masochism ... re-creating the abusive conditions of her childhood," Cooper-White said.
     The church is called to do four things: see and hear the truth; name sexual abuse and sexual exploitation as violence; move beyond helplessness,=

sympathy and anger to justice; and restore "right relation," said Cooper-
White.  That "right relation" is more than just between individuals, she
said; it involves all of society and all forms of oppression.
     "Secrecy, denial, distortions and lies are at the heart of all forms of sexual abuse," said Cooper-White.  "The institution of the church only has integrity to the extent that it represents God's own realm of justice and peace here on earth, God's own care for the vulnerable and a devotion to truth-telling in love."


     "If it had not been for the victims who found their voice and, in many cases, had to keep finding their voices, we probably would still not be doing very much ... to address this thing we call clergy sexual abuse, misconduct, exploitation, harassment," said Hopkins, a licensed professional counselor in Maine who is a recognized authority on helping congregations respond to the challenges of clergy sexual abuse.
     "There is no question that anyone who becomes a victim of sexual misconduct and brings a complaint has every right to be taken seriously = and to know that the church continues to hold its clergy totally responsible for maintaining the boundaries," said Hopkins.  "At the same time we must be strengthening all people in the pews so that they understand, before anything happens, both the promise of healthy clergy-parishioner relationships and what an unhealthy relationship looks like."
     Hopkins commended a 1996 publication of the ELCA Division for Ministry, "Safe Connections: What Parishioners Can Do to Understand and Prevent Clergy Sexual Abuse."  She added, "I hand it out like cookies."


     As the ELCA's senior attorney, Harris said he has heard a lot of "myths" that he hoped to dispel for the gathering.  Myths are a form of denial, he said.
     "Myth: It only happened this one time with this one woman," said Harris.  "Almost always the perpetrator has more than one victim," he = said, and that has strong implications for any attempt for someone hoping to be reinstated as a pastor later.
     "Myth: It's no big deal.  It's just adultery.  Everyone does it," said Harris.  "What makes me angry is that I hear this right here, in the church."  Adultery destroys relations within the community and with God, = he said, and may be even more damaging while it's a secret.
     "Myth: Victims of clergy sexual misconduct come forward for the money," said Harris.  As an attorney, he assured the group that the = accuser he sees in court wants two things: "They want to be believed; they don't want it to happen to someone else."
     Most victims contact the church before they call an attorney, said Harris.  "They sue us when they see indifference," he said.  "They get angry when they meet denial.  That's when they sue."
     Church members often blame the synod bishop or the church for not treating the accused pastor fairly, said Harris.  "What about being innocent until proven guilty?" he asked.  "Is the pastor given Miranda warning?"
     A Miranda warning, which police read to those under arrest to remind them immediately of their legal rights, is not appropriate when a bishop talks with a pastor, said Harris.
     "The bishop is simply asking for the truth," he said.  Warning would give the pastor the option of silencing witnesses, rallying support or finding some way to hide the truth rather than tell the truth.
     What about a "statute of limitations?"  Harris said that's a commonly misunderstood legal term that does not apply to clergy misconduct.  It would imply that if the pastor can hide the truth long enough, he should get away with it -- a reward for lying effectively.
     "We haven't had to use the process often, but I want to tell you the process works," said Harris.  Discipline and appeal committees begin with the assumption of innocence, he said.  "The process is designed to protect the pastor's rights."  It may appear unfair only because accusers take the charges very seriously, he said, and do not bring them without a lot of evidence.
     With all the pain and strife of disciplining a pastor for misconduct, why bother?  There is a small element of deterrent, said Harris, but the main reasons are for justice, truth, th


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