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Auntie Seraphic & Sexually Harassed at Church

Saturday, April 20, 2013
In recent weeks I have received, not one, but two letters from young women upset by the bad behaviour of men at church groups. I'm not going to reprint the letters or my responses because they are very detailed and the men might be identified by other readers, and I don't want to add to any drama.

When it comes to sexual harassment, what is needed is neither drama nor a whispering campaign, but quick, decisive action by those in authority. 

The first situation involves a woman in her early twenties and an older guy with ongoing mental health issues. The latter was brought along to the the church group by a friend with do-gooder tendencies. The older guy makes my reader and other young women in the church group uncomfortable by talking about how he wants a wife, by leering at them and by getting in their faces when they don't respond to his social networking plays for their attention.

The second situation involves a teenage girl and a younger teenage boy who says things at church group that creep her out and who also made available through social networking his sexual fantasies about her. 

Neither reader wants to leave her parish or her group, but both girls hate feeling like sexual targets and wish the man or the boy would just go away. 

However--and this is one thing that makes being a Christian so difficult--there is a strong disinclination in our religion towards kicking the old, the young, the weak, the stupid, the rejected, the difficult, and the frankly quite annoying out of our parish groups. If we were 6th century Vikings, we could just get our dads and brothers to kill the old ones and beat up the young ones, and Bob's your uncle. But we're not. We follow Christ, and Christ told us to love our enemies and also to invite the halt, the lame and all kinds of disadvantaged people to our parties.  

This, however, is not an excuse to allow men, even very young, very confused or mentally ill men, to make women feel uncomfortable and unprotected in our own parish churches. And, fortunately,  parish churches have a chain of command. The buck stops with the pastor, and if the pastor just leaves it on his desk and doesn't deal with it, eventually the buck can be brought to the bishop.  Hopefully, though, things don't go that far because people are constantly pestering bishops, e.g. every Monday morning regarding Father's dumb homily and the nun who did that thing.  

However, very often it is not a priest immediately in charge of a parish youth group or other parish group. Quite often there is a "lay adult facilitator."  In such cases, the person to talk to about your feelings of discomfort and having been targeted for sexual harassment is this adult. And if for any reason you don't feel comfortable talking to this adult (for teenagers often hate consulting adults; I certainly did), then I suggest you get your mother, father or favourite aunt to do it. 

Do not attempt vigilante justice, either by thinking up some extravagant punishment for the malefactor or by getting an older boy involved. Bullying back is not the Christian way. You must go to the appropriate authority, and this is going to be either the adult lay leader or the priest-in-charge.

Second, you must write down exactly what it is that the boy or man said or did that made you uncomfortable. You must write down specific incidents in a journal with the dates. That way, when you have your meeting (or your mother/father/favourite aunt has his/her meeting) with the leader or priest, there are real, tangible incidents for the leader/priest to come to grips with. Write exactly what happened, without any exaggerations or softenings, and make sure that these are things that happened to you. You can briefly mention that other girls have complaints, but stick to your own grievances. Encourage other girls affected to write down their own, and remember that the action will be more effective if everyone is allowed to tell her own story. The last thing you want is for the leader/priest to dismiss your concerns as a drama you're secretly enjoying.

Third, having stood up for yourself by telling the story to the correct authority, try to exercise some charity. A man with mental health issues who is too unpleasant to attract women is a figure of pity. So is the teenage boy who cannot deal with his own sexuality, or that of anyone else. It is natural to be afraid of such men and boys, but it is not constructive. Mere gossiping about him is also not constructive. What will be constructive will be the leader or priest--someone trained, hopefully--to sit down with this guy as if he were a human being loved by God (which is who he is) and ask him what is going on with him. The crazy guy may confess his terrible loneliness. The teenage boy may mutely telegraph his sexual distress. And all this will be between the guy and the priest or lay leader: your part is done. By blowing the whistle on him to a kindly, Christian authority, you have actually helped him. Don't resent the authority's loving care for him. Just report any further harassment, as it and if it occurs. 

And this brings me to my fourth point. Some men and boys are so clueless that they have no idea that what they say and do is offensive to women. This may be in part because instead of telling them, women smile meekly and run away and the men never hear what the women say afterwards. 

When men offend you, do not smile and laugh nervously. I know it's difficult not to, because when men behave badly, our instinct is to placate them and make them feel at ease so that they won't hurt us. But some men are not that smart and can't tell the difference between fright and enjoyment. Instead, frown. Give him a stern look, as if to a toddler who is destroying a book. Say at once, "That's really offensive to me."  And then, if he doesn't apologize at once, but merely mimics you or huffs and puffs, turn your back and walk away. 

Yes, he may escalate the situation. Inform the appropriate authority at once. Or go home and tell your mother/father/favourite aunt first and then inform the appropriate authority.

I hope this is helpful. None of us should put up with being sexually harassed at church. I realize it is embarrassing to talk about, and it seems absolutely insane that it could happen, but it does.  And if it does, the adults in charge should know about it so they can put a stop to it. So please tell them.

Update: I forgot to address online harassment. There are people whose job it is to make sure no-one is harmed by online antics. If someone posts something inappropriate about you online, contact the administrator of the website.

Update 2: I am absolutely amazed at what Catholics think they can say to each other regarding sexual matters. Really, I am amazed. Is it from years of listening to sexual jokes on television, or what? I just don't get it, especially when such immodesty is coming from a guy giving a lecture on modesty. I mean, hello?