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A social media hashtag about sexual abuse in religious settings — #ChurchToo — takes centre stage in two Winnipeg churches later this month.
Commissioned by a Mennonite Church Eastern Canada, a two-hour drama titled #ChurchToo portrays seven stories about sexual abuse and abuse of power within a church setting told from the perspective of victims.
"The culture needs to shift from blaming the victim to supporting and believing the victim," says Rev. Marilyn Rudy-Froese, church leadership minister for the organization of 110 churches, based out of Kitchener, Ont.
"The harm that is caused by sexual misconduct, particularly in a church by a faith leader, really goes deep."
The production by the Theatre of the Beat, a social justice drama troupe based in Stouffville, Ont., has two Winnipeg dates in Mennonite churches after opening in Kitchener-Waterloo two weeks ago.
Although the topic may be making the news and prompting online disclosures, addressing it onstage effectively is another story, says artistic director Johnny Wideman, who worked with seven playwrights from Ontario, Quebec and the United States to shape the production into a cohesive whole.
"We’re trying to showcase a lot of different scenarios and trying to show how nuanced and complicated this issue is," Wideman says.
The stories include a youth pastor’s sexualized relationship with a teenage girl, inappropriate relationships between an ethics professor and his female graduate students, and a young couple who have different interpretations about consent.
Wideman says the play went into production well before the #ChurchToo movement took hold in social media, and prior to last summer’s grand jury investigation into sexual abuse and misconduct in Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania.
That makes the topic timely, but no less difficult to discuss, especially when clergy misconduct is involved, Rudy-Froese says. She says clergy misconduct can include sexual assault, sexual harassment or inappropriate touching, and that a relationship between a church leader and a church member is never an affair but always an abuse of power and trust.
"You (as a pastor) are always in a position of power," she says of the responsibility of church leaders to establish and respect boundaries.
Her organization’s website (mcec.ca) has a button on the bottom of its home page for people to report sexual abuse. The link takes them to resources on the issue and people to contact.
Too often in the past, victims were blamed or simply not believed when they came forward with their accounts of abuse at the hands of pastors and priests, says Rudy-Froese, with other church members discrediting their stories because of the good work of the leaders. She says that has to change, and this drama is a small step in a public discussion about this issue.
"We expect (church) to be a safe place and a place where we meet and experience God," Rudy-Froese says.
"When we experience abuse by a person in trusted leadership, its goes right to the heart of our faith."
Wideman says the Winnipeg performances will be followed by a question-and-answer period, and counsellors from Klinic Community Health Centre will be on hand to talk to anyone triggered by the play.
While the play may raise questions or concerns, it is unlikely someone attending will disclose abuse immediately after, says Rosemarie Gjerek, Klinic’s director of counselling and community health.
"Our normal experience is often people are accessing counselling services years later," she says.
"Our first reaction (to being abused) is to forget about it."
Rudy-Froese says her organization has dealt with reports of clerical sexual misconduct every couple of years, but expects those numbers to increase because of the increased visibility of the issue.
"We’re in the work now of uncovering what’s hidden," she says of victims coming forward.
"I suspect all churches, including ours, are in for a rough, rocky road."
Brenda Suderman has been a columnist in the Saturday paper since 2000, first writing about family entertainment, and about faith and religion since 2006.
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