Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?

With yesterday’s revelation that the well-known pagan musician and author Kenny Klein had confessed to possessing child pornography, a criminal offence, there’s been a little bit of renewed interest in the “Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse” which I helped to write, back in back in 2009.

I’d like to say a few words about what happened to it.

The version of the piece which appears on my web site (here) is the most up-to-date version that there is. No further work was done on it since that time, because most of the various contributors and critics had lost the will to continue with it. There was a lot of disagreement, often angry disagreement, about whether the statement went too far, or didn’t go far enough, and so on. I’ve included below a list of the common criticisms, as I saw them on Jason Pitzl-Waters’ blog, and on my own website forum (which I’ve since taken down, to stop the spambots from filling it with 419 scams). But there’s one group of criticisms that I’d like to draw special attention to.

There were a lot of angry voices who continued to demand the right to perform sexual acts as part of initiation ceremonies, even when the inductee would not be warned in advance about the nature of the ceremony, and even when the inductee was legally a minor. The most common argument in favour of that position was an appeal to tradition; which is normally a fallacy of logic. Some said that initiatory surprise was an important part of the drama and the power of the ritual, and that therefore initiatory surprise had to be preserved, even when it involved a sexual act. Some also justified it by saying that if they were disallowed from performing such a ritual, that would be an unjust limitation upon their personal freedom. Some people even went so far as to claim that the utterance of any moral statement, or even ordinary moral indicator-words like “should”, constitutes oppression on someone, somewhere, somehow. Even when the “should” was a condemnation of sexual abuse. Some voices really were that absolute with their rejection of all ethical propositions.

Frankly, I think a lot of these arguments are nothing more than a kind of cover-up or a justification for a situation that can be far too easily twisted into a criminal act. I think that no tradition, however old, can be ethically acceptable if it permits such surprises on its initiates, or keeps secrets from them about whether they would have to undergo a sexual act in their initiation. And I think that if someone seriously and truly believes that he can harm others and ignore their feelings and rights, all in the name of his personal freedom, well then he has simply not learned the first thing about ethics.

But when I raised these objections, my voice was drowned in all the shouting about the importance of initiatory surprise and craft secrecy. And I eventually gave up trying. There’s no sense in debating someone who only wants to shout about how right he is and how oppressed he feels when someone raises a criticism. It’s worth noting that I wasn’t always the most polite debater around the table. I apologized for it back then; I do so again now. But nonetheless, the strong resistance against the statement, in the name of tradition and freedom, left me feeling disenchanted with the pagan community. For a long time I doubted whether I should remain part of it.

But I still think the statement is important. I’d like to see it spread around, talked about, argued about, modified by different groups to suit their specific needs and priorities, and incorporated into the policies of any pagan organization which offers teaching, or public services, or which collects money from members.

(To save space on my blog, I have moved the record of the criticisms of the statement here.)

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26 Responses to Whatever happened to the pagan community statement on religious sexual abuse?

  1. Brendan,
    I have a copy of that document, and wholeheartedly agree with it.
    I think that those of us who are leaders in the community fall under the category of mandated reporters anyway, so the responsibility to report a credible allegation of abuse is already incumbent upon us.
    But if there is one thing that I would add to that document it is this: That we should be ready to hear those who have feelings that could lead to predation, and assist them in finding help before they offend. Too often we equate feeling with action, and those who have feelings are trapped – they feel that if they express feelings, they will be branded. Our community should be able to direct those who have feelings they are afraid of, to where they might find help before they harm another.
    But those who do harm others – whether they harm children or adults – should be accountable for their actions, and we can’t be like other organizations who provide cover for those who have harmed people. We can’t condemn anyone for a feeling, but we can’t countenance actions that harm others.

  2. Hobbes says:

    When it comes to a person’s emotional, physical, and psychological safety, I say to Hell with “the importance of initiatory surprise and craft secrecy”. Modern spiritual practice must take modern realities into context, which always trumps traditional edicts.

    I remember reading the Community Statement awhile back and agreed with it. I’ll read it again and let you know.

  3. Kattale says:

    There is currently a very strong movement in the science fiction fandom community to define and publish a sexual harrassment policy. As with paganism, there are many types of events and organizations within the greater fandom, each with its own particular take on what exactly constitutes harassment, and how incidents should be prevented, discouraged, reported, escalated, published, and responded to.

    There are a number of different model policies now – with the primary pressure not on individuals or groups to adopt a particular wording or policy, but simply that they HAVE a policy, that is published and accessible.

    This may be your solution here – challenge the individuals and groups to HAVE a policy, accessible to all members of that group. If they tweak their wording or tenents to accommodate their group, so be it. But put out a challenge and awareness campaign, as sf fandom has done, ENSURE YOUR GROUP HAS A POLICY THAT IS ACCESSIBLE TO ALL. The pressure is to have a policy – not to define it. Provide model policies. Encourage groups to make theirs’ public if possible so many models become accessible to the community as a whole.


  4. Kattale says:

    Brendan, here is a link to an article on the history of the “have a policy” campaign at SF conventions.


