Trigger warning: this article is about sexual assault and callous institutional response — but it’s also about hope. I’ve muted the details of the assaults in the main article; I’ve attached a warning to the link that describes those attacks.
“Sara,” a junior at Columbia University, was raped by her friend “Tom” after a party. Tom’s former girlfriend “Natalie” had endured more than a year of intimate partner violence and non-consensual sex while they were dating. “Josie” had to fight Tom off when he followed her into a supply closet and tried to overpower her. All three women reported Tom’s assaults to Student Services for Gender-Based and Sexual Misconduct; none of the women received justice. Sara endured a seven-month investigation only to be told Tom was “not responsible.” Natalie was pressured to attend rushed hearings at the end of the spring term; the university concluded that Tom had not violated any school policy. Investigators found Tom responsible for Josie’s assault, but they overturned that decision on appeal.
Columbia had resisted pressure for months to release data about sexual assaults, even after hundreds of students signed a petition demanding transparency; even after the New York Post galvanized public response with this article. But then the wheels began to turn. On January 22, 2014, President Obama announced a task force to address the epidemic in college sexual assault. The next day, Columbia’s BWOG (the blog for the undergraduate magazine The Blue & White) published Anna Bahr’s detailed account (trigger warning: rape) of the three women’s stories. On January 26, the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate released this open letter to Columbia’s administration.
Finally, on January 29, Columbia University President Lee Bollinger sent this letter to the community, promising greater transparency. Student activists, including my friend and fellow CSA survivor Erik Campano, have pledged to hold Bollinger to his word.
Why do I tell this story in a blog dedicated to ending clergy sexual abuse? Because we who work for church reform can learn from survivors in other arenas. “Look what student activists at Columbia did right,” says Erik Campano. “They gathered stories from survivors of sexual assault. They surveyed students to find out how big the problem was. They didn’t go straight to the university president with this information; instead they approached their natural allies, the leaders in student government. With those leaders on board, they organized a campus-wide action through the petition and rallies. When the administration still dragged their feet, the students got a major media outlet to carry the story. All these elements worked together. With President Bollinger’s commitment, Columbia now has a chance to lead the nation in creating an effective policy that supports victims of gender-based sexual offenses and holds their offenders accountable.”
In other words: gather evidence, build relationships with allies, and let them pave the way with the top brass.
It won’t be easy to do this within the church. Campus organizers can find survivors by tabling at student events or posting flyers on kiosks. It’s harder to find survivors of clergy sexual abuse — but it can be done, and Erik and I are taking the challenge. Through this blog, I’ve met Erik and several other survivors of Episcopal clergy sexual misconduct. To the extent that each survivor’s healing allows, we are putting our heads together on a plan to reach out to the working group now considering changes in Title IV, the church’s clergy disciplinary policy. If you experienced clergy sexual abuse or misconduct in the Episcopal Church and you’d like to be involved at any level, please get in touch — you’ll find my email here. If you hope to organize in a different denomination, I invite you to follow our journey. You can learn from our missteps as much as from our successes.
Survivors of clergy sexual abuse and misconduct: our voices matter. Whether we tell our stories openly or not, whether we use our own names or a pseudonym — even if we just tell one person what happened — we are adding to the river of truth that will one day lead to justice and real reform.