The Church and the #metoo movement

By OSV Newsweekly

For a few days in October, it was almost impossible to log into social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook and not see posts about #metoo.

The hashtag was used by people — mostly women, but some men — who wanted to show the pervasiveness of sexual harassment and sexual abuse. Some shared their stories; others simply wanted to be counted in a group to which no one wants to belong. Many men expressed support, but they also expressed shock that so many of their friends, so many of their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters, had experienced harassment or abuse.

The phenomenon arose in the wake of allegations of sexual harassment and rape against media mogul Harvey Weinstein, who was ousted from his company and stripped of membership in professional organizations. As more people shared their stories, more men were accused — leaders in the entertainment industry, but also in business, politics and sports.

Sex and power

Sister Helena Burns, a Daughter of St. Paul who is based in Toronto, was pleased — not at the number of people who said they had been abused or harassed, but that finally people were paying attention and that a powerful man paid a price.

“You know this has gone on forever,” said Sister Helena, who speaks on media literacy and theology of the body and reviews movies. “It goes back to the ’20s and ’30s in Hollywood and the proverbial casting couch.” The men — and they almost always are men — who do this, she said, see it as a power game. “It’s definitely about sex, but it’s more about power,” Sister Helena said. “They think they’re above the law, and they can do what they want.”

Although treating people as objects that exist to be used is a basic and profound violation of human dignity, the attitude that such behavior is permissible has spread, Sister Helena said, and given rise to what’s become known as “rape culture,” with high-profile cases of teenagers not only perpetrating or becoming victims of sexual assault, but spreading images and videos of assaults on social media.

According to the National Institutes of Justice and the Centers for Disease Control, 1 in 6 American women and 1 in 33 American men are victims of an attempted or completed rape in their lifetimes; 9 in 10 rape victims are female.

That doesn’t count incidents of harassment and abuse that are not rape.

Where the Church fits

The Church has much to say about a culture that has allowed sexual abuse and harassment to become pervasive, but there has been little official Church reaction to the #metoo phenomenon.

“I don’t know if the Church takes a position on social media movements,” said Teresa Kettelkamp, who led the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ child protection office from 2005-11 and who has staffed the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. But, she said, the Church has much to say about a culture that has allowed people in power to prey on those they see as vulnerable. The question is how effective the Church’s voice will be.

“For the Church to foster change, the Church has to have credibility,” Kettelkamp said, and the Church’s credibility has been damaged by the scandal of clerical sexual abuse. “Credibility can be restored by the Church keeping her promises to protect the children in her care and by being open and transparent. As long as the Church hesitates to be open and transparent on any issues, whenever she stumbles on her promises, that hurts her credibility.”

That’s unfortunate, because the Church has learned much since 2002, when the abuse crisis broke, Kettelkamp said. The Church has changed its own culture and contributed to a change in the general culture.

“Now child protection is on everyone’s radar,” she said. “Whether you’re in the Catholic Church or you’re in a nongovernmental organization or a medical organization, you have a plan to protect children. Before, protecting children wasn’t a priority, because no one thought it was necessary.”

Gina Wolfe, associate professor of Catholic theological ethics at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, likened the problem of sexual harassment and abuse to the problems of domestic violence and pornography in that, in the past, people just didn’t talk about them. The lack of attention allowed them to flourish, she said, and only in recent years has the Church really started addressing them.

An example, she said, is the work that Dominican Father Charles Dahm has done on domestic violence in the Archdiocese of Chicago. The ministry is part of the archdiocese’s Department of Parish Vitality and Mission and aims to raise awareness of the problem, offer services such as support and group counseling to victims and perpetrators, and prevent future domestic violence by working with young people. Its website serves as a resource to parishes and agencies beyond the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Chicago, Wolfe said.

The Church could do something similar to talk about sexual harassment and abuse.

“There are models that already exist,” Wolfe said. “We could get the same kind of experts, social scientists and psychologists and psychiatrists and theologians to reflect on and come out with the same kinds of resources.”

Father Dahm agreed, noting that there is an overlap between domestic violence and sexual assault. But it’s an uphill battle, he said. It took years for his ministry to expand to where it is now, with 80 parishes in the archdiocese hosting domestic violence awareness groups.

Part of the problem, he said, is clergy who are unaware of the problems their parishioners — especially female parishioners — face. “I still have priests tell me domestic violence is not a problem, or it’s not an important problem, or it’s not a problem in their parish,” he said. “I have spoken about domestic violence in 115 parishes, and every time, the laity is so happy someone is talking about it, because it is so evident to them.”

Ready to respond

Wolfe said that if parishes do address sexual harassment and violence, they should be prepared to help people who come forward with their stories.

Mary Jane Doerr, director of the Archdiocese of Chicago’s Office for the Protection of Children and Youth, said her office already received a request from one parish already for assistance in providing resources to victims of sexual abuse or assault who might come to them in the wake of #metoo.

Doerr, formerly the assistant director of the USCCB’s Secretariat of Child and Youth Protection, connected the parish to the archdiocese’s Assistance Ministry, which was set up to help victims of clerical sexual abuse, to offer resources.

But, she said, without a specific invitation, she doesn’t know whether victims of sexual abuse or assault would see the Church as a place to turn for help.

One way the Church can help the wider culture is by sharing the lessons it has learned in the last 15 years.

“We have been changing the culture in our parishes and schools,” she said. “We have taught people that you can do something about it. I can see something and I can stop it, and I can do something about it.”

The Church also knows the pitfalls to avoid: having leaders think “that can’t possibly happen here,” or “it only happened to one person.”

“It’s never just one person,” Doerr said. She, like Sister Helena, said she was pleased to see how the response to sexual abuse allegations has changed.

“The people who complained about Bill Cosby didn’t get listened to like this,” Doerr said. “There’s been a big shift.”

She also said the Church should be ready to deal with sexual harassment allegations in its institutions and parishes.

“We know it’s there,” she said. “We know it’s happening in every segment of society. We have to do the right thing. The Church acts best when it acts like the Church.”

This article comes to you from OSV Newsweekly (Our Sunday Visitor) courtesy of your parish or diocese.


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