Episcopal Church needs to look for #MeToo in the details

This op-ed piece originally appeared at the Religion News Service, July 3, 2018

(RNS) — Anyone who follows the news from the Episcopal Church’s General Convention, which begins this week (July 5) in Austin, Texas, might hear about the more than 20 resolutions put forward by an all-female special committee on sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation that will come before the convention.

All of these resolutions are important, though some will make the eyes of even a church nerd glaze over. But the devil is in the details, and we need to get him out of there.

If we pass these resolutions, however, it is essential that we not sit back and say we’ve done what the moment — and the gospel — demands.  

The Episcopal Church has much work to do to ensure the fair treatment of women at every institutional level, from the local parish to the highest positions of power. Even though sexual abuse is the most urgent matter, and should thus be given priority, the problems go far deeper and cut to the heart of how the church treats women.

Biases, both conscious and unconscious, still conspire to push female church employees into lower-paying or part-time positions more frequently than their male counterparts. That means they advance more slowly into leadership, earn less money than men —as much as 11 cents on the dollar less over the course of a career — and retire with smaller pensions.

To work against these biases we need to keep a close eye on disparities in pay. We need to strengthen the internal church laws that prohibit discriminatory hiring practices, continue the collection of compensation data and establish anti-sexism training in seminaries. These measures are included in the committee’s resolutions and are all worthy of support.

Closing the pay gap will require a commitment on the part of bishops to make pay parity a priority. Nine years ago, I instituted a system in my diocese in which I meet with the leaders of a congregation in need of a priest and determine the compensation appropriate to the position before the parish determines which candidates to consider. It is not a perfect solution, because it sometimes results in offering candidates with differing experience the same pay, yet that is a small price to get closer to pay parity.

I don’t suggest that the convention spend all of its time examining pay scales and other personnel matters. We will once again be debating same-sex marriage and deciding whether to revise our Book of Common Prayer. We also will rally against gun violence and the inhumane treatment of refugees.

But the #MeToo movement demands our attention, and we need to make sure that everyone, but especially women, can feel safe in the Episcopal Church. The legislation to be offered at convention that most inspires me calls for the creation of a “Task Force for Women, Truth, and Reconciliation for the purpose of helping the Church engage in truth-telling, confession, and reconciliation regarding gender-based discrimination, harassment, and violence against women and girls in all their forms by those in power in the Church … ”

In 2010, I learned that one of my predecessors as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania had sexually abused numerous pre-pubescent girls at the diocesan summer camp 30 years earlier. The months that followed were an education both in the depths of human sinfulness and the profound difficulty churches have in dealing with their own failings.

It takes only brief exposure to people who work on these issues to learn that there is deep dissatisfaction among victims and their advocates over the way the church has handled complaints of abuse, especially against bishops. I hope creating this task force will be the first step to ensuring that complaints of assault and abuse are handled sensitively and confidentially, but also that the interest of powerful perpetrators are not protected at the expense of victims and that we do not put the reputation of the church before the demands of justice.

As with our failures in the human resources realm, we need to address these issues at a detailed level. We need to support a resolution that would create an alternative path for reporting abuse or harassment when circumstances within victims’ home dioceses might give them pause about pursuing a complaint. We should extend the statute of limitations to report abuse or harassment for three years, so that previously unreported cases can be heard under this new system. We should vote to protect whistleblowers who report instances of abuse or harassment but are not complainants or witnesses themselves.

These kinds of procedural revisions are essential to building trust in our disciplinary processes. As the gospel leads us to believe, they are small steps that are necessary and significant if we want to create a safer and fairer church.

The Rt. Rev. Sean W. Rowe is bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania and bishop provisional of the Diocese of Bethlehem, PA. 

Meet the Deputies: The Rev. Elizabeth Yale


This post is the eighth and final installment of our “Meet the Deputies” series, introducing our eight representatives to the 79th General Convention. To view other “Meet the Deputy” interviews and follow General Convention coverage, click here.

Meet the Deputies: The Rev. Adam Trambley


This post is the seventh installment of our “Meet the Deputies” series, introducing our eight representatives to the 79th General Convention. To view other “Meet the Deputy” interviews and follow General Convention coverage, click here.

Meet the Deputies: The Rev. Dr. Mary Norton


This post is the fourth installment of our “Meet the Deputies” series, introducing our eight representatives to the 79th General Convention. To view other “Meet the Deputy” interviews and follow General Convention coverage, click here.

Meet the Deputies: The Rev. Stacey Fussell


This post is the third installment of our “Meet the Deputies” series, introducing our eight representatives to the 79th General Convention. To view other “Meet the Deputy” interviews and follow General Convention coverage, click here.