Addressing issues of sexual abuse in Pagan communities

TWH –In recent years, allegations of sexual misconduct within Pagan and polytheist communities have become increasingly visible. The arrest and conviction of Kenny Klein led to a number of public allegations of abuse levied against the musician, and the ensuing wider conversation around these issues tended first toward recrimination before focusing on the challenges of consent culture in a sex-positive community.

Yesterday’s Wild Hunt article on abuse allegations in one Wiccan church is evidence that working through these issues can be difficult, particularly for leaders who lack professional training around abusive relationships.

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To that end, several experts were asked to provide guidance as to what mistakes amateurs are likely to make, and what resources should be tapped into for support and guidance.

While this advice was solicited in the context of the decision reached by board members of the Wiccan Church of Minnesota, the challenges faced in that organization are not uncommon in Pagan groups, which tend to be small and tightly knit. Among those challenges are a lack of advanced planning to address issues of sexual misconduct, embracing common — yet incorrect — assumptions about the nature of abusive relationships, and the additional complexity introduced by the practices of oath-taking and sacred sexuality which can occur in Pagan traditions.

Lady Aradia is a third-degree Wiccan of the Phoenix Rising tradition, which is affiliated with Covenant of the Goddess (CoG). Professionally, she has been a social worker for more than 17 years, and has worked with offenders nearly exclusively since 2009. The treatment she provides to offenders in private practice is approved by the agency overseeing such programs in her state.

She has offered to organize a committee within CoG of people with experience dealing with sexual assault, but that goal has not yet been realized.

“The great rite and initiation in our traditions put us in a unique predicament” when it comes to preventing abuse, she said, and that means that “extra attention” is required to get it right. However, Aradia does not believe that this should imperil the magic and mystery implicit within Wiccan practice.

According to Cat Chapin-Bishop, a retired psychotherapist who treated victims of sexual abuse and is herself a third-degree initiate in a Wiccan tradition, “it is even more important in groups, which do recognize the legitimacy of sex in those relationships, to carefully define what the ethical boundaries around it are.”

“There are not enough rules and by-laws about this,” noted Aradia, because Pagans “really rely upon relationships, which creates a natural bias, and we have no one to stay objective, and provide support.”

For best results, those decisions must be made before an incident arises.

As noted in yesterday’s article, antiquated by-laws frustrated attempts by WiCom board members to investigate presented allegations. For one, the by-laws specifically forbade bringing in outsiders to provide an objective perspective. In addition, there was no process in place to hear a complaint, despite there being ample guidance on the appropriate forms of discipline.

The Board members were forced to create a new process while under intense public scrutiny. Adding to those barriers was the fact that one of the three board members had stepped down to take another role in the organization, meaning that a replacement had to be named while a cloud of questions hovered overhead.

In addition to having to take several steps before they could even begin their investigation, WiCom board members told Wild Hunt reporter Cara Schulz that they felt under considerable pressure to make their decision quickly.

“A statement a week and a half later seems rushed,” observed Aradia. “They should have taken the time.” One action that might have reduced pressure would have been to suspend the Priest’s ministerial credentials as they worked through that process, she noted.

She goes on to say that there are a number of “myths” about sexual abuse, which can lead someone without training to draw incorrect conclusions. For example, the time it takes for a victim to decide to make a complaint, to legal authorities or anyone else, can often be measured in months or years.

In addition, how victims relate to the abuser during that period of time, as Aradia explains, can’t be reliably used to infer anything about how they feel about the incident, because they are still processing. Self-doubt is common among victims, she noted, and it can take confiding in a third party to help evaluate one’s emotional state.

“The first thing victims do is question themselves,” said Aradia; the authority figure has more knowledge and commands respect. She said that this is only amplified by a spiritual component.

“There are lots of reasons why victims don’t report,” Aradia said. “It is our job to walk them through that process and support them.”

