Vanderbilt has a new dean of divinity! The Rev. Dr. Emilie M. Townes is only the second woman ever to hold this position. She will be the first African-American dean at the Vanderbilt Divinity School, the first lesbian, and almost certainly the first dean to have gotten a whole set of encyclopedias thrown out of her elementary school library. Two years into her goal of reading every book in the library, Emilie Townes came to the “S” volume of the encyclopedia. In the entry on slavery, she found “cartoonish and offensive caricatures of black folk eating watermelon. Stereotypes of smiling black folk working in the field with tattered clothes. A monstrous cavalcade of sambos and mammies and pickaninnies.” Shocked nearly speechless, 10-year-old Emilie brought the book to her teacher and the librarian. “All I could do was open the page and say, ‘This is not right.’ ”
The educators agreed. They threw out the offending encyclopedias even before the new set arrived, and Emilie Townes has been changing the world ever since. In her first address as dean, Townes asked the Vanderbilt audience, “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have in our academic disciplines? In our churches? In our communities?”
Indeed! If Protestant Christian seminaries produced an encyclopedia, what would we find in the entry on clergy sexual abuse?
* Would the entry focus on the abuse of children in the Roman Catholic tradition, and say (like the Pharisee in Luke’s gospel), “Thank God we are not like that”?
* Would it speak of “affairs” between pastors and their congregants, staff, or junior clergy?
* Would it paint victims as sexually voracious or mentally unstable seductresses?
* Would it shrug off the damage in victims’ lives as the inevitable result of their own weakness?
* Would it warn future pastors to protect themselves against false reports by vengeful congregants?
Or would it tell the truth?
* Clergy sexual abuse happens in every faith tradition.
* Experts estimate that 95% of clergy sexual abuse victims are adult or teen women.
* The landmark Baylor study of 2009 showed that nearly 1 in 30 churchgoing women (or seven survivors in an average-sized congregation) have endured sexual advances from clergy as adults.
* When a pastor initiates or encourages a sexual connection with a congregant, it is never an affair. It is abuse. The clergy/lay power differential makes meaningful consent impossible.
* Congregants may develop crushes on their pastors, but pastors need to remember that it’s not about their attractiveness as men (or women). It is about their power as clergy, their perceived spiritual superiority, and their apparent willingness to listen and care.
* Clergy sexual abuse causes profound emotional and spiritual damage even to victims who start out healthy and strong. Worse, predatory pastors target the already wounded. Some victims never recover. Every single survivor is a living, breathing miracle.
* Of course each claim should be investigated, but false claims are rare almost to nonexistence. As I shared here, a pastor is more likely to be struck by lightning than to be falsely accused of clergy sexual abuse.
Emilie Townes challenged her audience. “How many versions of that ‘S’ volume do we have?” she asked. “And how can I and others model what my teachers did, and provide others with larger and more accurate visions of who we are, and how we can be, in the household of God?”
Vanderbilt Divinity School is on the right track. Last fall, the school invited the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, founder of the FaithTrust Institute, to deliver the Carpenter Lecture, “Wolves in Shepherds’ Clothing: The Institutional Crisis of Clergy Sexual Abuse.” When religious institutions invite Marie Fortune to speak, it is always a good sign: she is fearless. She pulls no punches. I hope that Emilie Townes will continue to include strong voices like hers in the dialog at Vanderbilt. Even more important, I hope she will include the voices of survivors.
I have great hope for Emilie Townes. She has already spoken clearly on this topic. Vanderbilt Divinity School and its partner, The School of Theology at Sewanee, together graduate more than 100 new Masters of Divinity every year. These men and women will eventually lead churches and judicatories. They will have the power to harm or to help their congregants, to hide behind institutional self-protection or to challenge it boldly, to silence the voices of victims or to learn from them and heal the church.
Dear Rev. Townes: the community of survivors are looking to you with hope. Will you grab these future leaders by the ears, look them in the eyes, and demand that they take seriously their call as caretakers and protectors of God’s flock? Will you give them a larger vision for what the Church can be? Will you blaze a trail of leadership that invites all divinity deans to follow?
We are looking to you with hope.