Sexual Harassment and the Church: Sexual Harassment in the Church

October 7th, 2009


The dance floor was crowded, particularly near the stage, the speakers, and in the dark corners. The music was cranked up. The chaperones stood at the other end of the cafeteria, chatting noisily over the sound of the music, glancing occasionally at the dance floor.

They smiled at the awkward attempts of the junior high students playing matchmaker for their friends. The crowd parted to reveal a seventh grade girl screaming frantically at an eighth grade boy, “It’s against the law! You cannot lift up a girl’s blouse and grab her boob. It’s called sexual harassment. If you ever do that again to any girl at a dance, I will personally call the cops and you can spend the night in jail!”

The phone call came from a parent. She reported that her daughter came home from the last youth group meeting in tears. The daughter had told her parents that a boy, also a parishioner and someone who regularly attended youth group, had made some very lewd suggestions as the kids waited for their rides. He talked of various sexual things he wanted to do to her. She was frightened and didn’t want to come to youth group anymore. The parent wanted the boy kicked out.

It was the first day of Bible class and a mother spoke with the pastor. Her sixth-grade daughter had a protection from abuse bond out on another sixth-grade girl. There had been an incident in school the prior year with sexual harassment in the ladies room and on the cheerleading squad. When the accused girl and her parents refused to admit wrongdoing and the abuse escalated, the victim’s parents took the issue to court. The girls were separated for all their school classes. The parents had pulled the victim from the cheerleading squad. They didn’t want to stop going to the church they had grown up in, but the accused girl was in the same Bible class. When a second class was formed and the girls were separated, the parent of the accused girl rammed his car into the victim’s parents’ car.

I’m not a lawyer. I’m a youth minister who has struggled to balance the legalities of sexual harassment with our Christian teachings on grace, forgiveness, and accountability.

Defining Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment has been defined within two subcultures of our society: the workplace and the school. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and Title IX of the Education Act have both been put to the test before the Supreme Court in recent decisions. In 1992, Christine Franklin successfully charged her high school science teacher with two years of sexual harassment that culminated in rape. In 1999, a school was found to have violated the sexual harassment laws by failing to take action when a fifth-grade girl complained of persistent sexual advances. This latest ruling has caused many school districts to take another look at their policies. The Department of Education has issued revised guidance which can be found on their Web site.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission defines sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature when submission to or rejection of the conduct explicitly or implicitly affects an individual’s employment, unreasonably interferes with an individual’s work performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment.”

The U.S. Department of Education defines sexual harassment as “conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive to limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the education program, or to create a hostile or abusive educational environment.”

Both agree sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to those characterized by the following:

  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The victim doesn’t have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser’s conduct must be unwelcome.

The following examples represent sexual harassment if the behavior is clearly unwelcome and not reciprocated: sexual innuendo, sexual comments, sexist insults, implied or verbal threats concerning one’s grades or job, sexual proposition, invitations or other pressures for sex, repeated requests for a date, suggestive or insulting sounds or pictures, leering or staring, displaying sexually oriented or demeaning posters or pictures, patting, pinching, or brushing against the body, attempted or actual kissing or fondling, and sexual assault or coerced sexual intercourse. In 1993 the American Association of University Women conducted an extensive study entitled “Hostile Hallways” which found that 85 percent of all girls and 76 percent of boys have been sexually harassed in schools.

What Should a Victim Do?

The following procedures should be followed if you, a youth with whom you work, or a co-worker are experiencing sexual harassment.

  • Don’t blame yourself.
  • Act immediately, or the situation may continue. Your harasser may view your silence as encouragement.
  • Say, “no,” and tell the harasser to stop. Refer to Galatians 6:1, responding in a spirit of Christian love.
  • Document each incident of harassment. Keep notes about the time, date, location, and the events that led up to the incident. Consider writing a confidential letter to the harasser identifying how the incident made you feel and what you would like to happen next. Keep a copy of the letter for your records.
  • Know your rights. Check your church, your diocese, local school district, and local police for a statement of state law and recommended complaint and grievance procedures.

