If Churches Were Frat Houses: Title IX Compliance and Clergy Sexual Abuse
By Darryl W. Stephens.
This commentary calls churches of all denominations to improve ecclesial response to clergy sexual abuse by embracing recent secular developments in trauma-informed services.
Is your church as safe as a college campus? April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month. For many college campuses, this means increased scrutiny of their policies, procedures, and personnel responsible for handling allegations of sexual assault on campus. If your church were a frat house, how would it measure up?
Compliance with Title IX by colleges across the United States is raising the community standard of what constitutes appropriate and effective prevention of and response to alleged incidents of sexual harassment, including sexual violence and coercion.
While churches are clearly not required to abide by the federal mandates of Title IX, there is much that churches can learn from these efforts when addressing sexual harassment and abuse by ministerial leaders. Churches that ignore these developments and improved practices are doing so at their own peril.
According to the U.S. Department of Education and its Office for Civil Rights (OCR), any federally funded education program or activity must show compliance with Title IX, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex. Enacted in 1972, Title IX is most familiar for ensuring equal opportunities for girls and women in sports. In 2011, OCR clarified that Title IX also pertains to sexual harassment of students.
“Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX,” stated OCR in a letter to colleagues in educational institutions. “Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature.” According to an accompanying Fact Sheet, “sexual violence means physical sexual acts perpetrated against a person’s will or where a person is incapable of giving consent.” This includes sexual coercion.
Since 2011, many colleges have devoted increased resources and personnel toward making campuses safer, investigations fairer, and procedures trauma-informed. This is largely due to legal pressures to comply with Title IX. There has been no corresponding movement among churches to improve the ways they address clergy sexual abuse.
Clergy Sexual Abuse
Sexual abuse by clergy is not a crime in many states. Many churches still have difficulty acknowledging the power differential in a pastoral relationship that creates a context for coercion. This lack of accountability motivated the National Organization for Women to issue a “Call to Criminalize Sexual Exploitation of Women by Clergy” in 2009. Still, many churches continue to operate as if there is not a problem.
The FaithTrust Institute—a standard bearer for efforts to address sexual violence and abuse—offers this definition of sexual misconduct in ministry: “When any person in a ministerial role of leadership or pastoral counseling (clergy, religious, or lay) engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student or staff member (adult, teenager, or child) in a professional [ministerial] relationship.”i
One defining aspect of clergy sexual abuse is a lack of authentic consent. The ability of the parishioner genuinely to consent to sexual advances by the clergyperson is severely compromised due to an imbalance of power in the ministerial relationship. Ordained clergy are not the only ones with pastoral power. Any ministerial leader can abuse the power of that office through sexual contact or sexualized behavior.
In the absence of state or federal standards or regulations, many churches have not found sufficient moral and political will to improve their practices of addressing sexual abuse by ministerial leaders.
Title IX Standards Translated to Church Judicatories
Standards developed for compliance to Title IX, particularly since 2011, offer basic guidance for churches. Procedural requirements include disseminating a notice of nondiscrimination, designating at least one employee to coordinate the institution’s efforts, and adopting and publishing grievance procedures for prompt and equitable resolution of complaints.
Translated to a church context, this means that churches need to develop and maintain up-to-date policies and disseminate them widely. Can members find their church’s policies easily? Are the policies up-to-date?
Every school has a Title IX coordinator. Does the church’s judicatory have a designated employee for handling complaints of sexual abuse by ministerial leaders? Does that employee have “adequate training on what constitutes sexual harassment, including sexual violence,” as required for schools under Title IX? Can victims of sexual harassment find the coordinator’s contact information easily?
Grievance procedures should also be published and available to every person in the church. Does the church judicatory have adequate procedures for handling allegations of sexual abuse by ministerial leaders?
In many churches, even if these procedures are public, they may be out of date, inadequate, or even dangerous. For example, church judicatories commonly misuse mediation. In cases involving an alleged incident of sexual exploitation by a ministerial leader, mediation should not be used to bring the alleged victim and the alleged perpetrator together to work out their disagreement. According to OCR’s interpretation of Title IX, “in cases involving allegations of sexual assault, mediation is not appropriate even on a voluntary basis.”
Misuse of meditation is just one example of failing to provide trauma-informed services. Many judicatory leaders—most of whom lack any specialized training about sexual abuse—are unaware that their sincere efforts to resolve complaints of clergy sexual misconduct may in fact lead to re-victimization. Churches can learn better practices by becoming trauma-informed.
Trauma-informed services are attuned to the particular needs of survivors of trauma (e.g., sexual abuse) and to lessen the likelihood of re-victimization through processes of investigation and resolution of the complaint. Trauma-informed services are not designed to treat trauma or substitute for appropriate medical and professional care. Rather, to be trauma-informed is to understand how traumatized individuals may react and respond in ways that differ from nontraumatized persons and to develop procedures sensitive to this reality.
The “core principles of a trauma-informed culture” include safety (do no harm), trust (appropriate boundaries), choice (promoting survivors’ voice and moral agency), collaboration (sharing power with survivors), empowerment (promoting survivors’ healing and growth), and cultural competence. The priority of this approach is the health and well-being of the traumatized person.
Schools are still learning to do this well. The Association of Title IX Administrators identified “[f]ailing to understand and use trauma-informed investigations and questioning” as the first of “The Seven Deadly Sins of Title IX Investigations.” According to this 2016 whitepaper, Title IX investigations should include four components: understanding the impact of trauma, promoting safety and support, proactively avoiding retraumatization, and promoting choice and empowerment of the trauma survivor.
Only a Beginning
Drawing parallels with Title IX is one way to assess church preparedness and response regarding sexual abuse by ministerial leaders. Churches and their judicatories must become trauma-informed and, even then, still have a lot of theological work to do. Church judicatories that are relying on policies and procedures conceived a decade or two ago are missing out on the more recent developments of trauma-informed studies. Churches must bring themselves up to the current community standard for responding to sexual assault, whether by laity or by clergy, in a sanctuary or on a campus, at church or in a frat house. And for this, Title IX compliance standards are only a beginning.
i Marie M. Fortune, Responding to Clergy Misconduct: A Handbook (Seattle: FaithTrust Institute, 2009), 30.
Darryl W. Stephens is director of United Methodist studies at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is ordained in The United Methodist Church and has Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Emory University. A frequent workshop leader, speaker, and writer on ethics in the church, he is co-editor of Professional Sexual Ethics: A Holistic Ministry Approach, and author of Methodist Morals: Social Principles in the Public Church’s Witness (University of Tennessee Press, forthcoming April 2016).