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LOWELL GRISHAM: In the midst of accusation

Kavanaugh, Ford and the processing of disputed claims

Some years ago I was called as the senior pastor to a church that had experienced multiple instances of clergy sexual misconduct. Whenever clergy violate their sexual boundaries it has a profound effect, not unlike incest in a family.

Before accepting the call, I did a lot of study about clergy misconduct. I learned that misuse of power is key. Professional people such as clergy, doctors, lawyers, politicians and teachers are given great power and trust by those they are supposed to serve. It is the responsibility of the person in power to maintain healthy boundaries. When a person fails to keep that boundary and uses power wrongly, it is always abuse.

The power differential is significant whenever a victim reports abuse. The person in power has considerable respect and position. A victim is doubly vulnerable because the system around the powerful person is instinctively protective and fears negative publicity.

I learned that the preponderance of abuse, but not all, is by men. I learned that false accusations against clergy are rare, but they do happen. That is significant.

How do we judge an accusation?

The church needs to protect and respect any possible victim. Sexual misconduct is profoundly damaging, usually leaving lifelong trauma. The church needs to act with compassion to honor and compensate a victim. The church needs to provide resources for healing. And in the rare case of a false accusation, the clergy's reputation, future and family are all tragically damaged. The stakes are very high. That is why process is central.

For decades the Episcopal Church has been working to improve its process. Whenever there is an accusation of clergy misconduct, the diocese immediately steps in to oversee a process of inquiry. They assign advocates to support the accuser and the accused. They bring in qualified counselors and spiritual support to help with the emotional, psychological and spiritual pain. And they establish an inquiry process that seeks to discern the truth in a context that is as safe as possible.

The process is still flawed. The biggest problem is the decision-makers generally have an affiliation with the church institution. That can create at least a sub-conscious protective bias for the institution's interest. The Roman Catholic Church is now suffering the consequences of prioritizing institutional protection over truth. The impact on victims of clergy misconduct and church ineptitude is staggeringly tragic.

I can't imagine how much harder it is for a congregational church to create a just structure. Especially a congregation that makes its pastor the public face and marketing draw of the church. It seems to me a congregational board of deacons would instinctively circle the wagons around the pastor if a victim dare come forward.

Processing clergy misconduct through the criminal justice system is an option. It inevitably creates an adversarial rather than a healing context. Courts often excel at punishing more than creating healthy justice. But getting the process into a more neutral institution is sometimes more just.

Whether sexual abuse is adjudicated by the church or by the state, it is likely to be judged disproportionately by men of power. When the issue is likely to be another man's abuse of power over a female, unconscious bias is likely.

Fair and healthy process is essential if we are to address claims of sexual misconduct justly. That's why it seemed inevitable that the Brett Kavenaugh hearing would be a train wreck when Dr. Christine Blasey Ford's accusation surfaced. The political interests for and against confirmation inevitably hijacked a healthy investigation.

Even in that dysfunctional context, there were moments I found encouraging. Evelyn Underhill wrote this in her classic The Spiritual Life:

"St. John of the Cross says that every quality or virtue that Spirit really produces in men's souls has three distinguishing characteristics ... tranquility, gentleness, strength. ... If, then we desire a simple test of the quality of our spiritual life, a consideration of the tranquility, gentleness, and strength with which we deal with the circumstances of our outward life will serve us better than anything ... It is a test that can be applied anywhere and at any time."

It seemed to me as I watched Dr. Ford's testimony, that I saw a women grounded in tranquility, gentleness and strength. Maybe her courage and candor will be healing and encouraging to thousands of women who are dealing with their own experiences of abuse.

Commentary on 10/09/2018

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