She was explicit in her opinion that victims should be encouraged to go to civil authorities, who are the only ones qualified to determine if a crime might have occurred, and whether it is possible to file charges.

Another abuser myth might be called the “nice guy” fallacy. Aradia observed, “That’s [what] they said about [Jerry] Sandusky,” for example. Sandusky is the retired Penn State coach that was found guilty of multiple counts of sexual abuse against children.

Aradia recommends that organizations use a hands-on process with a focus on in-person contact rather than relying on email for communication. She stressed in several ways that involving law-enforcement authorities should be encouraged by the leaders, and that it should be done sooner rather than later.

She added that any internal organizational investigation should wait until any legal process runs its course.

This dovetails with her advice to issue a suspension of clergy privileges right away to make it clear that all allegations are being taken seriously. Even if the accused offender is not charged or convicted, curtailing ministerial authority still might be appropriate depending upon the circumstances.

The experts agree that it is also easy to minimize the impact of the power dynamic between teacher and student. “Someone who has earned their first degree has been with the teacher long enough to establish rapport and grooming, but not long enough to be confident challenging a third-degree” member, Aradia said.

“There’s a huge power difference.”

Abusers, whether consciously or not, tend to follow a process summarized by SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, as “isolate, create doubt, praise submission, foster fear, secure silence.”

“Asking why victims of clergy abuse stay in contact with an abuser is very similar to asking why victims of domestic violence don’t leave a batterer: explanations can include shame, fear of not being believed or helped, or fear of physical harm, but, bottom line, they don’t indicate an absence of a problem.”

The complexities of the situation detailed in Thursday’s article and other similar past situations illustrate the continuing challenges Pagan leaders face when dealing with not only first time allegations or a single incident, but also with what is termed serial abusers, or those who might well have more experience navigating these waters than the leaders themselves.

In a specifically Wiccan context, Aradia recommends clear protocols laying out where the line is drawn between ritual secrecy and coercion. In short, there always needs to be disclosure around sexual contact before any commitments are extracted. These rules should be in writing, and accompanied by training in the mandated-reporter rules in that particular state.

Specifically, Aradia recommends at least two leaders of different genders be involved in such delicate workings to provide a sense of both balance and safety.

Although many hope that Pagan leaders are getting closer to being prepared to directly address such issues, it appears likely that the feelings of being silenced or otherwise further harmed in the quest to find appropriate solutions will continue on for some time.

Wild Hunt columnist Crystal Blanton is the foremost Pagan expert on restorative justice, which is why she was asked: “What can organization’s do to heal as a group, and to help people feel like they can move forward without ripping apart the community?”

“The impact of situations on a community level are often challenging to decipher, and even more challenging to prevent,” Blanton acknowledged.

“In many cases communities need to work toward the understanding that situations will come up that cause harm, and work toward developing systems and resources to address things as they come up,” continued Blanton.

“When we address harm in a community, situation, or relationship, we have an opportunity to get away from the dichotomous thinking of right and wrong, and look at the nuances that exist in the human experience.”

She said, “Anticipating these situations by cultivating a culture of understanding that allows for everyone to be heard and valued in the process of accessing and healing harm is a useful tool for any community.”

The process of restorative justice begins with three questions, Blanton explained: “What harm has been experienced? What led to the harm happening, or why was it experienced as harm? And how might this harm be healed?”

“The approach,” she says, “to these questions go beyond a set of rules and look at the heart of the matter that people are holding.”

“There may be no way to prevent harm in any community but we can work to embrace a process that truly embraces the experiences of one another and makes room to explore the ramifications of our circumstances.”

Individuals who feel they have been the victim of sexual abuse may wish to turn to the resources compiled by the Department of Justice, Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, or

Individuals who are ready to admit to committing abuse may seek a referral to a qualified counselor by visiting the Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abuser web site. Aradia warns that in seeking help, abusers must be willing to relinquish the secrecy under which they operate, which under some circumstances could result in a therapist being mandated to report a crime.

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