Reporting on #ChurchToo

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December 31, 2019 | Editorial | Volume 24 Issue 1
Virginia A. Hostetler | Executive Editor
(Image by congerdesign/Pixabay)

Over the years, Canadian Mennonite has reported on sexual misconduct within the Mennonite context. As a member of the church press, we have tried to carry out our ongoing commitment to report on such stories with journalistic integrity, respect and sensitivity.

Yet, sometimes the reports have stirred up pain and objections among readers. Occasionally, readers have wanted to know more about how we cover these kinds of news stories.

Dealing with sexual misconduct is complex, particularly in the church context. It involves not only the victim and the abuser but also many others in their circles, including family, friends, fellow church members, the institutions with which those persons are involved and even the larger community in which everyone lives and works. When our magazine reports on sexual abuse, more people are drawn into that circle, including readers who may have no direct connection to the case.

A starting point is to state unequivocally: sexual violence is wrong in all its forms. When someone uses power over another person for personal gratification, there is no acceptable excuse. This behaviour is against the laws of Canada and violates the highest standards of God’s law. Sexual abuse should not happen within the Christian community or anywhere else.

As other publications do, Canadian Mennonite distinguishes between different types of content. From time to time, we publish articles designed to inform and raise awareness about sexual misconduct. We have carried features on pastoral misconduct, boundary crossing in congregations and an anonymous story by an abuse survivor. Various opinion pieces called readers to right behaviour in the church and to listen to—and believe—victims of abuse. Other pieces gave information about resources on this important subject.

We also publish news reports on actual cases of misconduct in the church community. Sexual assault is a crime, and we are committed to high journalistic standards in terms of how we report on these cases. This involves presenting the facts, as they are known, based on interviews, documents and other sources. In such articles, we aim to present the various perspectives of the parties involved, without introducing our own opinions. Through these news pieces, readers will gain information to help them come to their own conclusions.

With colleagues in other Anabaptist publications, Canadian Mennonite has developed—and is in the process of refining—guidelines on how church publications report on these stories. A group statement reads, “We believe the press is an essential part of the church’s work as it attempts to deal with these situations with compassion, redemption, and reconciliation for both victim and offender.”

Recognizing that each case is unique, here are some guidelines we do our best to follow when reporting on sensitive stories within the church community:  

  • We report when an official action has been taken by the police, the courts, a church body or a church-related institution. The case might need follow-up reporting, if significant new developments occur.
  • We are aware that rumours and false accusations can flourish around cases of sexual misconduct. It is important that our print and online presence not help disseminate such content.
  • We work hard to be sensitive to the persons making the accusations of sexual abuse, acknowledging their pain and knowing that they might be exposed to public scrutiny, criticism or disbelief.
  • Reporters and editors need to do careful fact checking to make sure that inaccuracies or unfounded conclusions are not published. There are both ethical and legal concerns around this practice.
  • Until an alleged offender is convicted, the presumption of innocence is important. Sometimes we check stories with an attorney or journalism colleagues for counsel.
  • It is a common journalistic practice to contact the accused before publication to let the person know the story will be published and to invite comment. This is especially important when no charges have been laid.

Our Anabaptist publishing colleagues urge, “In dealing with sensitive stories, the church press must constantly ask, ‘How can this story be presented so that it will work toward building rather than tearing down the church?’” As we work at responsible journalism, that is our ongoing concern. Along with the rest of the church, we acknowledge that there is more to learn about this difficult reality.

Related stories:
#MeToo in the pew next to you
The truth about sexual abuse will set you free
Broken boundaries
‘I’m sorry:’ Apologies and abuse
The time is now
When church doesn’t feel safe

Read more editorials: 
#ICYMI: 2019 in review
Church publications: Which way to go?
What shall I wear: Sport coat or cardigan?
Going deeper together
Shaped by our essential book

(Image by congerdesign/Pixabay)

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