The impact of a complaint of sexual misconduct can be similar to that of a hurricane: leaving behind a path of pain and upheaval in its wake, says Becky Posey Williams.
As the senior director for sexual ethics and advocacy for the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, Williams helps facilitate training for church members — ranging from bishops to district superintendents to lay leaders.
In its Social Principles, The United Methodist Church acknowledges that sexual misconduct is an abuse and/or misuse of a power relationship.
In addition to holding people accountable during an investigation process, Williams pointed out, the emphasis for the church needs to be “100 percent about healing … those who are left in the aftermath following the finding of sexual misconduct.”
How the church handles this administrative response is crucial. “We cannot be in the business of secondary trauma to people who experience trauma because of how we respond to this,” Williams said.
Administrative/judicatory response is one of four intensive training tracks at the upcoming quadrennial “Do No Harm” training event set for Oct. 11-13 in San Antonio and organized by the denomination’s Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force. The other tracks are response teams, advocacy for the accused and the alleged victim, and integrity and healthy boundaries.
This is the first national “train the trainers” event since the Council of Bishops and the Commission on the Status and Role of Women issued a joint statement on Jan. 23 that “strongly encourage and support the reporting of sexual misconduct, including sexual harassment allegations within the church.” Bishops are responsible for naming persons from each annual conference to attend.
Dawn Wiggins Hare, the commission’s top executive, noted that the joint statement “boldly proclaimed that we in The UMC believe sexual misconduct to be a sin.”
The San Antonio event, she said, is the next step of their continuing work on sexual misconduct with collaborating agencies, annual conferences and central conference representatives.
“Leaders will receive education, skills and information on best practices of responding to sexual misconduct, including honoring the courage of those speaking out and helping them seek healing,” Hare added.
When a complaint is filed, Williams advises, the next steps need to be clear and should be expressed verbally and in writing as well. A “just resolution” is not a document but a process that the conference needs to engage in, she said.
No one — not the bishop, the accused or the alleged victim — “should be walking away from this first meeting following the receipt of a complaint guessing what is going to happen next,” Williams said.
“If we can address this at a denomination-wide event such as Do No Harm, where everybody is getting the same information, that could be very helpful for a more universal response.”
Boundaries training offers a theological grounding for participants on the issue of sexual misconduct and also touches on topics such as day-to-day boundary challenges in ministry, gifts and messages on social media.
Williams estimated that about half of the church’s conferences already have active response teams. The majority of the response team training conducted by the commission in the past year has been done following an invitation from newly elected bishops, she noted.
Having a prepared response team helps ensure that congregations and staff receive attention for healing, Williams said. She has seen firsthand how a congregation that has gone through the aftermath of a sexual conduct complaint under a response team’s guidance “has come out much healthier than they ever were.”
The advocacy track demonstrates how the church can provide opportunities for support and healing. Assigning advocates can help all parties involved. “I have never talked to an alleged victim or a person who has been accused who has not said they feel so alone,” she said. “Who can they talk to about this?”
Williams said she would like to know that every annual conference has a handful of trained people who have made a commitment to be a support person in cases of complaints.
Bloom is the assistant news editor for United Methodist News Service and is based in New York.