Saturday, March 20, 2010

Gender Violence, Human Rights and Clergy Sexual Misconduct

A Nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground. Then it is finished. No matter how brave the warriors or how powerful the weapons.
--Cheyenne Indian proverb

Gender Violence, Human Rights and Clergy Sexual Misconduct

Human rights in the last few decades has provided a significant framework for global women’s movements while advancing women’s rights as human rights. One of the primary issues impacting women regardless of their country’s gross national product or labels that designate countries as developed or developing is gender based violence. Globally, gender based violence appears to be the primary cause of most violent attacks on women. As a result, gender violence has achieved global visibility due to its pervasive nature. According to Charlotte Bunch, a significant number of women worldwide are routinely subjected to “torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation and murder.” Grave human rights violations against women continue unabated. Unfortunately, many of these violations are often condoned and sanctioned by legal systems and government policies. Gender based violence restricts women’s contributions and development in various ways including the familial, societal and economically. Gender violence often leads to the disintegration of families, medical problems, inability to fulfill employment obligations and even loss of life. Women’s abilities to live full and productive lives are restricted by gender violence. In retrospect, male violence against women and children has been a focus of feminist research and activists in the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe for over four decades with more recent growing concern in developing nations.

The crime of clergy sexual misconduct is just beginning to be acknowledged in developing countries and appears not to have surfaced on women’s agendas around the world. While most industrialized nations have established public policy to begin to address many forms of gender violence and to provide support services and interventions for the victims and perpetrators, clergy sexual misconduct has not yet demanded such systematic attention and services. Thus, in most countries around the world, clergy sexual misconduct has not yet been perceived as a social problem. Furthermore, it has been noticeably absent from the UN’s definition of gender violence as seen below:

"Gender violence refers to any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivations of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life. Violence against women shall be understood to encompass but not be limited to: physical, sexual and psychological violence occurring in the family and in the community, including battering, sexual abuse of female children, dowry-related violence, marital rape, female genital mutilation and other traditional practices harmful to women, non-spousal violence, violence related to exploitation, sexual harassment and intimidation at work in educational institutions and elsewhere, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, and violence perpetrated or condoned by the State."

Clergy Sexual Misconduct in the United States
Until recently, little attention has been paid to clergy sexual misconduct and few statistics exist. The few that are available are oftentimes generated from denominational records which tend to be suspect and are often under reported. Findings generated in a study published, in 1992, revealed that the majority of denominations do not yet have any written policies and procedures, nor written materials addressing clergy sexual misconduct. By 1995, a number of experts had emerged identifying clergy sexual misconduct as a serious social problem.

Investigations of the Catholic Church sex scandals have resulted in a rather gloomy prognosis for the Catholic Church and the vocation of the priesthood. Father Norman Rotert, a priest of forty-two years fore casted the following pessimistic prognosis:
“The paternalistic attitudes, the increasing consciousness of women, the lack of appreciation for the value of celibacy, the large percentage of gay priests, the pedophilia crisis, all have so impacted our vocation recruitment efforts that I see no possibility of salvaging the priesthood as we know it today.”

It appears, that many, if not most religious institutions until fairly recently have acted with complicity and condoned clergy sexual misconduct by ignoring, denying and withholding information about the misconduct of its clergy. Overwhelmingly, religious systems as currently structured perpetuate the potential for such abuses of power against women and children. Thus, male privilege and power greatly impact the safety of women and children and compromise their quality of life. As a result critics were highly incensed by the church’s leadership reactions in the face of the scandal.

Thus, the rhetoric of contemporary social problems illustrates the fundamental importance of placing the interests of women and children in the forefront of clergy sexual misconduct. In the case of clergy misconduct, such a shift of emphasis can only partially undermine theological positions naming the problem as the sin of the individual but the behavior of social systems organized around patriarchy and dominance. The behavior exhibited by the clergy and many of the excuses articulated bears a strong resemblance to domestic violence and child abuse. The similarities include:
• In earlier years the behavior was not perceived to be abnormal or criminal conduct
• The perpetrators of violence against women and children are predominately males and the victims predominantly females and children.
• Males represent a disproportionate number of individuals that commit acts of violence
• Males violence against women and children appears to bear a correlation with their beliefs in women’s and children’s inferiority
• Males violent behavior manifests a cluster of behaviors directed against women and children that include rape, wife abuse, incest, pornography, and global sex trafficking (to name a few)
• Differences in power and privilege among men and women are often acted out in ways deemed detrimental to the well being of women and children.

Hence, gender violence is a significant barrier to social and economic development. Its existence produces an unsafe and hostile environment that is counterproductive to achieving a quality of life for women and children. Likewise, clergy sexual misconduct creates an unsafe and hostile environment for women and children seeking the solace of faith communities. Until we recognize this truth we cannot address this growing problem with individuals that come into faith communities looking for answers to questions of ultimacy (How can my life count for something?)and intimacy (How can I have meaningful connections with others?), nor can we offer the safety they should expect.

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