Seven Essential Steps of Just Sexual Harassment Discernment Processes

by Rev. Dr. Diane Johnson and Lisa Sharon Harper
The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements have uncovered a religious landscape full of heartache. Churches, denominations and non-profit organizations, alike, have struggled to respond in the aftermath of revelations of boundary crossing and trust violation at every level of church leadership and membership. Silence is Not Spiritual recognizes the unique circumstances facing faith communities that attempt to respond to revelations of gender-based violence and abuse in ways that stop the abuse and chart the course toward healing and restoration for all.

Gender-based violence is fundamentally about power and dominance. One party has been accused of leveraging their social, positional, physical and/or financial to dominate the other. The fundamental breach of gender-based violence is the breach of the image of God in the other—their inherent dignity and divine call to exercise agency over their own body, mind, family and future. This core violation demands that its remedy exercise extraordinary care for the inherent dignity of both parties.

The guidelines below are an attempt to identify a cohesive process that allows for a faith community to respond appropriately to the severe challenges of sexual harassment. These seven guidelines have been adapted from a variety of sources.

  1. Treat all claims/allegations—and those individuals who voice them—with respect, urgency and seriousness. Churches must respond without delay to the claims of gender-based violence brought by congregants, leaders, or attendees. In addition, the Church must not tolerate retaliatory acts by individuals or networks. Finally, congregations can be hotbeds of rumor, innuendo and speculation. If congregants ask staff or clergy about an allegation, they should reply that this is a confidential matter that is being examined.

  3. Be sure your congregation is compliant with all local, state, and federal laws in regards to sexual misconduct of employees. It is important to note that volunteer church workers ARE NOT protected by sexual harassment laws. This means that both paid and volunteer workers have the same right to an environment free from sexual harassment under the organization’s policies BUT volunteer workers do not have the same legal rights given to paid employees under federal, state and local sexual harassment laws. Volunteer workers will not have the legal right to back pay, reinstatement, lost future wages, attorney’s fees or any other remedy provided by law. Similarly, a volunteer church worker does not have the legal right to file a complaint with a government regulatory body; or to have a government regulatory body investigate the complaint and negotiate a remedy with the church; or to have the government sue the church on the volunteer’s behalf; or have the right to sue the Church for damages under the sexual harassment laws. The vulnerable position of church volunteers multiplies the importance of church employers’ preparation and intervention to prevent and stop any violence against and abuse of volunteer workers and protect volunteers from any and all retaliation.

  5. Use the resources of your denomination or adjudicatory authority (i.e. eldership, leadership) to respond to claims and accusations. This body should design an investigation process that protects employees or congregants from stigma or retaliation. The investigation process should include securing an INDEPENDENT investigation team—a team unconnected with the congregation, denomination or organization in any way, at any time. The investigation team should be made up of experienced human resource professionals and lawyers trained to handle sensitive cases of sexual harassment and assault.

  7. Create a standard objective process that is consistently applied in EVERY case and is understood by church employees/congregants as providing fair procedures for all involved.

  9. Take swift and decisive action when it is determined that wrongdoing has occurred. When it has been determined that harassment has occurred, those responsible are either fired or administered with disciplinary action decided upon by the adjudicatory body.

  11. When the investigation seems inconclusive, like it has come down to one person’s word against another’s, then follow the principle to “do no harm.” Eliminate forced confidential arbitration as part of a response to accusations or claims of gender-based violence or abuse. Next, examine the evidence and the investigative process—again. A 2015 study about sexual assault investigations at Arizona State University and California State University found that investigators that know there is more to a sexual assault case than “he said, she said” tend to take the case more seriously. It is important that investigations move beyond the testimonies of survivors and suspects. Rather, it is important to talk with witnesses, review security cameras, time clocks, phone records, text messages, voice mail and social media. More often than not, if it happened, evidence is there and can be found, if the investigation is taken seriously.

  13. Make it clear to all that church staff, volunteers and employees are responsible for keeping the workplace safe—and anyone who is silent or looks the other way is complicit.

The investigative process is a harrowing one. Church boards literally hold broken images of God in their hands. It is the duty of the church to seek the full healing of all—especially the vulnerable. Walk forward. Engage. Care. Pray and Pray again. Do this work as unto God—the image of God.

#SilenceIsNotSpiritual is a call to action to the Church to stop standing by and start standing up for women and girls who experience violence.

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