Last week you may have read or heard some disturbing news; an Anglican Priest from this diocese was charged with Sexual Exploitation and Harassment of a 17-year-old girl. This was shocking and disturbing news to many, so I want to acknowledge it and the possible impact it has on individuals. The details of the events related to the charges have not been released. Bishop Asbil has issued a statement which in part reads “Our Diocese has a strictly enforced, zero tolerance policy in regard to sexual misconduct and harassment, and I have inhibited this priest until this matter is resolved.” This in no way reflects his guilt or innocence, but until the matter is resolved he cannot function as a priest in this diocese or any diocese.
Bishop Asbil’s words are an important reminder that we as a diocese take these matters seriously. As many are aware we have a Diocesan Sexual Misconduct Policy which anyone involved in medium or high risk ministry, including clergy, wardens, deputy wardens, Sunday School teachers, pastoral visitors and anointers, among others must receive training about and renew every three years. While we sometimes joke that the policy is just common sense, events like last week remind us how easily these boundaries can be crossed.
The fact is that the leadership within the church has far subtler power associated with it than in other areas of life, because it is power-based on relationships more than anything else. While those in leadership have power and authority that comes from their position, it is lived out in our relationships with each other. The blurring of lines and boundaries does not happen overnight but gradually over time, often in ways we only recognize in hindsight. This is particularly true for clergy I think, as we are invited into the sacred moments of life, times when people are most vulnerable. That in and of itself is not a problem, and I consider it a blessing and honour, but it can also make maintaining appropriate, professional boundaries more challenging. The clergy-parishioner relationship is not and cannot be one of equal power. We as clergy, simply by our position, have power and authority in the lives of others.
If you have ever found clergy to sometimes be slightly removed or distant, it may simply reflect their recognition that while the relationship is loving and friendly, we cannot by definition be friends with those over whom we have power. That doesn’t mean we don’t sometimes become friends with parishioners, but when we do we need to be even more aware of the boundaries we are crossing as potential issues that may arise. When boundaries start to break down it can lead to inappropriate behaviour. That is not to say that it always leads to these types of actions, but when we look back it is usually the gradual breakdown of appropriate boundaries that we see. As the ones with power and authority we have a duty and responsibility for ensuring appropriate boundaries are maintained. When those boundaries are breeched, it is exploitation because of the power imbalance.
This is why having a Sexual Misconduct Policy is important for us as the church as we seek to serve one another with the best of intentions and in the name of the God of Love. The policy provides clear guidelines of ways to maintain appropriate boundaries, for creating safe spaces and procedures when those are breeched. At times it may seem pointless to be reminded of the policy every three years, but each time it serves to remind us of our responsibility to each other and especially to those who are vulnerable whom we serve. The policy can be found here.
If you would like to know more about the Sexual Misconduct Policy or if any of this has brought up issues you would like to talk about, please know that my door is open to you. In the meantime, I ask your prayers for the young woman involved, as well as for the priest, the parish, the bishops and all who have been touched by this incident directly or indirectly.
Blessings, Reverend Dana