  5. G. Thomson says:

    The Ontario Gov has an excellent piece on Sexual Harassment that falls within all the proper statutes in Ontario (and, I believe, all of Canada) It is available off the .gov site. Although I am in full agreement with most of the commentary I would like to add a couple of things from my BTW viewpoint. Hoodwinked into the Circle for Initiation is traditional. My people are told, very early on in their training, that the hoodwink is used. It is not mentioned again but, it has been explained. Initiations requiring a ‘sex act’ are explained _well_ in advance. I put ‘sex act’ in quotes because not every Initiation requires the ‘Great Rite’ actual. Having said that, I would like to point out that in _many_ BTW Trads there is a stricture against teaching and Initiating those who are not ‘adults’ according to the Common Law. This meant 16 up until 5-6 years ago, (I think) in Canada.
    Until I was an adult, the ‘age of consent’ and of marriage, was much lower than it is today. In parts of the US, the age of consent was 13 until the ’70’s. My Great Gran was married at 14 and stayed with the same man until she passed away. This was not unusual in that era. Many ‘war brides’ of the 40’s were in their teens when they married. The cultural view of what constitutes “adult” has changed a great deal over the last century.

  6. Owen says:

    I’m interested in your take on circumcision. It’s sexual. It’s performed without consent or warning on infants, and it’s a permanent, irrevocable induction into a particular religious tradition. Ethical?

    • Brendan says:

      First of all I don’t think it’s an irrevocable induction to a certain religion. In Ontario in the 70’s, for instance, every male child was circumcised, regardless of religion. People thought it was a public health issue back then, not a religious issue. And in a free society, a circumcised person can change religion when she or he becomes an adult, with no more or less difficulty than anyone else.

      But even with that argument discounted, there are still a lot of ways that it may fare badly in the utilitarian calculus, and you’ve hit on a lot of them.

      In Kantian ethics, it clearly passes the Categorical Imperative, but I think it fails the Practical Imperative, even if we allow that an infant child cannot “reason”. Being unable to reason about what is happening, neither can the child consent. An adult would consent or not consent on the child’s behalf, but there might be moral wrongs of such magnituted that they are still wrong even if someone consents to them. And, presumably, such things would also be wrong to consent to on behalf of another person (a child, a senior with dementia, etc.)

      Anyway, I’ve never seen a theological argument in favour of circumcision that seemed convincing. I wonder if it’s one of those things people do to their kids because it was done to them when they were kids, too.

      • jenny gee says:

        I would also argue that circumcision isn’t sexual. It involves the genitals, but not all things that involve the genitals are sexual.

        That said, I think a lot of modern parents struggle with the question of circumcision because it’s no longer seen to be a “cleanliness” issue. The religious issue is definitely waning, and now it’s more of an argument about similarities (e.g. with the father, with the peers in the locker room).

        One could argue the morality of inflicting an injury and such pain on an 8 day old child. Because it is an infliction. As Brendan says, the child cannot give consent, it is the adult(s) making the permanent decision on the child’s behalf.

        But I don’t really see the parallel with sexual initiatory rites being compelled onto initiates.

  7. Pingback: Predators, policies, and the road to healing | Intersections

  8. Domi O'Brien says:

    When I was young, the US Federal age of consent under the Mann Act was 21; as long as the parties did not travel across state lines, state laws on consent applied, which varied and in most cases were younger (though adulthood was legally 21; it was lowered for most purposes to 18 during the VietNam War). However, both then and now, many state laws have a general age of consent with applies only if one party is not in a position of care, authority and/or control over the other. As a result, police and corrections officers, counselors and doctors, teachers and professors, lawyers and clergy and others can be charged and convicted of sexual abuse of adults because they were in a position of care, authority, and/or control over those adults, who therefore could not be assumed to freely consent or refuse. (There have been several cases of this kind here in NH in the last few years.)

  9. Lia says:

    Do you mind if groups use or adapt the community statement on religious sexual abuse?

  10. Sharon Finnegan Terleski says:

    “Tradition” is the lazy man’s excuse not to evolve. What may have been acceptable in the past may very well be an illegal act today, and vice-versa.

  11. Greg says:


    A supporter of bigoted bullying and spiritual abuse…

    Claiming to want to end abuse in the pagan community… what a hypocrite.

  12. wendy says:

    I think that this is the 21st century and that traditions should grow with the human experience. Any thoughtful being knows the meaning of right (cause no harm) and wrong (to cause harm), just because tradition supposedly says that the sex act was part of initiation, I would call this RAPE if the initiate was not in agreement no matter what their age. The only traditions that use this form of harm are those that would do this no matter what their beliefs. It is just their excuse for getting away with bad behavior. Any who condone this behavior are complicate in the crime, this includes those who turn a blind eye and pretend they don’t know what is happening in front of them.

  13. Kittie says:

    Never should anyone engage in a sex act with a minor. No sex act should be attempted unless both parties are consenting adults and no minors are present. This is a moral issue as well as a legal one. Sexual acts are very i timate, personal, and energized. It is a great harm to inflict oneself upon another without their consent. Minors are not only legaly unable to give consent but I find it moraly wrong to involve a minor in an act that requires maturity of mind as well as body.

