Beginning as a simple hashtag campaign in 2017 to raise awareness about sexual harassment and assault in the media world and corporate America, the “Me Too” movement has also had a significant impact on various nonprofits, including churches. What should churches and non-profits take away from the “Me Too” movement? Read on for a brief word on sexual harassment policy for churches.
“Me Too” Brings Light That Churches & Nonprofits Should Welcome
Whatever else may be said of the movement, one thing should not be lost: “Me Too” has brought to light pockets of sexual misconduct within churches and other religious organizations and this has rightly prompted calls for increased accountability and transparency. While light initially can be painful to eyes not fully acclimated, after adjusting, the brilliance and clarity is welcomed by all who want to stay on the right path and avoid pitfalls.
Investigations Prompt Transparency, Accountability, and Change
The “Me Too” spotlight has expanded beyond its initial focus to all areas of harassment and assault. Where organizations like the Catholic Church, have been plagued for decades by scandals involving the sexual abuse of children by priests, the “Me Too” movement has amplified calls for churches to take proper responsibility for these abuses, provide real-time accountability and transparency, and to take steps to prevent them from happening in the future. 
And the movement crosses the Catholic-Protestant divide. “Me Too” can be credited with energizing The Houston Chronicles’ six-month investigation into over 700 victims of abuse involving an estimated 380 leaders/volunteers within the Southern Baptist Convention.  Such investigations and reports have encouraged churches and other religious organizations to review, update, or establish for the first time, policies and procedures for addressing and preventing sexual misconduct, as well as for greater transparency in handling such cases. Some churches have also begun to establish independent oversight committees to investigate allegations of sexual misconduct and to ensure that appropriate action is taken in response.
Promptly and Properly Responding to Those Reporting Abuse
Just as the “Me Too” movement has impacted the way corporate America has responded to victims of sexual abuse and harassment, some churches and religious organizations have been properly criticized for failing to take appropriate action in response to allegations of sexual misconduct or for failing to support victims. The “Me Too” movement has led to increased awareness of the need to balance due process and presumption of innocence, with accessible processes for reporting concerns, supporting victims, and taking appropriate action to investigate and respond to allegations of sexual or other abuse, harassment or misconduct.
The “Me Too” movement has also had an impact on the way in which churches view and address issues of power and authority. The movement is a reminder that even in churches individuals in positions of power and authority can abuse that power. This light has prompted calls for greater accountability and transparency in the way in which churches handle issues of power and authority.
Sexual abuse, harassment or other misconduct is a serious issue that can have a detrimental effect on individuals and organizations. Churches, as places of worship and community, have a responsibility to create and maintain healthy environments for all members and attendees. This includes implementing and enforcing policies to prevent and address sexual harassment. Such a sexual harassment policy for churches should include at least the following five key elements.
5 Key Elements – Sexual Harassment Policy for Churches
1. Definition of sexual harassment:
The policy should clearly define what constitutes sexual harassment, using language that is easy to understand. This can include physical, verbal, and nonverbal behaviors that are unwanted and create a hostile or intimidating environment. Sexual harassment, among other types of discrimination, is defined by state and federal laws. The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) is the federal agency that regulates and investigates sexual harassment. Here is how the EEOC defines sexual harassment:
It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person’s sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. Both the victim and the harasser can be either a woman or a man, and the victim and harasser can be the same sex. Although the law doesn’t prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted). The harasser can be the victim’s supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer.
As the EEOC definition notes, sexual harassment is gender-neutral. People of the same sex can sexually harass each other, although, for a violation of Title VII (federal law), the harassment must be based on sex.
Additionally, as the above definition stresses, the harasser does not have to be the supervisor of the person claiming harassment, nor does the harasser even have to be an employee of the nonprofit. This means that preventing harassment requires looking at the workplace in the broadest possible sense. Conduct that occurs out of the office, in the community, by a volunteer (including board members) or even by donors can result in illegal harassment and potential liability for the nonprofit.
2. Reporting procedures:
The policy should establish a clear and easy-to-follow process for reporting incidents of sexual harassment. This can include designated individuals or a confidential hotline for reporting, as well as instructions for what to do if the alleged harasser is a member of the church staff or leadership.
3. Investigation and response:
The policy should outline the steps that will be taken to investigate and respond to reports of sexual harassment. This can include a prompt and thorough investigation, as well as appropriate disciplinary action for those found to have engaged in harassment.
4. Employee and volunteer training:
The policy should require all employees and volunteers to complete regular training on sexual harassment and how to prevent it. This can include information on recognizing and reporting harassment, as well as understanding the church’s policies and procedures.
5. Education and awareness:
The policy should include provisions for educating and raising awareness about sexual harassment among church members and attendees. This can include information about the types of behavior that constitute harassment, as well as the importance of creatinga safe and respectful environment for all.
Sexual harassment policies should also be reviewed and updated regularly to ensure they are consistent with current laws and best practices. In addition, churches should ensure that the policy is effectively communicated to all members and attendees and that it is enforced consistently and fairly.
Are your harassment, abuse, and misconduct policies aligned with current law and best practice? Get a free consultation with an experienced non-profit attorney to discuss a regular review of your policies.
In conclusion, churches have a responsibility to create and maintain safe environments for all members and attendees. This includes implementing and enforcing policies to prevent and address sexual abuse, harassment, or other misconduct. A sexual harassment policy for churches should include a clear definition of sexual harassment, reporting procedures, investigation and response, employee and volunteer training, and education and awareness. It is important to note that policies should be reviewed and updated regularly and effectively communicated to all members and attendees. Churches and other nonprofits that seek to bring light and flourishing into areas of darkness and chaos should welcome and focus the light cast by the “Me Too” movement by beginning in their own house.
Protect those within your church or non-profit today. Get a free consultation with an experienced church and non-profit lawyer to discuss implementing or updating your sexual abuse, harassment, misconduct policies, and church bylaws.
 In 2002 the Boston Globe reported on over 4,000 Roman Catholic priests who faced allegations of sexual abuse during the prior half century involving over 10,000 victims. Positive steps of transparency and accountability have occurred in the intervening 2 decades but the “Me Too” has spotlighted more to be done.