The winter issue of the UU World is up online now and the hard copies will be arriving in our mailboxes shortly. The article by Kimberly French entitled “Offenders Among Us” explores the question congregations being open to both the victims of sexual abuse and the perpetrators of sexual abuse. She says that when this issue arose in her home congregation, emotions ran hot and high. They struggled with how to balance “the need for both safety and compassion.”
Many of us think of churches and congregations as the ultimate safe (perhaps the only safe) place in our lives. Raising the facts of sexual abuse in society (25% of all girls and 5% of boys in the U.S. having experienced sexual abuse or assault by the age of 17) means raising it in our churches, our “safe” place. And various studies report that between 5% and 20% of males have touched a child sexually. One in every 33 males is sexually attracted to child whether or not they act on it. French then goes on to state, “Even the lowest estimate means almost all of us live near, work alongside, go to church with, and interact regularly with child abusers.” Statistically she concludes, even small congregations contain both victims and abusers.
Facts are facts. And I understand that French is trying to get UU’s to at least start the conversation about the realities of sexual abuse. But what concerns me about her article is that it may well set off a storm of PTSD for victims, that it challenges the notion that churches can and are safe, and that it turns all men into potential abusers. Years ago, in an “Unlearning Racism” workshop, the facilitator spoke about her concerns with the “Take Back the Night Marches” that were regularly held in communities all over the country. Her concern was that she refuses to give men the identity of “potential rapists.” So men were all perpetrators and women all victims. Both identities diminished the humanity of both the men and the women. It took me a long time to come around to what she was saying. In theory all men could be rapists but we know for a fact that they are not. And in theory, all women could be victims but they are not. So I don’t want the “fact” that 1 in 33 men is an abuser to be the identity we ascribe to men in churches. To do so is to begin a “witch hunt” and to create an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in a congregation. This does not seem like the “beloved community” we love to proclaim as UU’s.
For the record, WUUC does do background checks on all adults who work with or provide care to our children and youth. We follow the safe congregation policy of there being at least two adults at all times in a classroom or on trips. Because Carrie and I have both taken the online course, “Sexual Issues for Religious Professionals,” I have given thought to how WUUC would deal with a sexual offender who wanted to be a part of our congregation. And both Carrie and I have an unwritten procedure for how to deal with accusations of a sexual inappropriateness or abuse within the congregation. The congregation voted in a covenant last year that outlines, “what is between our hearts.” So WUUC is doing many of the right things to prevent and address the possibility of abuse.
I have often said almost anything can be said from the pulpit. The key is in how it is talked about. How it is framed, how it is placed in context with some clear boundaries around it. Now that the issue of sexual abuse has been brought out into the open via the article in the UU World, I am hoping that we at WUUC can also talk more about it, what it is, the facts, how to prevent it, how to deal with the aftermath of it. We do a great job of talking to and teaching our kids about such matters through our OWL programs. But the adult OWL offering has never had enough folks signed up to make the class a go. Maybe now it will be different.
It is true that we cannot promise without a doubt that our churches are entirely “safe” places. Yet we can do all that we are able to make them so. And be ready to respond if abuse is alleged or committed. We may find the limits of our own and our community’s compassion. Kimberly French says, “It may be an impossible challenge to believe in the worth of people who have done heinous things. The First Principle may serve better as a commandment for our own moral behavior…”
So my friends let us speak openly and safely, about the issue of abuse. Let us do all we can to prevent it and all we can to address it when the issue arises. Let us lead with compassion for all who suffer because of abuse.
Peace, Shalom, Salaam,