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Our human relationships function within complex webs of power and dependency grounded in trust.

When I am sick, I go to my doctor. I trust him. I trust the power of his training and expertise. I also trust that he intends to serve my best interest to guard my health. In that regard, I am dependent upon him.

When my doctor has a spiritual anxiety or perplexity, he reaches out to me. I am his priest. He trusts me and my training and the symbolic power of ordination that I carry. He trusts that I intentionally serve his best interests to guard his spiritual well-being. In that sense, he is dependent upon me.

All of us entrust other people with power. We have a right to expect them to exercise that power for good. We are dependent upon them to do so. We willingly make ourselves vulnerable to their power.

Think of all the people whom we trust and the critical roles they fill in our lives: professionals like doctors, clergy and lawyers; caretakers and advisers; police officers, firefighters and military personnel; teachers, therapists, coaches, judges and elected officials. The list is long. Every part of society is interconnected by relationships of trust between those with particular power and authority and those who depend upon the faithful exercise of their trust.

When people who are in positions of power and trust abuse their positions and victimize the vulnerable, they damage the whole fabric of society. They destroy trust. Without trust and trustworthiness, community unravels.

More particularly, whenever a person in power victimizes someone who trusts them, the victim suffers profound trauma that can threaten their capacity for entering into trusting relationships. That trauma can last a lifetime. Usually it remains permanently as an explosively painful memory.

It is especially confusing for someone vulnerable to experience sexual abuse from a trusted authority figure. The violation sends mixed signals of affection and sensuality even as the perpetrator manipulates power abusively. Sexual abuse compromises so many aspects of our humanity. The damage can be profound.

It is no wonder that sexual abuse is underreported. How do you trust power and authority when you have been betrayed by power and authority?

It can be terrifying to bring something so painful and so vulnerable into more public scrutiny. Most acts go unreported. Methodologically rigorous research finds that false claims of sexual abuse are rare. Whenever multiple credible accusers come forward, the odds are infinitesimally small that they are all false.

Too often our systems are structured to protect those in power within the system. Leaders have power. They are valuable assets. Often an organization's image and potential is tied to the reputation of their leaders.

It takes wisdom, compassion and maturity for a system to establish just procedures to address accusations of misconduct or abuse.

I am grateful to be part of an organization that has a well-designed process for handling accusations of clergy misconduct. Whenever someone brings forward such a charge, the Episcopal Church has a structured process to protect the privacy of the accuser and provide competent advocacy for all parties. If the claim appears credible, the diocese takes charge, and the priest will be temporarily suspended until the matter can be judged fairly. If the claim is verified, the church offers support and therapy for the victim; the priest is inhibited from the clerical role. There is a further process to determine whether the priest can be rehabilitated or will be permanently deposed. The process is respectful and empowering for the victim, and honest and responsible toward the priest. It is a system that understands that the issue is power and the potential abuse of power.

I worry about congregations and other systems that do not have authoritative structures in place to deal with abuses of power. Congregational systems are particularly at risk, especially if the senior pastor is the public face of the church. If the pastor is credibly accused, the pressure is strong to cover up or to victimize the victim.

I am encouraged by the number of women who are coming forward to bring their experiences of abuse into the light. I'm also encouraged that many of abusers are taking responsibility and apologizing for their actions. I wish every accusation had a competent and just process for judging each complaint. Some can only be judged in the court of public opinion.

Society unravels if we cannot trust those in power to act for good. Society can only heal when light shines on hidden darkness.

Commentary on 11/28/2017

Print Headline: Abuse destroys trust

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