Church has ‘something to offer’ the #MeToo movement

Participants urge support for women's rights at the Women's March in San Francisco, Jan. 20, 2018. Photo: Sundry Photography/Shutterstock
Published January 5, 2019

When the New York Times broke the story of movie executive Harvey Weinstein’s decades of alleged sexual misconduct against employees and peers in the film industry in early October 2017, it was as if a dam had burst. In the months since, more and more allegations of sexual assault and harassment have been spilling forth, not only in the film industry, but in the worlds of business, politics, medicine, religion, and more.

On social media, the #MeToo movement, founded in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke, has come to dominate the cultural conversation around sexual abuse and harassment. The hashtag has been used by many—mainly women—to share personal stories and call attention to the endemic, widespread nature of sexual misconduct. It has also spawned the hashtag #ChurchToo in religious communities.

“I’m seeing #MeToo as a positive,” says Mary Wells, a registered social worker, counsellor and consultant  who has worked extensively in the field of child sexual abuse since the 1980s.

Wells helped write the sexual misconduct policy for the diocese of Toronto in 1992, recently completed a Canada-wide review of diocesan harassment and abuse policies, and represents Canada in the newly-established Anglican Communion Safe Church Commission.

Though there have been workplace harassment policies in place for decades, Wells says, women have been hesitant to report harassment in the past because they feel ashamed or believe they will be blamed or punished for reporting. “But with enough support from other women and other women’s organizations, and just sort of a shift culturally, the #MeToo movement happened. And that, I think, has just really broadened the protection for women; [they] don’t have to put up with this, at least as much as in the past.”

Wells says that she hopes the movement will have a positive impact on the church, helping “nudge” the issue into a place of greater awareness and “to help us make sure that we’re doing the right thing.”

Mary Wells has helped to shape sexual misconduct policy in the Anglican church since the 1990s. She is the Canadian representative on the Anglican Communion Safe Church Commission. Photo: Marcel Cesar Pereira

In notes that Wells penned in December, she wrote: “The courage of the victims who have come forward in the #MeToo movement serves to forcefully remind us in the Church of the untold harm that can be caused by sexual misconduct.”

It was “startling to see the unpreparedness of government and other public sector bodies that are currently dealing with an avalanche of disclosures,” Wells said, noting that the Anglican church has been addressing the issue of sexual abuse within the church since the 1990s.

“The policies and procedures we have developed are not perfect…but the Church has something to offer to help in the current environment,” she wrote. “It is time for the Church to reach out to the world and share what we have learned over twenty-five years of painful experience addressing frailties in our Church that have allowed abuse to happen.”

Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, recently voiced his support for the women who are disclosing sexual harassment and abuse.  “I think we need to, especially, support the front-liners who are breaking the silence and instilling in others the courage to come forward and tell their stories,” he said in a news story published on the Anglican Church of Canada’s website. The church “needs to be solidly standing behind” women who are stepping forward “to demand justice and look for healing,” he said.

Hiltz also said that working at “safe church policies and practices” is the most important show of solidarity. “I think part of supporting women and recognizing the indignities that they’ve suffered is to make sure that those kind of indignities are certainly not happening within the life of the church itself.”

Abuse of power

In the late 1970s, Wells recalled that another cultural sea change happened: awareness and acknowledgement of child sexual abuse. She says that this was due to a “cascade of events” that began with the gruesome rape and murder of a 12-year-old boy in Toronto, in 1977. Shortly afterward, the federal government commissioned The Badgley Report on Sexual Offences Against Children, which in 1984 reported back shockingly high figures of abuse nationally. In the aftermath of these revelations, many complainants felt emboldened to come forward.

Background notes on the sexual misconduct policy of the diocese of Toronto said that it was not until a scandal in the late ’70s and ’80s involving allegations of sexual and physical abuse of children in the Roman Catholic Mount Cashel Orphanage, run by the Irish Christian Brothers in Newfoundland, that “an outcry began demanding that churches address the possibility of abuse within their own walls.”

At the time, without “clear and firm guidelines for response,” church authorities “tended to try to protect the institution” when faced with allegations of abuse. “In so doing they too often swept legitimate complaints under the carpet. If complaints were raised, they were dealt with in secrecy, little support was offered to complainants, and offending clergy were simply admonished and perhaps moved to a new ministry.”

In the 1990s, revelations also came to light regarding decades of abuse in church-run Indian residential schools. Among those who spoke publicly about the sexual, physical and emotional abuse they endured was Phil Fontaine, then-Grand Chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs.

In 1991, the diocese of Toronto appointed a working group to write a policy dealing with sexual abuse. Wells helped to draft the policy, which was officially adopted in 1992 and became the basis for similar policies in many dioceses across the country.

The policy included procedures not just for child sexual abuse but sexual misconduct occurring between adults. This was “a departure from the majority of other policies that were being written around the same time,” according to the background notes on the policy, driven by the Bishop’s Committee on Women Clergy, which at the time had begun to document incidents of sexual harassment experienced by women priests.

