The truth about Christians who sexually harass and assault – by Cheryl McGrath
It was years ago. But it’s hard to forget the time you had to tell your team leader that you are experiencing sexual harassment.
I’d had weeks of inappropriate attention from a male team member. Sometimes it had seemed like it was okay – other times, the comments were clearly meant to make me feel uncomfortable and objectified. When I’d told him to stop, he’d ignored me, or laughed it off. Over and over. This had convinced me that it was time to say something.
Coming forward meant a huge amount of embarrassment, and I felt ashamed, sick and uncertain.
But what made it even more jarring was that this behaviour had been happening in a Christian ministry. Here, we prayed together and talked about faith together. This was a place where we were supposed to share the same values and respect each other. It was one place where I’d hoped it wouldn’t happen.
Sadly, it can and it does.
How does this happen?
When the #MeToo movement hit in 2017, it was a wake-up call for anyone who didn’t already know that sexual abuse is rampant.
The #ChurchToo movement – a Christian sister to the original concept – just reminded Christians that they weren’t immune. Thousands of women and men told their own stories of abuse and harassment in Christian spaces, using the hashtag #ChurchToo. My sense is it shocked a few people out of complacency. Even though abusive behaviour is the antithesis of Christian values, this kind of behaviour was rearing its ugly head – yet again.
This movement was another reminder of how naïve Christians can be about the reality of sexual harassment, abuse and assault. Possible reasons are numerous, and they could include:
“It couldn’t happen here” mentality
Like anyone, Christians can simply have their blinders up. We think of our churches, Christian charities and other Christian organisations as places of trust and honesty, and that everyone is trying to do the right thing. Reporting serious misconduct is a big deal in any context, but especially in a culture where it’s often not even on the radar.
Given that sexual misconduct almost always happens in private, there are rarely witnesses to corroborate. Without absolute proof, other Christians can easily second-guess themselves and not report their abuse. This, then, allows it to continue.
Plain and simple. Christians haven’t always spoken up because they feel embarrassed or afraid.
Abuse has no place in the teachings of Jesus. But, like it often has been, the Bible can be weaponized by humans to cause harm. This could include ideas of “radical forgiveness” (pressuring an abuse victim to return to their abuser), or men thinking they have the right of sexual dominance over women.
Others have the (frankly concerning) theology that criticising Christians or the church is tantamount to criticising God. So they stay silent, or try to keep it “in-house” – and enable the abuse to continue.
Good intentions, lack of plans
Even if the victim is believed, many Christian churches don’t have a structure in place for what happens next. Across the West, churches tend to believe that they are safe spaces for victims of abuse – but, ironically, don’t have any policyfor addressing issues when they come up.
Whether it was knowingly or not, the result has been the same: Christians haven’t supported victims.
And it can have extreme results. In one disturbing article I read, titled “Sex Offenders Groom Churches, Too”, many sex offenders practised criminal behaviour in churches because they believe “religious people are even easier to fool than most people.”
It makes me angry. And it’s time to make change.
What can we do?
My report was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. But I have not regretted it.
I am fortunate to have been believed and taken seriously. In the weeks that followed, Christian leaders confronted my harasser. He was forced to admit what he’d done, and he took counselling. It helped to know that my disclosure – which was so painful for me – had helped put him on the path to recovery.
For me, it was the end of a chapter. But it’s not the end of the story.
Because this isn’t a finished issue. We are in a time of not only #ChurchToo, but also major sex scandals and church abuse scandals here and overseas. Around us, Western culture is hypersexualised, where pornography, prejudice and misogyny are all too normal. Churches can do a poor job of teaching sex education, and young people can grow up without a real understanding of appropriate flirting, dating and relationships.
So what do we do?
On an organisational level, there are an increasing number of resources to help Christian decision-makers. Individually, there are some ways we can respond, too. Here are some.
Our first response needs to be belief.
If someone comes in and tells you they’ve been in a car accident, you’d believe them. It’s no different with harassment, assault, abuse, violence or any other crime of that nature.
Weighing the evidence and due process are important. But victims coming to you need the dignity of belief in the first instance.
Forgiveness can’t be demanded.
Forgiveness can take time, and it doesn’t always lead to reconciliation.
Feeling hurt and needing to heal isn’t sinful. Demanding that a victim forgive their abuser is another kind of abuse.
Talk about abuse and harassment, even if you don’t believe it’s happening.
Christian communities need to be more open about these topics. When we never discuss them, it’s even harder to canvas them when it matters.
What’s more, fear is a powerful motivator to silence when victims are in these situations. You don’t know who’s struggling before you but is too afraid to share. Appearances can indeed be deceiving.
Know how to respond.
If we haven’t already, it’s up to each of us to educate ourselves on warning signs and how to respond. Who would you go to? What would you do if it were you? Are you confident you’d be believed?
More broadly, this may look like training our core leaders in specific responses. It may also involve more vigorous checks and balances on who’s working in our communities.
I hope that Christians can start to think more deeply about this issue – and not only that, but have awareness of what to do if it happens to you or someone you know.
If there’s ever a time to be “wise as serpents, innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16), it’s now.
The truth about Christians who sexually harass and assault – with Cheryl McGrath
We want to introduce Cheryl McGrath to you today. She is another one of our listeners who shared her her blog with us and we really liked what she had to say. She has graciously allowed us to share a post from her own blog www.twentysixletters.org that she published on September 17, 2018.