My Confusion Regarding Claims of Sexual Harassment

by the Revd Canon Simon Butler, Prolocutor for the Province of Canterbury


Part of my partner’s job is to deal with disciplinary complaints in his workplace. Among the matters he has to investigate are allegations of sexual harassment and other forms of inappropriate behaviour. As an outsider to his working environment I can easily see how people get themselves into trouble on this matter. Close working relationships blur professional boundaries, signals are misinterpreted, social media compound the problems, and sometimes personal slight, hurt, mental health issues or even a desire for revenge become the pretext for launching formal complaints. In the complexity of human relationships, genuinely bad, dangerous and harmful behaviour clearly occurs. Scripture reminds us that “all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God”. We do well to remember that all of us leave behind us a trail of damaged human relationships of some sort or another.

In my naivete I like to think that such matters are black and white, and that anyone who has been harassed or assaulted will want to come forward and make their allegations known to be dealt with by due process. But it doesn’t seem to be as straightforward as that. I recognise that there is a power dynamic that exists between (mainly but not exclusively) powerful men and less-powerful women, often compounded by seniority in the workplace/parish, that makes coming forward or challenging bad behaviour hugely risky. I also see that there needs to be robust enough processes to ensure that there is confidence to know that allegations, when made, will be dealt with appropriately. When matters are not addressed formally, for often understandable reasons, we find ourselves in a very unsatisfactory situation, where claims of harassment are shared between friends and supportive colleagues outside of due process, in a way that make them entirely unsubstantiated rumour. In such cases one is naturally forced to assume that the person who claims harassment is telling the truth, or has understood what can often be a complex situation accurately. Hence the large amount of rumour swirling around, with very little firm allegation. This is deeply confusing to me and I fear it easily poisons the wells of reliability when it comes to formal processes.

ViaMedia has recently published anonymous testimony of two clergy people who told stories of harassment in church contexts. None of us are in a position to judge the claims made because they are by their nature anonymous and as such there is only one side of the story known. This is made more complicated by inadequate institutional responses which diminish the seriousness of the accusations, or the bad advice of sympathetic friends, who advise a complicit silence.

Having been the victim of serious false allegations of an entirely different sort myself – whether malicious or foolish I don’t think I’ll ever know – I have a degree of human sympathy for those who are accused without proper process. But I am acutely aware that I have, culturally and by dint of my personality, a lot of power, which can prevent me being as aware as I perhaps need to be about the problem. Therefore, I feel genuinely confused about the current swirl of concern about sexual harassment in the church and in wider society. I need some help.

If I’m brutally honest what won’t help is inverse mansplaining about how I don’t understand the problem because I’m a man. But if I and others who are as confused as me can show our willingness to understand better, then we should take a stand by providing safety and support to those who need to come forward and turn their silent suffering and often their sense of shame and humiliation into empowered formal complaint. Without that, I fear I’ll just remain confused!

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5 Responses to My Confusion Regarding Claims of Sexual Harassment

  1. kevinwscott says:

    We are obviously in a highly charged atmosphere at the moment because of the years of unacknowledged abuse. Quite rightly women (and some men) feel that at last their anger can find a voice and demand justice and change.

    But I suspect that a lot more heat has to be expressed before we find a way forward.

    For me as a man the way forward begins with listening and more listening. I have initiated a number of conversations and discussions in my Parish during which, hopefully, women felt safe to tell me what their experience was like. What has emerged is a very complex situation, with women themselves acknowledging the complexity.

    For example, I asked a group of women how they experienced touch from men within the worship and social life of the Parish. They said that they were comfortable with it, but … ‘it depended on who it was’. What was it, I asked, about those bad experiences which made them bad? They said there was just ‘something about’ some men which made them feel uncomfortable. They were the first to recognise that this kind of experience doesn’t lend itself to creating a set of rules, nor is that a mature way forward. Women need safe opportunities to talk men and men need to listen.

    One caveat: men must not use this as an opportunity to thrust women into a nurturing role – “tell us what to do; it all depends on you as women setiing the right groundrules’. That would be a number of steps in the wrong direction.

  2. Janet Fife says:

    Many clergy have received malicious accusations of one sort or another, me included. Years ago someone told the bishop I’d had a row with a churchwarden and thrown him out of the church. Which would have been very funny if the bishop hadn’t believed it for the few months it took him to get around to asking me about it. It’s so easy to make trouble for someone with an accusation of abuse if you feel that way inclined, or you want to make a power grab in the church or community, or you feel threatened by what the vicar is doing. So I agree the present climate doe suppose dangers, and really any of us could be the next victim.

    On the other hand I also know personally how difficult it is to be believed, or have appropriate action taken, if you are on the receiving end of bullying, harassment or abuse. Thank God the Church is now appointing professional safeguarding officers who have experience in making decisions that require the wisdom of Solomon. In the past it was too often down to whether the bishop regarded you as ‘one of us’. And women seldom were.

  3. ckatsarelis says:

    False witness definitely hurts. However, the bigger problem is the actual abuse and how it is handled. The question about how touching in the worship service is received by women may be interesting, but it is unlikely that a man would try a major violation in that public setting. Groping and unwanted passes typically happen when others aren’t looking. There’s little room for verbal harassment and inappropriate words in a worship service unless it is coming from the homilist. Also, the heart of abuse comes from the imbalance of power, whether it is rank or physical power. So I think it would help to explore what abuse is and where it happens. The worship setting is not typically the caldron for abuse. Passing the peace with creepy men may not be pleasant, but it isn’t abuse. In fact, we are called to come out of our comfort level at that point in the service. It would be interesting to know the ratio of false accusations to to true ones, but that isn’t clear in an atmosphere where victims are leery of coming forward. So worrying about false accustions is putting the cart way before the horse.

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Any thoughts?