Saturday, October 29, 2016

Religion and Sexual Abuse of Women: Time to Say Sorry

With Donald Trump’s recent comments about women reverberating in my mind, I posted an apology to my female friends on Facebook. 

In it, I told them I was appalled by what Trump said and did to women. But what disturbed me more, I said, “was hearing from my female friends that this kind of thing is normal—it has happened to so many, including to many who grew up in Christian churches.” 

To all of them, I expressed my sadness and outrage. 

I went on to ask if this was a topic I should write about on the Faith Page. The answers came quickly: Yes. 

“Please do, John,” said one woman. “It is time that we stop accepting this as normal and a woman's lot.” 

“You have no idea how prevalent sexual harassment of young girls and up to adult women is in our Christian circles,” said another. 

I then asked if some would share their stories. Those came quickly, too.

A female pastor spoke about entering a room full of her congregants and having an older man say “’Come sit here on my lap.’ I just laughed it off, but it made me very wary of him,” she said. 

Several women wrote of being inappropriately touched by male relatives back in the 1960s and 70s—men who were respected leaders in their churches. 

“It was done in plain sight,” said one woman of what happened to her. “There was an apathy among Christian adults in the generation before us to look the other way.” 

Another woman wrote about her father, also a highly respected church leader, who regularly touched her and her sisters in sexual ways. 

“He treated us like we were inferior, all the while being an elder of the church. You can't begin to know the devastation it caused!” 

There were more stories: A professor of religion who touched his female students in inappropriate ways; men who exposed themselves to women on buses; men who rubbed against women and girls in crowded places; or hugged too tightly and for too long. 

Reading the messages, I couldn’t believe how many women I knew had experienced those things—and I was probably only scratching the surface. It made me both angry and sad. 

We can’t fix the problems of the past, but maybe we can say sorry. Maybe it’s time for Canadian faith groups that haven’t already done so to issue apologies—to say sorry for the harm their religions haves caused to women over the centuries. 

What can they apologize for? Here are some things church leaders could say sorry for. 

They can apologize for not believing women when they complained about harassment, abuse and worse. 

They can apologize for not holding abusers accountable for their actions. 

They can apologize for how they have selectively interpreted the Bible to justify silencing women and treating them as inferior. 

They can apologize for taking so long to let women use all their gifts in the church in service to God. 

They can apologize for excluding women from the boards and committees that shape the mission and vision of their denominations. 

And they can apologize for not speaking out against injustices towards women in the broader society—things like denying them promotions and paying them less because of their gender. 

I’m sure there are other things that could be named, and other religions would have their own unique additions to the list. 

One of the leaders in promoting equality for women in religious groups is former U.S. President Jimmy Carter. In a speech in 2009, he summed it up this way. 

“The view that the Almighty considers women to be inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or tradition,” he said. “Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths, creating an environment in which violations against women are justified.” 

The truth, he stated, “is that male religious leaders have had—and still have—an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.” 

It is time, he stated “we had the courage to challenge these views and set a new course that demands equal rights for women and men, girls and boys.” 

Maybe that process can begin by saying sorry. 

From the Oct. 29 Winnipeg Free Press.


  1. Well written John - and thank you for doing the hard thing. You are a gem!

  2. I agree with Kathy in thanking you for doing the hard thing John. Now comes the harder and hardest part. Who will be up to the challenge of addressing this sin in the Church,in families,in Christians. It is a messy challenge and one that divides churches and families. That is the harder part. The next part is the hardest part. The aftermath. God says He is coming back for a Pure Church without spot or wrinkle. There is a lot of work to do. A lot of work on the Holy Spirit's part and on the people's part .