In the wake of criticism of its handling of a sexual harassment complaint, the Anglican Church of Canada has adopted a new policy and procedure.
The policy replaces an adversarial formal process with mediation, shortens the timeline for dealing with complaints and mandates staff training regarding workplace harassment, discrimination, gender sensitivity and sexual misconduct. The procedures seek to ensure confidentiality except where legal or safety issues exist.
The policy, which was approved by the Council of General Synod in March, applies to all national office staff right up to the primate, bishops, volunteer members of standing committees of General Synod and appointees to boards or councils.
A task force headed by labour lawyer Linda Barry-Hollowell of St. Catharines, Ont., conducted the review in light of the June 1996 complaint brought against former national church treasurer, Robert Armstrong, by Pauline Hedmann, an accounting assistant in the finance department.
The church’s internal process ended without a finding in January 1997 when Ms. Hedmann took her complaint to the Ontario Human Rights Commission.
Both staff members resigned in July of that year, when a settlement with the church was reached. Ms. Hedmann withdrew her complaint to the commission as part of the settlement. One employee says the experience deeply divided staff at the national office.
The revised policy is a “major step in rebuilding confidence” in the church’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment, says Archdeacon Jim Boyles, general secretary for the church. He hopes it will help the church get across its message of “zero tolerance.”
The revised policy describes sexual harassment as “an exploitation of a power relationship, rather than as an exclusively sexual issue.” It may involve “a wide range of behaviours from verbal innuendo and subtle suggestions to overt demands and unwanted, inappropriate physical contacts of a sexual nature” and is “behaviour of a sexual nature that is known or ought reasonably to be known as behaviour that is unwanted or unwelcome.”
Diane Marshall, a registered marriage and family therapist in Toronto, says sexual harassment is a serious workplace issue. Among the possible effects are loss of morale and ability to concentrate, self-blame, helplessness, fear, sleep disturbances and depression.
She said even where policies exist, women sometimes deal with the experience through therapy rather than formal procedures. “Sometimes you get more abused in the process of dealing with it,” she said. Some women face losing their job or “getting emotionally wasted.”
A number of people offering input to the task force cited two major points: the need for quick action and confidentiality. In the Hedmann-Armstrong case, Archdeacon Boyles said there was no clear restriction on the parties involved. The Anglican Journal named the parties in reporting on the hearing process but not the specific nature of the complaint.
Others were critical that Mr. Armstrong had no opportunity to respond to allegations because the church’s internal process was cut short when Ms. Hedmann filed a human rights complaint. Under the new procedures, either party may withdraw from mediation and either may pursue the case in an external court.
The revised policy also calls for training of incoming members of General Synod committees in what constitutes sexual harassment.
Archdeacon Boyles said there were “no winners” in the Hedmann-Armstrong case, though both received undisclosed compensation from the church upon resigning.
“If the hearings had been more expeditious, then a finding may have been reached and justice delivered,” Archdeacon Boyles said. But he expressed concern with an adversarial approach to justice. The task force recommended mediation as “a cost efficient and time effective conflict resolution mechanism with a key goal to preserving relationships and resolving the complaint with fairness and integrity.”
As for preventing harassment, Ms. Marshall recommends naming the issue in prayers, putting up posters or other forms of education.
Vivian Harrower is a Toronto freelance writer.