We just got a huge reminder of why #ChurchToo is so necessary
This is an impetus for us to recollect just how common these “unholy touches” are and how many of us have similar stories and experiences.
This essay contains discussions of sexual violence, including sexual harassment, assault, and pedophilia.
In 2013, Pope Francis said that the Catholic Church needed to “act decisively” against predators in the church, ensure that they are rightfully punished, and protect children from sexual abuse. A call for his resignation is now gaining momentum after he was accused last month by a senior church member of having full knowledge of Cardinal McCarrick’s using his position to prey on children.
Recently, the Catholic church has perhaps received more media attention and public scrutiny than any other religious sect for the rampant child sexual abuse among its parishioners. Since the major story about pedophilic priests was broken by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team in 2002, the epidemic has become common knowledge and has been the subject of countless distasteful jokes in pop culture.
But this kind sexual abuse, among many other kinds, has been and continues to be enacted by leaders in other denominations as well as varying religions, from Buddhist monks, to Hindu gurus, to practitioners in Islamic madrasas, to Hasidic Jewish Rabbis, to pastors from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Sexual exploitation, and the security that positions of leadership afford sexual predators, happens across a multitude of religions and in all sorts of faith-based spaces.
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This is why the #ChurchToo hashtag was created last year. After #MeToo had already taken the stage and ushered the public into a collective and open discussion about the prevalence of rape culture and sexual violence and the rates at which women and girls especially experience it, social media users congregated to talk about how the sexual abuse they experienced or witnessed in their respective religious spaces had impacted their lives. They urged us to think critically about how religious doctrines often serve to protect the abusers and shame the victims.
But make no mistake, just as many were screaming “me too” for lifetimes before Rose McGowan and her ilk co-opted Tarana Burke’s labor for survivors of sexual violence, Black people, especially those of us with Black feminist and womanist politic, have been having #ChurchToo conversations since long before the hashtag was incepted. Nevertheless, we sometimes encounter unexpected reminders that bring the conversation back to the forefront.
On August 31st, Ariana Grande was groped without her consent by Bishop Ellis as he officiated Aretha Franklin’s homegoing ceremony, while standing in the pulpit before cameras and a fully packed sanctuary. This is a sexual assault, whether or not people want to acknowledge it as such. And this came just moments after she was openly ogled by Jesse Jackson and Bill Clinton during her performance.
What happened to Ariana Grande at the funeral of Aretha Franklin is neither exceptional nor surprising, unfortunately. Neither is the system that protects her assailant. I acknowledge that her whiteness, among other things, contributes to the amount of visibility she receives, but I cannot ignore the fact that she was sexually assaulted during a Black church service and that the assault was carried out by a Black Bishop.
In the Bishop’s non-apology, he says, “It would never be my intention to touch any woman’s breast… I don’t know I guess I put my arm around her. Maybe I crossed the border, maybe I was too friendly or familiar, but again, I apologize.”
I watch the footage of the uncomfortable moment and I see the Bishop’s hand creep upwards. I watch his fingers as they feel around until they are digging into her right breast. I watch Ariana as the realization of what is happening to her comes over her face. She looks down at the position of his hand, and attempts to create distance between them. But as she tries to pull away, he only pulls her closer to him. His body language is as apparent as hers is. He is completely comfortable in and familiar with the power that he is exerting over her. The intention is there and it is clear to me.
Without warning, it transports me back to my younger years when one particular Deacon who seemed to seek me out during “hug your neighbor” time every Sunday would hold my body a little closer and for a little longer than was comfortable, and no one seemed to notice.
For me, the most tragic part of this very public ordeal lies in loyal churchfolk’s responses to the Bishop’s actions and how many of them focus on her body and how she chose to clothe it, rather than his audacity to grope it.
What came was the familiar accusation that her dress was too short, which somehow makes Ariana disrespectful and also culpable, a tired and disproven argument that victim-blamers and rape apologists refuse to abandon.
This misogynistic logic exists in tandem with sentiments like, “Her breasts are too small for anyone to ever want to grab. There’s hardly anything there.” This is a train of logic that seeks to wipe out the misconduct altogether by framing it as an impossibility while still placing the onus onto the person who was assaulted.
“He’s a man of God,” his supporters say. “He would never do that.” Those who have been vocal about this have been accused of simply trying to sully his reputation, in congress with “the devil.” He’s apologized, so we need to let it go and stop trying to tear down this righteous Black man.
Witnessing the Bishop’s actions has served as an unpleasant reminder for so many Black folks who came up in spaces like this and experienced this kind of touching from a “man of God.” Witnessing his behavior caught on camera and seeing Christians rushing to defend him and shame her serve as a traumatic reminder for so many Black folks who were abused by a “man of God” and watched him be absolved while they were blamed.
It’s a reminder of the late Bishop Eddie Long’s use of his position to lure Black teenage boys into sexual relationships with him and misusing church funds to buy their silence.
It’s a chance for us to contend with how a Black church would rather keep a pedophilic preacher active in the pulpit and ban children from their congregation than do any work to hold a Black man accountable for his disgusting actions and truly protect and seek justice for those children.
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This is an impetus for us to recollect just how common these “unholy touches” are and how many of us have similar stories and experiences. How survivors of sexual violence are so swiftly blamed for what they have suffered, and how that indoctrination to uphold an infallible Black patriarchal figures begins even before the unholy touches do.
More than anything, Bishop Ellis, his wandering hand, and his shitty apology remind me of why #ChurchToo is absolutely necessary and why this conversation must be had, again and again and again. Publicly, openly, honestly, directly. Until Black congregations have the conviction to push known abusers and leery, handsy creeps out of the pulpit, out of the pews, out of their homes, and our of their communities.