Any institution that seeks to protect its own reputation and public image at the expense of truth-telling is probably going to abuse its power. Once again, sexual misconduct by church officials is in the news.
Sexual misconduct is usually not about sex. It's about power.
Power is an aphrodisiac. Power inspires trust. People in positions of power must recognize they hold the trust of others and that some people will be sexually attracted to them.
Whenever a person in power fails to maintain healthy boundaries toward someone within their sphere of authority, it is form of abuse. There is an inherent power imbalance. Their relationship is not equal. The person in power always has the responsibility to set the boundaries -- to respectfully say "no" if someone under their authority seeks to initiate a romantic or sexual relationship.
Healthy institutions create and promote strong boundaries to prevent sexual misconduct. Everyone who exercises some degree of power or authority needs to have training in boundary issues.
Every institution needs to have policies to respond to accusations of misconduct or boundary violations. The policies must be carefully crafted to protect anyone who brings forward a complaint. Sexual misconduct by a church leader is profoundly damaging, often leaving life-long trauma for the victim. Persons bringing such a sensitive issue to the church authorities risk being doubly betrayed if the institution fails to protect them.
It can be terrifying to bring something so painful and so vulnerable into more public scrutiny. Most acts go unreported. False claims of sexual abuse are rare. Whenever multiple credible accusers come forward, the odds are infinitesimally small that all are false.
Sadly, most institutions are reactively protective of their leaders.
This is the fourth column I've written about sexual abuse by people in religious authority. If you read my stuff, it all should sound familiar.
In each of those columns I said that congregational churches -- ones that stand independent of any larger system and and in which church decision-making is local -- are particularly at risk. I said it seems to me that a congregational board of deacons would instinctively circle the wagons around a leader if a victim dare come forward. Especially if it is a pastor who is the public face and marketing draw of the church.
I've long worried about congregations that don't have an authoritative external institutional structure charged to seek the truth carefully in a way that will protect a possible victim.
From the recent news reports it appears that the Southern Baptist Convention systemically failed to establish and follow just procedures to address accusations of misconduct or abuse. If I am not mistaken, the published list of church leaders who have been found abusing their power was limited to those who were accused and found guilty in public courts of law.
My denomination has worked for decades to improve its process. It's not perfect, but it is pretty good, seeking to discern the truth in a context that is as safe as possible. Whenever there is an accusation of misconduct, there is a structured process to protect the privacy of the person coming forward and to provide competent advocacy for all. The diocese oversees a process of inquiry, assigning advocates to support the accuser and the accused. Qualified counselors and spiritual supporters help with the emotional, psychological and spiritual pain of all involved. If the claim is verified, the church offers continued support and therapy for the victim. The minister will probably be inhibited from a pastoral role. If the abuser is a priest, there is a further process to determine whether the minister can be rehabilitated or will be permanently deposed. The process seeks to be respectful and empowering for the victim, and honest and fair toward the church leader. It is a system that understands the issue is about power and the potential abuse of power.
The process is difficult to do perfectly. An external authoritative structure is no guarantee of justice, as the experience of the Roman Catholic Church shows. The biggest problem is that the decision-makers generally have an affiliation with the church institution.
Victims of abuse need to be heard, respected and protected. They need a sincere apology, and assurance that the offense will never happen again to anyone else. They deserve help for their own healing. They usually want the offender to be helped, but certainly they want the offender to be prevented from any further offense. They want to make sure if there are other victims, those others will get help and support.