Enabling Sexual Misconduct
For the past four years, serving on the OCA’s Sexual Misconduct Policy Advisory Committee has heightened my awareness of issues related to sexual abuse in general and more specifically clergy sexual misconduct in the church. I have paid more attention to news stories about such misconduct and abuse and have read more material about the issue, trying to discern what are the appropriate policies for dealing with sexual misconduct in the church, especially that which is done by clergy. We are trying to enforce policies that will bring an end to a culture of willful silence which might enable misconduct to be inflicted upon vulnerable victims.
Recently, while visiting my son in Washington, DC, I went to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. There I saw a painting that for me captured what happens both in society and in the church when leadership engages in sexual misconduct. The painting by Robert Morris was done in 1989 and is titled, Private Silence/Public Violence.
I really don’t know what Morris intended to convey in his work, but it did make me think about sexual misconduct in the church, though the painting has not the hint of sexual anything.
The painting caught my eye because I thought, “Yes, that’s it exactly… Privately, clergy and perhaps men in general choose to stay silent when we observe other men/clergy engaging in sexual harassment, inappropriate sexual conversation or sexual misconduct. We create an unreal world in which we pretend or we delude ourselves into thinking nothing bad is happening while maintaining our image of ourselves that we are normal, decent men. But our silence, our failure or refusal to confront bad behavior, enables the misconduct to continue. We thus tacitly allow victims to be harmed while by our silence approve of what is happening. It takes courage to speak, and it takes good men choosing not to remain silent to bring an end to transgression. Sexual harassment as all sexual misconduct is trespassing.
There are many things in the painting that seem so perfect to me in speaking to sexual dereliction. The characters are all male and in the reflection at least smartly dressed. They appear to me to be just having stood up and beginning to applaud what they see. Perhaps they are watching something pass by – but they are also looking at their own reflection. The reality is their thinking is fuzzy, distorted, confused – they see themselves in far better light than they really are. The reality is there is blood on their hands as indicated in the red blur, but in their self image, all is clear. The victims of their behavior don’t even appear in the painting, as I think is true of what one would see in the minds of those who commit sexual misconduct and of those who enable it: the victims don’t exist and they never imagine the victims as fellow human beings. How often perpetrators of sexual wrongdoing deny there are any victims – they don’t exist because the abusers use stealth self-deception to make them invisible.
It is a private silence for it is not openly discussed – rarely is anyone ordering someone else not to talk about it. The secrecy is mutually shared and necessary to maintain the facade that we are good men, not engaging in sin, but behaving as men always behave.
For me, the painting captures what happens in the church in the case of clergy sexual misconduct, especially if we think the misconduct is ‘not that bad’ or barely constitutes misbehavior. It is a consciously chosen silence of our hearts and minds that distorts reality but allows us to see ourselves as well behaved and laudable. Collectively we are like Narcissus looking at his own reflection and falling in love with that reflection, oblivious to what everyone else can see, but trapped in a mirror which reflects the reality we wish to be.
The words of our Savior eerily come to mind:
“This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. With them indeed is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah which says:
‘You shall indeed hear but never understand, and you shall indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and their ears are heavy of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should perceive with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn for me to heal them.‘” (Matthew 13:13-15)
Some may object that these words were directed to the Jews. But during Lent one only has to pay attention to the liturgical poetry and hymns of our church (especially like St. Andrew of Crete) to know that an Orthodox and Patristic way of reading Scripture is to search for their spiritual meaning – namely, how the ancient text can be applied to our lives today.