I recently returned from a trip to Ottawa, Ontario, to meet with the Classis Eastern Canada safe church team. I was able to stay an extra day on this trip and had a wonderful time seeing a little bit of the city as well as Parliament Hill. It’s always interesting listening to the news when in another country; it’s good to get a different perspective on things. One of the breaking stories was about a former Liberal MP and cabinet minister Sheila Copps, who shared her personal story of sexual assault by another member of the Provincial Parliament. The incident was not reported at the time, nor did she divulge names now. She also described a separate incident of being raped. That incident was reported to police at the time. She was told that it would be “impossible” to get a conviction, so no criminal charges were filed.
Another high profile case was also in the news, involving a popular CBC radio host, Jian Ghomeshi, who is now the subject of a police investigation after three women filed complaints against him. Six other women have gone to the media with similar stories of physically violent sexual acts against them without their consent.
Breaking the silence in these situations is not easy. There is shame involved, a tendency to blame the one victimized, and often little hope of any meaningful consequences for the one who has perpetrated abuse. One woman felt emboldened to tell her story of sexual harassment on Parliament Hill after the publicity surrounding Ghomeshi (although she still uses a pen name for fear of “repercussions”). She claims her experience is far from unique, and that male dominated power structures contribute to a culture of sexual harassment that thrives on Parliament Hill.
In the U.S., we’ve seen news about the lack of response from the NFL to allegations of violence against women. The NFL has handed out minimal or no penalties to players, even after they were convicted of violent crimes. This reveals a culture in the NFL that tolerates this behavior. The video captured of Ray Rice dragging his unconscious fiancée out of an elevator, and the resulting public outcry, has brought this issue out into the light. Hope for change increases as the issue becomes more public and less hidden.
Our denomination and each of our congregations also have a culture. Is it a culture that promotes openness, or one that encourages hiding difficult struggles? What messages are implicit in our culture about disclosing experiences of abuse? Are allegations taken seriously? Can we expect consequences for those who perpetrate abuse, or do we tend to protect those in powerful positions? Do we take into account the natural tendency to blame the one who has been victimized? Abuse thrives in silence and secrecy. How can we develop a culture that encourages breaking the silence?