United Methodist survey finds sexual harassment Church aims to raise members' awareness

December 02, 1990|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

A new national survey estimates that almost a third of all United Methodist clergywomen have been sexually harassed by male clergy, and female ministers in Maryland say their experience supports the survey's finding.

"When some clergywomen get by themselves, they talk about sexual harassment," acknowledged the Rev. Barbara Sands.

Even so, she said, women rarely take their complaints to the men involved or to the mediating teams of counselors established by the church in Maryland to try to eliminate such behavior.

Ms. Sands is on the staff of the local United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women.

Clergymen appeared more surprised by the study's results than did women.

Said the Rev. Thomas C. Starnes, director of the United Methodist Council on Ministries in Baltimore, "My response is, 'Wow, that figure's shocking.' " He added, "It's probably a typical male response."

The 16-page study was based on questionnaires returned anonymously by 1,578 United Methodist clergy, laity, college students and non-clergy employees of the church selected at random.

Among the 643 women who replied, about 77 percent of clergy, 54 percent of students, 37 percent of non-clergy employees and 23 percent of laity said they had been sexually harassed. Of clergywomen reporting such harassment, almost 42 percent said the source was other pastors.

Offered as typical of the survey was this remark by an ordained woman: "The kinds of sexual harassment which disturb me . . . are the actions of my brother clergy, who seem to offer unsolicited looks, touches and comments to the more attractive clergywomen fairly frequently."

Of the 614 clergymen questioned, 278 -- or 45.3 percent -- said they had received unwanted sexual attention at least once.

In one such example, a clergyman said, "One of my female parishioners appears to have a crush on me. She's affectionate, young, attractive and married. . . . I am concerned. No real problems, only an explosive potential."

The survey was commissioned by the United Methodists' General Council on Ministries in Dayton, Ohio.

"It does not surprise me," the Rev. Jean S. Young, United Methodist district superintendent in Chevy Chase, said of the percentage of the church's female ministers reporting

that male clergy colleagues had harassed them sexually.

"But we must understand how people are defining sexual harassment," the superintendent said. "What I have observed is that many men who are harassing women do not realize they are doing it."

The more subtle forms are the most difficult to deal with, she said.

The study defines nine degrees of unsolicited, unwanted sexual activity by members of the opposite sex, from "suggestive looks or leers" to "sexual assault or rape."

Among the categories in between are "unsolicited touching or closeness," "unsolicited attempts to fondle or kiss" and "unsolicited sexual comments, teasing or telling of jokes with sexual content."

Commented Ms. Young, "The issue is not whether there's hugging or touching, but whether it's wanted. Is it perceived as demeaning or intimidating?"

One reason for sexual harassment in the United Methodist Church, she said, is that some men feel threatened when women move into traditional male roles. Of the 897 ordained Methodist clergy currently part of the Baltimore Conference, 148 are women.

The Rev. Miriam Hope Jackson, a United Methodist pastoral counselor in Frederick, agreed with Ms. Young that the more subtle forms of sexual harassment by male clergy were widespread.

"I see clergywomen experiencing a lot of this," Ms. Jackson said. "Unfortunately, in most cases, they are reluctant to do anything about it."

Mr. Starnes said he hoped that knowledge of the study would make Methodist ministers not only more aware of the problem but more sensitive when dealing with it -- in themselves and in others.

He said his "career wife" and his daughter, who is an ordained minister, helped him to realize in recent years that male behavior such as flirting and hugging -- even when considered innocent by the man --might rightly be seen by a woman as harassment.

Mr. Starnes said the church's Baltimore Conference would not change its policies because of the study but would remind its employees -- clergy and laity, men and women -- that grievance procedures to consider all forms of alleged sexual harassment are in place.

Ms. Young said the grievance procedures dated back to 1986 and were at least partially an outgrowth of the controversial United Methodist trial of the Rev. John Preston Carter the year before. A church tribunal found him guilty of sexually harassing five women under his supervision and suspended him from the ministry for three years, but on appeal the suspension was reduced to two years. He is currently a pastor in East Baltimore.

Mr. Carter, who is black, contended that the trial was motivated by racism, although three of the five women who filed complaints against him were black.

Ms. Sands said cultural differences and the possibility of racism must be considered when assessing harassment accusations.

"If you look at me a certain way, and I don't want you to look at me that way, that can be defined as sexual harassment," she said. "Speaking as a black woman, we don't need to focus on looks and stares. There is too much serious work to do."

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