The policy, which is regularly updated by the diocese, addresses child sexual abuse, sexual assault (as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada), sexual harassment (unwelcome sexual conduct or comments) and sexual exploitation (taking advantage of the vulnerability of an adult where there is a fiduciary or pastoral relationship) as well.

Sexual exploitation, Wells says, applies in the case of a relationship that carries spiritual authority. “Say a priest is giving counselling to a woman, and then has an affair with her. It’s professional exploitation,” she says, noting that like those in other professions, the priest has the duty to maintain appropriate boundaries.

Wells says she became “imbued” with the idea of due process during her time working at a legal clinic for children and youth and wanted to create an equitable process for dealing with harassment under the diocesan policy. At the time, she says, clergy “had far more rights than the laypeople” under Canon law. Laypeople, for instance, couldn’t appear before a tribunal. “I said, ‘We’re going to take all the powers that the clergy have and give them to the laypeople, too.’ ” The resulting policy outlines a process for dealing with sexual harassment claims, alternative to the canon process.

“Sexual abuse is about abuse of power,” says Wells. “So, if you can bring it in front of the justice system, it levels the playing field. That was the kind of model we looked at when we wrote the diocesan policy.”

Cases of child sexual abuse follow a different procedure, as the law requires automatic reporting to a protective authority.

Wells believes that the church should be proud of the due process its policies offer, and that the church has guidance in this area to add to the #MeToo conversation.

“My personal view is that the #MeToo movement is, at this point, in a stage of an outpouring of pent-up anger,” says Wells, adding that this is “a normal stage in the aftermath of disclosures of sexual abuse by a person in a position of power.” Action and resolution follow, she says, “including the establishment of just processes for responding to new disclosures.” 

The pressure to forgive

How the church deals with sexual misconduct is complicated by Christianity’s emphasis on forgiveness and grace. “You still see it today, that people are pressured into, ‘Well, shouldn’t you forgive him? Aren’t we a forgiving people?’ ” says Wells.

She cites author Marie Fortune, an ordained minister of the United Church of Christ in the United States, who has written many books on sexual abuse and gender-based violence in the church. “One of the guidelines [Fortune] laid down is…Forgiving never means that you’re open to being abused again.” Fortune also wrote about forgiveness as a process, says Wells. “It’s not something that you should or shouldn’t do. It just happens.”

“Telling people [that] they must forgive is like telling them they must create a river—you know, the river just flows. People forgive when they’re ready to forgive,” says Wells. She adds that in her many years of working with and counselling survivors of sexual abuse, “for many, there comes a time where they can say, ‘You know what, I want to let go of this.’ ”

Wells says her core belief is that “sexuality and sexual activity are gifts [from] God” and that sexual relationships “cement our personal relationships.”

“Any of God’s gifts are potentially open to abuse. Abuse of the gift of sexuality is potentially soul-destroying.”

Improving national church policy

Wells says there are several areas where the Anglican Church of Canada can improve its policies.

For one, she would like to see a national policy that would restrict clergy from transferring between dioceses without any communication, preventing predators from simply seeking a new position. Although the issue is addressed in some diocesan policies, she says, it is “not addressed as a policy of the church.” Wells says a similar guidance on transferring is also being developed by the Anglican Communion Safe Church Commission, which was formed in 2016 on the recommendation of the Anglican Communion Safe Church Network. They are mandated to produce a global guidance on safeguarding by the next Anglican Consultative Council meeting in 2019.

Wells recently completed a review of policies in every diocese in the country, and says that while most have a sexual misconduct policy, some needed to be updated or reviewed.

She declined to say how many dioceses do not currently have a sexual misconduct policy in place, as some may have begun developing a policy since the time of her review in July and August 2017. “It takes time [to] develop and implement sexual misconduct policies, ensuring that the leadership has a clear understanding of what they are committing to,” she said. She added that it took “a good two years of a committee working on the Toronto policy with rewrites as we identified gaps” and that even if dioceses use the Toronto policy as a template, it will take time for them to work through and commit to their own policies. “Otherwise, there is a risk that the policy is just window dressing.”

She also would like to see policies displayed more prominently—more dioceses could link to the policy on the home page of their websites, for instance.

When asked how the church is uniquely equipped to handle issues of sexual misconduct, Wells responded, “I think the Christian faith acknowledges that we’re all flawed, but there’s always hope. That’s the fundamental principle that’s in the story of the crucifixion and the resurrection.”

This is the lens through which Wells has always thought about her work teaching and creating safe church policies. “This is hopeful. This is the work of hope; it’s a resurrection ministry.”

This article first appeared on February 8, 2018.


  • Joelle Kidd

    Joelle Kidd was a staff writer for the Anglican Journal from 2017 to 2021.

Related Posts

Skip to content