Ministry and Duty to Report

Sam Webster —  August 2, 2014 — 38 Comments

Ministers are among the legally mandated with a duty to report abuse. But what a minister is in the Pagan community, is a vague notion. Some folks call themselves ministers or “reverend” because they lead a group of Pagans in religious activity. While this is certainly an appropriate position for a minister, the profession of ministry requires a lot of education (4 to 5 years) and that education is rarely undertaken by Pagan religious leaders.

[Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

Handfasting [Photo Credit: Paganavebury / CC. Wikimedia]

The expense is only one of the barriers. Many of self-declared ministers are skilled priest-folk, but that is not the same office as minister. I’ve written about priesthood and ministry elsewhere. In brief, a minister, in most congregations, is at least a Master of Divinity. They have been through an education that is partially academic, but also one balanced by a significant amount of spiritual and personal challenge delivered by a seminary, and informed by the deep experience of those who have gone before.

In the past five hundred years, a significant body of learning and experience has developed in the seminary community, which can only be transmitted by studying in one because it is a culture – not simply information or technique. It is a body of knowledge and skill richly informed by the enormous amount of error that the professional religious community has foisted upon those they serve. This may seem like a strange endorsement, but those errors are the precious stuff of wisdom. Much of the spiritual care that humans benefit from looks no different from spiritual harm. The only way to know is empirical; it has to be tried. Then each success and failure has to be passed to the next occasion and to the next generation of religious professionals. This is done in seminary.

The ‘challenging’ of the minister-in-training is an important part of rendering a human capable of serving and helping another. Mostly, we, who go into the helping professions, do so for egoic reasons, which poisons any help we give. In training for a profession such as social work or psychotherapy, the practitioner has to be ‘broken’ of self-centered impulses. This is no less for the minister-to-be; rather even more so given the spiritual content of their service and profound responsibility that it entails. The ‘challenging’ is an ordeal that tempers the person who would serve in deeply transformative ways.

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

[Photo Credit: Elijah Nouvelage, Flickr/CC]

Training is only the first step. It renders the master of divinity fit for the task, but that is only half the story. There must also be the contribution of the community to making an effective minister. This has two parts, one permanent and the other temporal. The first is ordination. This is where a community, often by means of its leadership, acknowledges the training and preparation of a minister-to-be and consecrates that person to the task of spiritually serving that community. This, and whatever act of blessing, sometimes laying on of hands, is what makes a person a ‘Reverend’. The second, more temporal part, is the actualization of that blessing in a call-to-serve a specific community. What is most important to note here is that the community has the power and responsibility to invest its minister(s) with delegated powers and a mandate to act on behalf of and in service to that community.

Which brings me back to the mandated duty to report. Naturally, everyone has a responsibility to report abuse. What is different for those legally mandated to report is that they can be brought up on charges if they don’t fulfill the mandate and report the abuse.

A minster, for the reasons above, has a legally-mandated duty to report sexual abuse of minors, abuse of elders, as well as reporting responsibilities with respect to harm to self (suicide) and harm to others (assault, murder.) This is founded on the presumption that the minister is trained in the ability to recognize abuse and has been given the responsibility to observe, counsel, and correct the community they serve. Without that training, the identification of the problem may produce unacceptable numbers of false positives and negatives. Without the community’s mandate, what right does the minister or person have to speak up?

We can remediate the lack of training with specific training. I hear that at the upcoming COG Grand Council/Merry Meet there will be two different trainings given. One of which is explicitly about the mandated duty to report. This is excellent, although making sure this training is universal for all who take leadership roles is a problem yet to be solved.

However, the more general problem of mandate remains. Outside of our small groups, which is where most of our leadership exercises its (rightful) authority, at larger events where the problem of predatory behavior is more prevalent, who has the mandate to speak? The event coordinators already have their hands full and can’t be everywhere, so other means of observation and reporting have to be present. We can easily acknowledge that leaders in general have this responsibility implicitly. However, we can see from the reports that we have on this problem, this is insufficient to solve it. Some are taking responsibility on themselves, such as the Council of the Phoenix. While noble to step up, who has given them this authority? No one, and so they wisely limit themselves (thus far) to being a resource hub.

[Photo Credit:  RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

[Photo Credit: RainArashi, deviantArt/CC]

One approach is to establish a certification body. This would be an organization of members of our Pagan community, presumably with appropriate training, who could then establish standards on the basis of law and best practices. Then individuals, organizations, and events can apply for, duly receive, and proudly proclaim that they have been certified to comply with the law and those practices.

Another approach, which ideally would build on the certification principle, is to establish professional organizations of Pagan leaders and likewise assert the law and best practices. This would then lead to a culture of self-policing. The members of the organization would be mutually bound to observe, report and correct their fellows to maintain the high standards of the organization.

Of course, having more Pagan leaders who have been through the seminary process would also help. Scholarship and other support for those who feel called to the work are ways our community can cultivate good leadership. The Pantheon Foundation in our very first year of operation in service to the community has established the Diotima Prize to provide support (this year $1000) to a Pagan Master of Divinity student.

Yes, this comes down to a matter of power. Who do we empower to act on our behalf? And who will watch the watchmen? These are not easy questions or we would have solved them by now. But, now we have to get to work on them.

More Information:

NCSL: Mental Health Professionals’ Duty to Protect/Warn

Childwelfare.gov: Clergy as Mandatory Reporters of Abuse and Neglect

Missouri: Missouri, Ministers Duty to Report

Washington: Confidentiality and Mandatory Reporting: A False Dilemma?

California: Mandatory Reporting (Elderly)

California: Mandatory Reporting (Children)

Sam Webster

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Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of "Tantric Thelema." He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.