The Impact of Violence in the Church

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In New Brunswick, September 3 – 9, 2018 is Respectful Workplace Week. Annually, members of the Workplace Violence and Abuse Team of the Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research host events to increase awareness about the impacts of abusive/violent behaviours in the workplace and to propose solutions to the problem.

Some of the abusive behaviours that happen in the workplace include but are not limited to: bullying, intimidation, sexist, racist and homophobic comments, scapegoating, cliques, threats, stealing of ideas, withholding information, imposing impossible deadlines, unsafe work conditions, harassment, sexual harassment, and physical and sexual violence.  Workplace violence may be intentional or unintentional but it takes an enormous toll on people.  They may become demoralized, lose enthusiasm and creativity for their work, decrease productivity, become physically and mentally ill, take frequent sick and stress leaves, quit, or sue the company.  In short, abuse in the workplace is bad for people and bad for business.

There can be as many reasons for their behaviours as there are bullies in the workplace. However, several themes consistently arise in the research: power and control; jealousy or insecurity; fear; and contempt for difference.

Workplace violence takes place in religious organizations.  Any organization can be a site for the abuse of power and there are certainly power imbalances in churches.  I am very aware of this as a Catholic feminist but in light of the recent news from around the world concerning sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy and its cover-up by bishops and archbishops, there is an opportunity to reflect on the ways that religious organizations can become more respectful workplaces.

Employers are required to ensure that all people affected by an organization are treated equally, regardless of their race, gender, sexual orientation or any of the other grounds of discrimination listed in the Canadian Human Rights Act. Organizational policies and practices must be fair and equitable. There should be no discrimination, harassment or retaliation against anyone who works for an organization or receives services from it. Employers are obligated to take appropriate action against any employee who harasses someone.

It is important to involve all levels of the organization in developing policies and procedures to address violence and abuse in the church, from people in the pews to parish staff to religious leaders.  One example is the consultation process which took place in the Diocese of Saint John years ago and resulted in a Protocol for Responsible Ministry.  While it is true that religious leaders have greater responsibility in ensuring that churches are safe, respectful, inclusive and emotionally healthy places, they cannot make this happen alone.  All church employees and lay leaders need ongoing awareness training concerning bystander roles, early recognition and early intervention, and current policies and procedures.  What is your church doing to make it a respectful workplace?

If religious organizations do not ensure the respect and safety of all their people by taking action against violence and abuse, they cannot preach the gospel.

Catherine Holtmann, 6 September 2018