Q&A: "Clergy sexual abuse of women is a violent abuse of power"
Cléo Fatoorehchi interviews DR. VALLI BATCHELOR of the World Student Christian Federation Book Project.
NEW YORK, May 15, 2011 (IPS) - Ninety to 95 percent of victims of clergy sexual exploitation are women, according to recent estimates by the Columbia Theological Seminary's Rev. Pamela Cooper White, and yet very few studies have been conducted on this issue.Now, the (WSCF), founded in 1895 and which represents more than a hundred social justice-oriented student movements from around the world, is breaking the silence with the publication of a book entitled "When Pastors and Priests Prey - Identifying, Preventing and Overcoming Clergy Sexual Abuse of Women".
The book will be launched at the (IEPC), held in Kingston, Jamaica May 17 to 25. The IEPC is a gathering of church leaders who will assess the outcome of the Decade to Overcome Violence, an initiative created in 2001.
The book's coordinator, Dr. Valli Batchelor, came to collaborate with the WSCF after the 2008 , where she was participating as an Islamic finance expert for the World Council of Churches, which sponsored the book.
She also runs the Journey Towards Hope Dance Project, which helps to educate and engage the public and prevent violence within communities.
Q: Why do you call clergy sexual abuse against women a "silent killer" within families and communities around the globe?
A: Clergy sexual abuse of women is a violent abuse of power rather than "an affair". Most people may recognise that it is an unacceptable abuse of power for a therapist or doctor to have sex with a patient. Yet many fail to recognise that when a clergy – who commits to spiritually nurture and guide a member of the church - takes advantage of his power and authority to have a sexual relationship with her, he is committing sexual abuse and not having an affair.
Clinical research from the Faith Trust Institute indicates that women victims are likely to remain silent, suffering severe consequences from depression to suicide.
Q: What can a woman do to protect herself?
A: Women can protect themselves from sexual abuse by understanding that people with power and authority in our society can abuse that power for their own ends. Stopping abuse before it begins is the best method for self-protection. If abuse has occurred, reporting the abuse is empowering because it breaks the silence surrounding the offender who is violating the trust placed in him.
Realisation of the betrayal of trust by clergy – who is believed to be the spiritual representation of God - is devastating and survivors need support to cope. Clergy offenders often use their spiritual authority to violate women, pleading or threatening the victims that they must forgive the offender's "sins" or risk being rejected by God for unforgiveness. This is spiritual blackmail and can trap victims into silence and suffering for years or decades.
Survivors recover best when they find someone who believes them and helps the survivor to bring the offender to justice and thus reduce the risk of the offender abusing other victims.
Q: How can people fight against such abuse?
A: First, the issue needs to be faced honestly: that sexual abuse is a violent abuse of power, not a matter of "an affair" between a clergyman and a female parishioner. Second, church congregations and church organisations need to recognise that clergy are capable of sexual abuse so that the churches can devise safe practices for clergy.
The WSCF and the WCC have jointly played a role of historic significance by pooling together the knowledge, experiences and voices of survivors, advocates, theologians and others to create this book, which will hopefully begin a cultural transformation within the worldwide church.
Q: Where does the law stand on this issue?
A: Criminal sexual offences committed by clergy can be prosecuted by the courts. Survivors who take on a criminal prosecution must give a police statement and be prepared to be cross-examined at a trial - and face brutal questioning from defence lawyers. The prosecutor must prove the case beyond reasonable doubt to secure a conviction.
Police are often unwilling to charge an offender unless they are confident of securing a conviction. Survivors of sexual offences by clergy are often embarrassed, trapped in confusion, guilt, shame and self-blame that most victims never make an official complaint to police. Worldwide conviction rates for all sexual assault cases are still very low.
Q: Should the church create some kind of tribunal?
A: Church organisations over hundreds of years have internal processes which are not transparent. Offending clergy have been protected by their church organisations for decades which intimidate victims into silence and cover up disclosures of abuse.
Prosecutions by civil authorities are more likely to be transparent and offer a better option than church tribunals.