Representatives from 10 Christian denominations will meet Friday for training on how to address sexual misconduct in their ranks in a bid to keep religious institutions up to date with secular society.
The event, organized by the Mennonite Churches of Eastern Canada, is linked to the #ChurchToo movement — a spinoff of #MeToo that focuses on sexual misconduct in the evangelical Protestant world.
“It’s all over in our society. It’s not just happening in the movie industry, and it’s not just happening in the Catholic Church,” said Marilyn Rudy-Froese, church leadership minister for MCEC. “It’s the work we all need to be doing: we need to be shifting our culture to be attentive to the voices and stories of victims.”
The training session in Kitchener, Ont., will be run by Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, who began working in this space decades before “hashtag” was part of the lexicon, having founded the FaithTrust Institute in the Seattle area as a young United Church minister in 1979.
Fortune said she’s seen a marked shift in recent years as more survivors have sexual misconduct and assault come forward with their stories.
“It’s harder — it’s not impossible but it’s harder — for institutions to ignore anymore,” she said. “That’s always been a challenge in addressing this issue, is they really don’t want to know and their knee-jerk reaction tends to be wrong in terms of institutional self-interest.”
Instead of ignoring the problem for fear of looking bad, Fortune said churches should try to prevent misconduct from happening in the first place by educating church staff about healthy boundaries.
She said that for those who are “really predatory and don’t care much about education,” there need to be policies in place so that abusers can be identified, investigated and appropriately punished.
Throughout that process, Fortune said, it’s important that those carrying out the investigation are transparent with congregants so that all those affected can come forward.
Friday’s training will focus on both preventing sexual misconduct and dealing with predators who slip through the cracks, she said.
Among those in attendance will be Rev. Darren Roorda, Canadian ministries director of the Christian Reformed Church in North America.
The training, he said, will help his sect fulfil a mandate to re-examine the denomination’s approach to sexual misconduct.
“People in various levels of the church — women especially — are much more comfortable to say, ‘I have an issue with fill-in-the-blank,’ or ‘my history includes some difficulty or challenge or persecution,’” he said. “People are much more apt to identify themselves. That comfort level is really, really healthy and good. We’re glad about that.”
It’s now time for the denomination to shift its approach accordingly, he said.
“Last year, at our most senior level of governance — called synod — a really passionate plea came through and was voted on saying, ‘We could do better and we could do more,’” he said. ”So we’ve formed a people that are addressing the ‘more’ that we should and could do, coming before this year’s synod.”
He said the denomination is encouraging its regional governance bodies to develop increased resources for victims of misconduct, including funds for counselling.
The interdenominational nature of the seminar is also a draw to Roorda, who said he hopes to build a network of similarly positioned Christian leaders to reach out to for support and advice as the #ChurchToo movement progresses.
Other denominations participating in the training include the Baptist Church, the United Church and the Pentecostal Assemblies.
In addition to the Friday event, there will be a training session on Saturday for congregational leaders, which is also open to representatives from churches regardless of denomination.
Rudy-Froese noted that the training session is the latest in a series of measures the Mennonite Church has taken to address abuse, having launched an online series called “Sacred Trust,” illustrating different types of abuse in a church setting.
And in July 2018, a woman came forward with decades-old allegations against a former director at Silver Lake Mennonite Camp in Kitchener, Ont., saying she was sexually abused by him as a teenager. The camp publicly named the accused, barred him from camp premises and began to develop a training tool for staff, with the support of MCEC.