Sexual Harassment in Religious Institutions

Religion

  • 27Sep
    2017
  • Aysha Qamar

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Sexual Harassment in Religious Institutions

by Dr. Aslam Abdullah

Every time someone brings up an accusation pertaining to sexual harassment against a prominent religious figure, regardless of his or her faith, people in general react in a manner of disbelief. How is it possible? They ask and then speculations begin. “It must be a conspiracy,” suggest those who are die hard followers. “Finally s/he got caught,” say those who opposed him from the beginning. In these two contrasting and conflicting reactions, the issue becomes personalized. Emotions flare high, tempers fly and the people find one more reason to divide themselves.

Can there be a rational approach to look at such issues. Can we move beyond individuals to focus on something that we often fail to address in our communities, especially if they happen to be religious.

Abuse and misuse of power, authority, influence, or one’s celebrity status is not uncommon. Sexual harassment of vulnerable segments of our community is also nothing unusual. Studies done in the US reveal  that one out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime (14.8% completed, 2.8% attempted). that about 3% of American men—or 1 in 33—have experienced an attempted or completed rape in their lifetime. that from 2009-2013, Child Protective Services agencies substantiated, or found strong evidence to indicate that, 63,000 children a year were victims of sexual abuse. that a majority of child victims are 12-17. Of victims under the age of 18: 34% of victims of sexual assault and rape are under age 12, and 66% of victims of sexual assault and rape are age 12-17.

Studies also reveal that sexual assault or harassment also take place against adults. Millions of women in the United States have experienced sexual assault. It is estimated until from 2000 to 2015 more than 50 million American women have gone through the trauma of reported or unreported sexual assault. Females ages 16-19 are 4 times more likely than the general population to be victims of rape, attempted rape, or sexual assault. Women ages 18-24 who are college students are 3 times more likely than women in general to experience sexual violence. Females of the same age who are not enrolled in college are 4 times more likely.

However, when these cases involve religious figures, the issue become larger than life itself.

In the United States Sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It consists of both “quid pro quo” harassment and “hostile environment” harassment. Religious organizations that are subject to Title VII are covered by this prohibition. An employer is automatically liable for supervisory employees’ acts of harassment, but a defense is available to claims of hostile environment harassment if they have adopted a written harassment policy and an alleged victim fails to pursue remedies available under the policy. In some cases, an employer may be liable for acts of sexual harassment committed by non supervisory employees, and even non employees.

Despite this legal provision, most religious institutions in the US and elsewhere lack a policy of monitoring, recording, reporting and taking appropriate actions in case such allegations are brought forth. In fact most are in a state of denial that such events could ever take place among them. This is the position many religious establishments took in recent years when their members or religious leaders were accused of improper behavior. However, subsequent investigation proved them wrong.

There are a few things that we must realize.

  1. No religious community is immune from the abuse.
  2. The problem will not be resolved by ignoring it.
  3. Acknowledgment of the problem should lead to the adoption of policies ensuring that when and if such incidents happen, appropriate measures would be taken.
  4. These policies should protect the rights of those making allegations as well as the defendants.
  5. If flagrant violation has taken place, the case should be referred to legal authorities
  6. However if the two parties agree, the policies should also ensure a process of arbitration with provision of confidentiality to both parties.
  7. If the arbitration fails the matter should be referred to the legal authorities 

Even after adopting such policies, it cannot be guaranteed that accusations would not be made and harassment would cease to exist. But at least, people can at least be assured that a process is in place to secure the interests of those involved in the situation.

In the absence of a well defined policy to tackle such issues, it would be up to individuals and groups to manipulate events to their advantage and certainly no one would want to be in this situation because it is bad for the alleged perpetrator and the alleged victim.

Let us hope that religious communities would come together to make a pledge that they would root out sexual harassment and abuse from their institutions and ensure that no innocent is pronounced guilty and no victim is left without justice.

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