Tell someone. Your complaint will be treated seriously and sensitively. If your complaint is not treated seriously and sensitively, document the incident and tell someone else.

Developing a Sexual Harassment Policy

If your church doesn’t already have a stated policy, turn to your diocese or other churches of your denomination. Check with your local school district(s). The internet posts several samples for employers and schools. If your church does have a stated policy, make sure it’s updated concerning the 1999 Supreme Court ruling and it is available to all students and parents. Consider addressing your policy within sexuality curriculum, placing it in student handbooks, and/or mailing it to entrance grade-level parents.

A sexual harassment policy should include:

  • A definition of sexual harassment
  • Procedure to report sexual harassment
  • Investigation procedure
  • The stated responsibility of the Church

Consider making the sexual harassment policy an opportunity for evangelization. Why is sexual harassment wrong in Christian teaching? What are Christian conflict resolution techniques? Is prayer part of the investigation procedure? Why is compassionately responding to allegations of sexual harassment part of the mission of the Church?


Investigation Procedures

Once a complaint is received, follow the procedures in your policy. If you have no policy, keep the complaint confidential from everyone except your consultants. Always consult your pastor (if your pastor is the alleged harasser, consult an area pastor or diocesan official whom you trust). Consider consulting a trusted counselor, school guidance officer, and/or lawyer. Other people should be involved in your decision on how to proceed.

If your investigation reveals evidence to support the complaint of sexual harassment, the harasser should be disciplined appropriately. The incident should be well documented.

If your investigation fails to find evidence to support the complaint, there should be no documentation concerning the complaint placed in public files.

Regardless of the outcome of a sexual harassment complaint, the person lodging the complaint should be protected from any form of retaliation.

The Responsibility of the Church

Sexual harassment reflects a lack of understanding in our society about how men and women ought to relate to each other. It violates basic Christian values of justice, equality, respect, dignity, chastity, and peace. It goes against the call to practical kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, mutual support, and to love one another as ourselves. Through a proclamation of Jesus Christ, we lead people to relationships based on mutuality and love.

It’s the responsibility of church personnel and volunteers to take immediate and appropriate action to report or deal with incidents of sexual harassment whether brought to their attention or personally observed. Under no circumstances should a legitimate complaint be dismissed or downplayed, nor should the complainant be told to deal with it personally.

Practical Ideas for Youth Workers

  • Make your church and youth settings a safe place, free of sexual harassment.
  • Be alert for the signs of harassment between youth group participants.
  • Dedicate at least one weekend a year to educate parishioners about sexual harassment, domestic violence, acquaintance rape, and pornography.
  • Ask direct questions. Ask the students if harassment is happening in their schools or in the church setting.
  • Have a sexual harassment action plan or policy.
  • Make sure all volunteers and parents are aware of the issues of sexual harassment and your church’s policy.
  • Invite speakers from local shelters for abused women and children to speak on sexual harassment and other issues.
  • Include information about sexual harassment in human sexuality and family life classes.
  • Include prayers of intercessions for better communication and an increased reverence for God’s gift of sexuality.
  • Look for resource people in your congregation who can offer their expertise.

A Conclusion and a Prayer

Sexual harassment has repercussions for all the members of a community. As disciples of Christ, we’re dedicated to encouraging all that nurtures and strengthens family life. One of the sources of healing we have in our lives as Christians is prayer. The following is a prayer for chastity.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew in me a steadfast spirit.
Help me not to dwell on impure thoughts. 
Forgive me for taking part in impure conversations and jokes.
Keep me from movies, TV, and music that lead me to sin. 
Accept my prayers for those hurt, humiliated, and lost in the world of pornography. 
Give me wisdom to behave and dress in ways that don’t lead others to sin. 
Help me hold in my imagination my (future) spouse and the gift of pure love that we’ll one day share. 
Holy Spirit, enable me to imitate the purity and love of Christ. 
Lord, help me to be holy and recognize in your gift of sexuality my desire to be intimately united with you. 


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.