The high profile trial of media celebrity Gian Gomeshi on sexual assault charges fostered another round of national debate in Canada about sexual abuse in our society. Gomeshi was acquitted because the credibility of the complainants was successfully challenged by a skillful defense lawyer. One common theme in the commentary on all sides was how difficult it is to deal with sexual abuse cases in our traditional, adversarial court processes. While the law was applied, it is less clear whether justice was done, and there was no healing. Increased public awareness of the issues is likely the most helpful outcome possible, while the worst potential outcome is that women may be even less likely to report other cases of abuse for a long time.
It would be nice to be able to say that outcomes are better inside the church. The CRCNA has shown leadership in setting up a process for dealing with allegations of abuse within the church community that is designed on a less adversarial model. In 2010 Synod added more elements of restorative justice to strengthen the focus on healing broken relationships of all kinds that result from abuse. The record of outcomes is, unfortunately, mixed when it comes to restoring broken relationships.
Too often I hear from women who are hurting because of what happened to them within the church family. Often they do not have enough confidence in our system to come forward and seek justice. They have heard what happened in some other cases through the well-used informal news networks within our churches and they prefer to remain silent and deal with the damage to themselves in some other way. Sometimes the other ways are restorative for them personally; but sometimes they are damaging. In many cases, they leave our church family.
That pains me, as does the discussion around the Gian Gomeshi case. Whatever the truth is in any of these cases, putting our awareness of the reality of sexual abuse back in the closet is the opposite of what we need to grow toward: a church and a society that fully respects the dignity of all persons, even after abuse happens. Perhaps greater awareness, public education, social media networks, and public campaigns against rape culture will reduce the incidence of abuse more than formal processes in church or courts ever can. Dare I hope so?