Eric Bonetti - Jan 18, 2020

Letter to the Editor: Abuses of Power by Clergy Should Not be Left Out of #MeToo Conversation

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Over the past several years, there’s been an increasing realization that American society must deal with sexual harassment. One of the results has been the #metoo movement, along with various related efforts, including #churchtoo. These are worthy efforts and I support them wholeheartedly.

But in a society that all too often is mesmerized by sex, there’s a downside to these efforts, which is that we often lose sight of the tremendous damage that results from other forms of abuse, including emotional, physical, financial and spiritual.

In my case, I faced spiritual abuse from my purportedly inclusive Episcopal church and its rector, Bob Malm. The avalanche of shunning, emotional abuse, smear campaigns and fabricated legal claims came after I asked the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to mediate a dispute I had with Malm. The diocese declined to do so, responding that my concerns were not of “weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” Subsequently, Malm initiated a campaign of abuse and shunning, in which he drew on his perceived authority as rector to harass and abuse me and my family.

Behind the scenes, this included a smear campaign, in which Malm repeatedly told others that I am “dysfunctional,” “twisted,”and “sick.”

Eventually, Malm tried filing false police charges, claiming that I had threatened him. In subsequent litigation, he even went so far as to claim, in writing and under oath, that my mother, or someone claiming to be her, contacted him repeatedly to set up appointments, only to no-show. This simply didn’t happen.

Perhaps not surprisingly, when I complained to the diocese about Malm’s fabrications, it stated in writing that it would only get involved if he faced criminal charges. No jail, no crime—a shockingly low standard for anyone, let alone a member of the clergy.

In the midst of all of this, the one thing that the diocese has said is that it is concerned about is the possibility of damage caused by my social media presence. In short, while the church is prepared to brush off Malm’s conduct as irrelevant, it has a problem with me telling others about that conduct, for it fears that my doing so will harm the church’s reputation. Hmmm.

Nor do outsiders really understand the situation. All too often the reaction is, “Well, why can’t you find a new church?” But this ignores the harm caused by the betrayal of trust that occurs when a trusted member of the clergy abuses his or her position and turns church — a place I once regarded as safe and welcoming — into a place of conflict and hurt.

The irony is that if my situation had involved sexual misconduct of any sort, the church would be all over it. But abuse that doesn’t involve sex is treated as irrelevant, even when it involves perjury and other blatant wrongdoing.

The #metoo movement is long overdue. But in our efforts to eradicate sexual abuse and harassment, let’s not forget that abuse isn’t only about sex, and other forms of abuse can be every bit as damaging to those who experience it.

Abuse is abuse.

If you would like to speak out on this topic, visit the author’s petition to the diocese on change.org.

Written by Eric Bonetti