Mike Sommerville

Mike Sommerville, an attorney with the law firm of Weycer, Kaplan, Pulaski & Zuber, shares his expertise about sexual harassment and other issues in churches.

Harvey Weinstein, Garrison Keillor, Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, Al Franken — the list goes on as powerful men fall one by one from the public’s grace. Each headline a consequence of accusations of sexual misconduct. The list, totaling over 50 to date, seems to build with each news broadcast or delivered print edition. It goes without saying that no pastor or church volunteer would ever want their own name to appear on such a list.

But before Hollywood and Washington, D.C., became the focus of such allegations, the church was the original defendant. Years of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church began to surface some three decades ago. CNN reported that, “Children accused more than 4,000 priests of sexual abuse between 1950 and 2002, according to a report compiled by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.” This is in the United States alone with similar statistics noted from other Western countries.

As a result, analysts say, once staunch defenders of Catholic moral teaching such as the Republic of Ireland have seen significant erosion of weekly attendance at Mass, plus dramatic shifts in the laws governing abortion and marriage.

A National Public Radio report stated, “The scandals of recent years have destroyed popular support for the church in Ireland, with many Irish people ignoring the hierarchy’s guidance on social issues.”

Lastly, sexual harassment and other issues rate high in the reasons given by the Nones, or those who have no formal religious ties, for rejecting organized religion altogether.

So what’s a church to do to uphold a higher standard? Frank Sommerville, an attorney with the law firm of Weycer, Kaplan, Pulaski & Zuber, lives in both Pirates Beach and Arlington. He offered Our Faith his expertise on these issues.

Q: What resources are available for a small church to help protect against sexual harassment occurrences?

A: Every church should adopt a sexual harassment policy. The policy should specify at least two persons who should receive the reports (because one of those might be the harasser). The church’s governing body should immediately investigate any reports.

The biggest deterrence is creating an atmosphere of trust and transparency. This deterrence is achieved by having pastors and staff attend a workshop addressing this issue annually. The senior leadership of the church should publicly affirm that their church does not tolerate such behavior and that the church will address all good faith reports. The church should regularly distribute copies of its policy and encourage reporting, even if the witness is unsure of the circumstances.

Q: When are background checks appropriate and what additional steps should be taken for those working with children and teens?

A: The church should conduct background checks on all who work with children or youth. The background checks should be renewed at least every three years. Background checks are only one component of preventing abuse of children and youth. The church should adopt a comprehensive policy aimed at reducing the risk. For example, the church should require that at least two adults be present with any child at any time. The workers should annually receive training on spotting child abuse and grooming by abusers. All rooms and doors, except bathroom doors, should have windows. The workers can only meet with children or youth in public places when outside the church, and those meetings are still subject to the two-adult rule. These are just examples of some of the policies needed. The church also needs to follow those policies once adopted. Every worker should affirm that they have received copies of the policies and agree to abide by them.

I also suggest having educational sessions with middle school and high school students regarding grooming by abusers.

More and more churches are adding video surveillance cameras to public areas and children’s rooms to provide video evidence of what took place.

Q: How can pastors safely seek to eliminate the possibility of false accusations?

A: The church needs to adopt policies similar to those who work with children or youth. A pastor cannot safely counsel a member of the opposite gender alone. Churches should require that the spouse or another clergyman be present during those counseling sessions. They should take place in a public setting or at the church in an office or classroom with windows.

Q: When there is a complaint, what is the best path to follow for the claimant and the accused?

A: It depends on the facts and circumstances. In a denominational church, their central body likely has sample policies and a place to lodge a complaint. Congregational churches have far fewer resources. They will need to reach out to churchtaxlawreport.org or a similar source for resources. Smaller congregational churches also have no obvious places available to receive the complaint. The churches should publicize their complaint process, including the names and phone numbers of those designated to receive reports.

The alleged victim needs to complain to those in authority at the church, and complain up the chain of command until someone will listen. When the alleged perpetrator is clergy, the alleged victim may feel intimated and fear retaliation. They should go above the clergyman to lodge their complaint. They may need to change churches temporarily.

The church should contact an attorney immediately after receiving a complaint. The attorney can direct them on how to conduct the investigation and response.

Next week in Our Faith: Our annual preview of Christmas sermons.

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