  14. Brendon,

    I think this is something that requires a bit of a heads on approach. I am still interested in skyping with you and discussing some ideas. Last week deteriorated into a complete week of back to back meetings and I am just not catching up. I cherish the work you have done and I think it will take like minded individuals not budging to make change occur.

  15. “Frankly, I think a lot of these arguments are nothing more than a kind of cover-up or a justification for a situation that can be far too easily twisted into a criminal act. I think that no tradition, however old, can be ethically acceptable if it permits such surprises on its initiates, or keeps secrets from them about whether they would have to undergo a sexual act in their initiation. And I think that if someone seriously and truly believes that he can harm others and ignore their feelings and rights, all in the name of his personal freedom, well then he has simply not learned the first thing about ethics.”

    THIS. Thank you. And thanx muchly again for all the work you put into the project.

    I dropped out of the original discussion because I determined I’d rather be an intolerant, discriminatory, small minded, devolved barbarian than enable predator apologists. I supported the statement as you compiled it then, and I do now. What I don’t get is why one individual’s supposed right to never feel “oppressed” should trump another person’s right to humane treatment. Merely complaining louder and whining more should not be a deciding factor, yet it often seems to go that way.

    We’ve dealt with a few sexual predators in our local area, and had the same variety of deflective concern trolling directed at anyone who spoke up against abusive behavior, with some nasty results. I’ve even heard a couple of people try to classify uninformed or misrepresented abuse experiences as “ordeal”, and attempt to cast anyone unwilling to accept anything whatsoever as too weak or lazy to be a true dedicant. I call bollocks on that.

    There’s a world of difference between being reasonably tolerant of diversity and being so openminded your brain falls out.

  16. That identity stuff can get people in trouble. Wow. I would say this.

    Since child abuse is behavioral and no one is above the law, absolutely no one, your _______ religious identity or rights do not protect you from child abuse charges or prosecution, should they be deserved. Yes, yes, we don’t want a repeat of the Satanic Panic of the 70s to 90s but no, we can’t allow child sexual abuse. If your rites and rituals cross any ethical or legal lines in regards to child sexual abuse, you need to change them so they aren’t crossing those lines. Period. This level of moral clarity is crucial.

    And since child sexual abuse is behavioral, we should never base trust on identity or position , and that includes any identity or status as a Pagan group, parent, guardian, or leader regardless of any rites and rituals. No one is above the law. No one. Whatever our identity (Pagan, Heathen, Christian, Muslim, atheist, agnostic, eclectic, neighbor, parent, U.S. American, Engligh, whatever…), we need to protect ourselves and our children from acts of child sexual abuse in an informed, proactive manner and if any child abuse occurs, the concerns and evidence should be turned over to the appropriate authorities. They’re trained to handle such things.

    If you look at any “power wheels” regarding abuse, identity and status are one of the vehicles for abuse. That’s true in the home with domestic abuse (what most power wheels are aimed at) and it’s true outside of the home (where the power wheels of abuse and equality are still applicable, with only minor rewording). Sadly, the power wheels for abuse or equality are rarely used to discuss abuse and equality outside the home. They should be and it’d only require minor rewording. Here’s one example of an Abuse power wheel but you can find them for caregivers, the handicapped, teenagers, domestic abuse and so on. http://cmhc.utexas.edu/pdf/PowerControlwheel.pdf

    5 Steps to Protection Children From Sexual Abuse (They’re so basic, they apply to anyone anywhere.)

    Step 1: Learn the Facts

    Step 2: Minimize Opportunity for Child Sexual Abuse

    Step 3: Talk About It

    Step 4: Recognize the Signs

    Step 5: React Responsibly

    The steps are covered in greater detail here, on the Darkness to Light (D2l) site. http://www.d2l.org/site/c.4dICIJOkGcISE/b.6143703/k.2746/The_5_Steps_to_Protecting_Our_Children.htm

    You’re a _____ coven from _____ with _____ history? That’s nice but it’s still steps 1 through 5 and the legal standards and definitions for you. You’re afraid of upsetting the fabric of your religion, family, or society? It’s still steps 1 through 5 for you. Steps 1 through 5, steps 1 through 5. In or out of the home, in coven or in schools, in festivals or in ritual, in church or in any place of worship, it’s still steps 1 through 5. You don’t want to only refer to the D2l site? Fine, it’s still steps 1 through 5, at minimum. Protecting children from abuse if both reactive and proactive and no one is above the law or certain ethical standards.

  17. Cosette says:

    Brendan, I’m unable to access the latest version of the Community Statement on Religious Sexual Abuse, the criticisms, or even your contact page. I just keep getting a “Forbidden” page. Would you please check the links and, if it’s just me, would you please send me the community statement. I’d like to revisit it and consider using it as a model for developing my own. Thanks.

  18. When I originally left a comment I seem to have clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and from now on each time
    a comment is added I get four emails with the exact same comment.
    There has to be a means you can remove me from that service?

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