‘Now is the time,’ witnesses say, to work harder against sexual abuse, discrimination in the church

By Mary Frances Schjonberg
Posted Jul 5, 2018

Oklahoma Deputy Julia Ayala Harris, the proposer of Resolution D016, testifies July 5 to the Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Austin, Texas] People of all genders told the Safeguarding and Title IV Committee July 5 that the Episcopal Church must do more to eliminate sexual discrimination and abuse.

“What we witnessed last night was just a beginning,” the Rev. Cynthia Taylor, a Georgia deputy, told the committee, referring to the House of Bishops’ “Liturgy of Listening,” a service of lament and confession centered on stories of sexual abuse and exploitation in the Episcopal Church. “That work is incomplete, my sisters and brothers.”

Full ENS coverage of the 79th meeting of General Convention is available here.

Taylor said the work is incomplete if “we pat ourselves on the back for being open to discussion of the role of institutional discrimination, harassment and abuse of women.” The church must find a way to continue “not just the conversation but the hard work of seeking the truth, respecting the dignity of all human beings through the restoration of their God-given rights as children of God.”

Since she became the first woman ordained in the Diocese of South Carolina more than 32 years ago, Taylor said she has “had personally experienced gender biases in the form of equality of pay, sexual harassment, sexual abuse and gross misuse of power by ecclesiastical authorities” in clergy discipline cases.

“Things have changed somewhat, but the abuses of the past are not only still with us. There is a sense that by just speaking up about injustices, such injustices have been addressed,” she told the committee. “They have not.”

The committee held an open hearing on Resolution D016 and Resolution D020.

The Committee on Safeguarding and Title IV’s hearing room was crowded for a July 5 hearing on two resolutions pertaining to sexual harassment. Photo: Mary Frances Schjonberg/Episcopal News Service

D016 would have the General Convention “confess our sins of gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms as we understand these sins.” It would call on the Episcopal Church to “turn from the systems of oppression, patriarchy, heteronormativity, white supremacy, and our colonial legacy, among them, and seek to engage in restoration of the dignity of women and reconciliation from past acts.” It would establish a task force to help accomplish that work. The resolution is “meant to address issues related to gender-based violence and discrimination on an overall structural and cultural level,” said Oklahoma Deputy Julia Ayala Harris who proposed the resolution.

Citing the work of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist Church, Ayala Harris said, “We find ourselves in the midst of a movement that has already begun within other mainline denominations. This is not uncharted territory.”

D020 would appoint a task force to conduct a survey on “gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms as we understand these sins, which include, but are not limited to, sexual and gender harassment, sexual assault, physical, spiritual, and emotionally abusive behavior, and oppression based on gender.” The results of the survey would be publicly reported online no later than early 2021, the year of the 80th General Convention.

When asked by a committee member if she would accept a move by the committee to combine the two resolutions, Ayala Harris said she had anticipated such a suggestion and had prepared a draft for such a move.

The Rev. Brian Baker, Northern California deputy and member of Executive Council, said, “The church is a hostile work environment for women and it’s just not okay.”

“I am embarrassed that the church is being led by the culture of the #MeToo movement,” he said. “We’re responding because they woke up when we should have woken up first.”

The Very Rev. Craig Loya, a Nebraska deputy, told the committee that he agreed to be an official endorser of D016 because “it is long past time for us as a church to fully account for the ways that we have been complicit in – in ways that we have actively perpetrated – sexism, misogyny, sexual harassment and gender discrimination.”

Rowan Pantalena, a postulant from the Diocese of Connecticut and a self-described “nonbinary trans person,” spoke to the committee about the aftermath of being raped while in seminary. That experience, Pantalena said, showed “how hard it is to speak up.”

“Please consider the difficulty that comes for anyone who speaks about their own experience of sexual harassment and violence, whether perpetuated by people employed by the church or external,” Pantalena said.

The members also heard testimony on two memorials, or petitions, to convention, one titled “Women and Social Justice,” which tells convention that “this is our moment to offer healing and to bring our laws closer to the justice and equity that God envisions for us.” The other, “Gathering of Gen X and Millennial Clergy,” asks the church to work for gender equity and “expend resources to create a more equitable church.”

