One of the toughest questions in advocacy work is this: When is it worthwhile to talk to powerful people within the institutions in which you’re trying to enact change, and when is it not? There are no easy answers to that question. Sometimes it’s almost impossible to get access to people with that kind of power, and so when we get the chance, we feel like we need to take it.
Furthermore, many church leaders downplay their own power. So it can be tempting to believe that all it takes to enact change is a heartfelt conversation or two with the right person.
If there were only one piece of counsel that we could offer to people advocating for survivors of sexual violence (and this applies to many types of violence and oppression) in church settings, we think it would be this: When you’re addressing a specific case of abuse, be cautious of any invitation to speak with a church or church-affiliated official who wants to explain to you “what really happened,” or to have a “heart-to-heart” or any sort of one-on-one conversation. Be cautious even if you think that the official is one of the good ones, someone you believe can be reasoned with.
If you get an invitation like that, there are a few guidelines you can follow to ensure that you don’t end up either feeling re-victimized or being an unintentional participant in minimizing and enabling sexual abuse.
- Don’t hesitate to say no.
- Don’t go alone. Make sure there is a least one witness to the conversation.
- Don’t agree to a conversation that you aren’t allowed to record.
- Don’t let the official share confidential information with you. If they start to do so, interrupt them. (Hopefully point 4 is made irrelevant by points 2 and 3.)
- Watch out for excessive personalization from the official. Don’t let them turn you into their therapist or confidante.
- When in doubt, ask yourself if what you’re doing would be OK with the victim(s).
- If you are the victim, don’t let anyone tell you that you owe any church official a one-on-one meeting. Even if the church official was your childhood pastor. Even if you’re related to them. If your gut says no, listen to your gut. If your gut is confused and tired and traumatized, give your gut permission to be confused and take the time you need—or just say no. It really is totally fine to say no.
- If your gut says yes, bring an advocate with you. Bring a trained survivors’ advocate, and if you have no access to survivor services, bring someone you unambiguously trust with your life. If possible, bring two people whom you unambiguously trust with your life. And then tell the official you will be recording the conversation. If they refuse to talk to you under these conditions, then let them know you won’t be talking to them. Take your own emotional safety seriously. You are worth it.
- If you are not the victim, your first question to that official is whether they have reached out to the victim(s), preferably through their designated advocate(s) if they have them. If their answer is no—or if their answer is something like, “Well, I reached out to the victim, but they insisted on so many ridiculous conditions that I couldn’t talk to them,” then that’s a signal that this particular official is probably more interested in winning you over to their way of thinking than they are in justice for survivors. Don’t participate in that. If they’re not making an earnest effort to communicate with victims on the victims’ terms, then your time is better spent elsewhere.
- If you decide to meet with a church official, ask yourself first what you want to accomplish with the meeting. If what you want to accomplish is information-gathering, you first have to ensure that the information you’re gathering can be taken out of that room and shared with others. A good way to ensure this is to insist on recording the conversation. In sexual abuse cases, church officials often try to share confidential information with concerned people who approach them on behalf of the victim. Be suspicious of this behavior; it tends to be a power move that is meant to make you feel special, and to isolate you from the victim(s) and their supporters. If the information is truly confidential, they probably shouldn’t be telling you. And if the information isn’t truly confidential, you have every right to document it and share it with others.
- This last one may be the hardest for some folks: Before you walk in the door, let go of any investment in changing the church official’s heart or mind, or appealing to their conscience. Does this mean you shouldn’t try? Not necessarily. It depends on what kind of relationship, if any, you already have with that official. If you know them to be a person who cares deeply about abuse, and you know they respect your opinion, then by all means appeal to the better angels of their nature. But please don’t get attached to the outcome or let yourself believe that this is how you’re going to effect real change. Realistically speaking, it probably won’t be.
- The appeal to conscience is when church officials are most often tempted into manipulative behavior, whether or not manipulation is their intention. They may let you know how hard the situation has been for them, and how much stress it has placed on their home life. They may cry, or tell you how much they have cried. They may even tell you about difficult things that are going on in the lives of other church officials who are involved in the sexual abuse case at hand. They may tell you that members of their family are survivors. They may tell you how burdensome the case has been when they are in charge of so many other important things that still need their attention. They may use theological reasoning to suggest that you are showing excessive partiality to the victim and ignoring the pain of others.
Far too often, this is where the meeting with an official ends–with a conversation about that official’s personal challenges in dealing with the case. Maybe they’re hoping to neutralize you by making you feel guilty, or maybe they’re just exhausted. It’s a safe bet that everyone’s exhausted.
But there is a simple way to deal with this emotional diversion. First, you have to understand that while all the pain the official has expressed to you may be very real, it is not the point of your conversation. Then, you can say that to them. “I’m very sorry that you’re experiencing so much difficulty right now, and I hope that you are receiving support. But this conversation is about what you are doing to ensure justice for the victims in this situation. It is not about your personal pain or your emotions.”
Here are the underlying ethical threads in these guidelines: don’t grant automatic trust to church leaders, account for the power imbalance between church officials and laypeople, and insist on professional boundaries. A good church official, one who takes the ethical responsibilities of their job seriously, will not try to make you feel guilty for adhering to these guidelines. In fact, the ones with both good intentions and experience with abuse cases are likely to welcome your advocates, witnesses, and recording devices. They’ll understand that sexual abuse and other oppressions are areas where the church has broken and abused trust repeatedly. They’ll want to earn your trust, not demand it.
If you go to church, hold all of your leaders to this standard.