What can the Church learn from Harvey Weinstein?

06 November 2017, Matt Cooper, Thirtyone:eight

Since a New York Times article reported that Harvey Weinstein had been accused by multiple women of sexual misconduct, accusations of harassment, assault and rape have continued to be made against many who hold positions of power and influence.

Similarly, a recent article in The Guardian described the prevalence of sexual abuse and harassment against women in the Church of England, with one senior lay figure describing it as “manifold” at almost every level of the hierarchy.

These cases have similarities to the recent and ongoing allegations concerning child abuse in English football, which has resulted in 2,000 child abuse referrals being investigated by police.

Following the Weinstein accusations, The Guardian also published an article by an anonymous woman who told her story of sexual harassment while working in the charity sector.  She wrote: “I was 18 or 19. He was much older, and a very, very senior manager in a global charity. He forced his tongue in my mouth. I remember the feeling with technicolour clarity.

“I’m telling this story now because it is vitally important we recognise that sexual harassment happens in the voluntary sector too. We don’t exist independently of the scandals rocking Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the modelling world and more. These men exist in whispers and rumours in our networks. In fact, they are real, normal, everyday people with whom we all come into contact, in some cases more than we would like.”

The charity sector, along with the stories of abuse and sexual misconduct by football coaches, entertainment elites, and church hierarchy, shows that sexual abuse is a problem that occurs across society without exception and is certainly not confined to the church because of anything such as Christian theology. The key ingredient is that much of the abuse that is being reported in these settings is being perpetrated by those who hold positions of trust, influence and authority and misusing the power inherent in their role.

This could be a coach selling the bright lights of a promising professional football career, or a church leader promoting his or her twisted sense of the ‘will of God’.

Despite the cases in Hollywood, there are examples of some entertainment elites making the right decisions and putting boundaries in place to avoid disaster. Nell Minow, a film critic, spoke to the Poynter Institute about interviewing David Schwimmer, best known for playing Ross in “Friends,” at the Phoenix Hotel in Washington, D.C. in 2011.

She said they were scheduled to chat in the first-floor restaurant but it was too crowded and noisy, so Schwimmer hesitantly suggested the notion of going up to his room.

As Minow was twice his age, she didn’t feel anxious about anything. But Schwimmer added that if she wanted, he could make sure there was a third person in the room. Minow said the occasion was an indicator of Schwimmer’s integrity and sensitivity and his understanding that he needed to be on the alert and make sure everyone was safe.

The revelations that have come out since the first New York Times article regarding Harvey Weinstein show sexual abuse is often facilitated by an abuse of a position of trust and authority,  but not inherently an issue with theology as is sometimes claimed. Where there are children or adults at risk, there will always be the potential for abuse. That is why we advocate a comprehensive view of creating safer places for all, as detailed within our 10 Safe & Secure Standards (see ‘Staying Safe & Secure’).

There is much we can do to make our places of worship or working environments safer and the Church at large has a real opportunity to be pioneers in this respect if only we grasp the issue and work proactively to promote safer cultures. As Nell Minow’s story shows, there are people in Hollywood who are alert and prepared to set boundaries. We too can all be encouraged to use our common sense to remain vigilant and work to ensure boundaries are in place to avoid disaster.

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