Resolutions D016 and D020 are among the 24 resolutions proposed by the members of the special House of Deputies Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation, appointed in February by the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, House of Deputies president. They focus on inclusive theology and language; disparities in pay, hiring, leave and pensions; changes to the Title IV disciplinary process and training; truth and reconciliation; and systemic social justice beyond the church.

– The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is the Episcopal News Service’s senior editor and reporter.


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Comments (13)

  1. Larry Waters says:

    1. To anyone who has been sexually assaulted or otherwise abused, I am truly sorry. My wife was raped prior to our marriage, and she struggles with those memories. However, she does not continue to blame “males” for that horror. Only the person who did it. 2. I am tired of hearing about “white supremacy”. However, if the EC needs to blame white folks for the world’s ills, then I propose that all white people, particularly males, leave the EC. That way the EC can distance itself from “…systems of … white supremacy…”

    1. Roslyn Macgregor says:

      You might want to read the powerful and truthful book by Reni Eddo-Lodge “Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race” … if you want to understand why parts of your comments are distressing to me, as a ‘mostly’ white person who has benefited from white privilege because my grandmother was able to pass for white … and into the next generations. We have a great deal to learn …

    2. howard m finley says:

      The legacy of white supremacy and domination continues to plague America and contradicts “love God love neighbor.”

  2. Rev. Valerie Webster says:

    Grateful for Julia Ayala Harris & all the others speaking on their and others behalf; grateful too that The Episcopal Church at Convention is listening. Holding all gathered at General Convention in prayer 🙏🏻 as we seek the forward in Christ.

    1. Phyllis Denison says:

      I completely agree with Rev. Webster.

  3. Frank OBrien says:

    I had hoped the next three years would be productive, not full of recrimination. Let’s not spend our resources and time spinning wheels on old issues.

    1. Elizabeth Kaeton says:

      Alas, Mr. O’Brien, but this is not an “old issue”. Gender bias, gender inequality, sexual harassment, violence, and abuse are issues as old as antiquity, present in scripture and as current as right now. The next three years will, in fact, be productive as we work to rid our church, at least, of the scourge of this disease.

      1. Frank Harrision says:

        Dear Ms. Kaeton; there are a couple of logical points to remember, First, just because a group of things has a property it does not follow that each member f that group has that property. The engine of my automobile is heavy. True. It does not follow that every part of my engine is heavy. that is false. Also, second, just because some members of a group have a certain characteristic it does not follow that all members of that group have that characteristic. Yes, there are humans who are murderers, It does not follow that all humans are murderers. In a word, we want to avoid both the Fallacy of Division and the Fallacy of Composition.

    2. Anjel Scarborough says:

      Mr. O’Brien, these are not “old issues.” I am a second vocation priest and in the 10 years I have been ordained, I have been stalked, verbally sexually harassed, and groped by lay men in every congregation I have served in TEC except for two. Lay men act with impunity as they are not subject to disciplinary actions under our canons except for my excommunicating them for their actions which makes me the “bad priest” for doing so. It’s high time our church addresses this current issue.

  4. Larry Waters says:

    To Ms. Macgregor and Mr. Finley: both your comments re-enforce my belief that white males, should leave the EC. And if I were negotiating with Mr. Finley about an issue, I would definitely have my body guards at my side. What a vitriolic, bigoted, hateful opinion you have Mr. Finley.

  5. Eric Bonetti says:

    Having experienced relational, emotional and spiritual abuse in the church, only to be told in writing by the Diocese of Virginia that these issues are not “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” I am glad to see these developments.

    While I have left organized Christianity as a result of my experiences, I remain fond of TEC and hope that someday I might, in good conscience, be able to return. But for now, I cannot give time, talent or treasure to a church that tells me that my well being is inconsequential.

  6. Thank you for your article covering the general convention. However, I wonder why other discriminations, particularly age, were not included in resolution DO16. I have suffered age discrimination, but all forms of prejudice and bias violate what our Lord gave his life for. Surely, our church should model the quest for justice for all.

  7. Eric Bonetti says:

    As a PS, I would add that Title IV is a crock of hooey. The church talks a good game, but my efforts to obtain redress at the national level haven’t even received the courtesy of a response, let alone a “pastoral response.” Same for my mother, who is terminally ill and being bullied by my former rector. I can only say that there is a special place for those who bully the dying, and that is right next to the place for people who ignore the situation.

    Shame on The Episcopal Church.

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