Think the unthinkable

Think the unthinkable In light of the recent issues with sex crimes, I want to ask everyone who is involved in running an organization, gathering, or festival to think about the unthinkable, and do it now.

How would your group respond if one of your members or associates was arrested for sex crimes? How will you respond when someone raises a concern or levels an accusation about another person? Thinking ahead about situations like this, no matter how unlikely, bizarre, or appalling they may seem, is part of building a strong infrastructure. Since groups and gatherings are a key part of our infrastructure right now, making them as resilient as possible is vitally important.

Disclaimer: I am no expert in these areas; if you have access to such an expert, by all means ask hir, and help the rest of the community develop best practices based on expert advice! What follows are only my personal suggestions for starting this process.

I would ask a group to do a series of hypothetical scenarios. Imagine that someone has been accused of child abuse; in the first hypothetical, assume that you absolutely know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that the person is guilty. What steps would you want to take? How would your organization respond?

Now do the same exercise, but assume that you absolutely know that the person is completely innocent. And I don’t mean a nice person who you’ve known for 20 years – I mean really, truly innocent. Wasn’t physically present when whatever-it-was occurred.

Now realize that in the real world, you won’t be in either of those situations. You won’t have the luxury of certainty. Developing a response plan isn’t about creating certainty. It’s about planning ahead for what you will do while you are uncertain.

That’s why I think it would be especially appropriate to do this thinking now, before the legal system comes to any conclusions about Kenny Klein. Think about what circumstances will cause you to take certain steps without trying to reach any kind of existential certainty about what happened.

In addition to having a lot of potential doubt, you’re also going to have a fair amount of upheaval within your organization that will make it more difficult to mount an effective response. You might even try doing the hypothetical exercise with a designated person in your leadership as the accused. I’m not talking about doing an emotional role-play of personal interactions. I’m talking about thinking through who would do what, the steps your group or organization would take, the timing of those steps, and maybe even which individuals would be responsible. When your VP for public relations is the one in jail, who is responsible for putting together a press release? And so on…

With Kenny Klein in mind, remember that you must imagine the accused to be someone charismatic, or even put yourself in the place of the accused, whether innocent or guilty. The most dangerous predators are not the skeevy looking ones who everybody dislikes; those people are already distrusted, marginalized, and even expelled fairly easily. It is the leaders, the people with charisma, the ones that are popular and likable and who’ve been around for 20 years who trade on exactly those traits to prey on victims.

As Cat pointed out in her excellent piece (if you haven’t read it, do so now), we are not the arbiters of fact, and yet we have to mount a response. Actually, in most cases, we are going to have to respond before the legal system does. Yes, there are some situations in which you can say that you’re going to sit back and wait until the legal system takes its course – as long as you remember that legal findings are not infallible! – but the issue of child safety is not a situation where you can sit back and wait. You are going to have to act on partial information; the truth may never come out in a way that satisfies everyone or anyone; the legal system may not be involved for a whole range of reasons, including some very good ones.

As a result, we have to develop procedures that can be applied impartially and that are fair enough that you or I would be willing to have the same procedures applied to us, even based on partial information. This impartiality, which cannot be improvised on the spot, is why thinking about the unthinkable ahead of time will help build strong infrastructure. If you develop the policies and procedures ahead of time, in as impartial a way as possible, then when the situation happens, it doesn’t turn into an instant referendum on somebody’s character. Having an established policy that the organization can adhere to also reduces the chance of a fracture into pro and con camps of personal allegiances.

I personally saw how a lack of such policies and procedures seriously undermined a local Pagan organization which should have known better. They were formally incorporated and had been for many years, and their purpose was working with the community at large. They had bylaws which were ridiculously sparse about this and many other matters (there was no way to remove a board member at all – someone could have been found guilty of murder and technically still been part of the board). They had no public procedures for handling any such issue. When a situation (thankfully not about children) developed, they couldn’t even mount a timely response, because they had to have a million and one emails about it, at least some of which could have been eased by doing this thinking ahead of time.

Finally, you also need to have some idea how you’ll respond ahead of time because what used to be called the news cycle moves much more quickly these days, and your institution or organization can lose confidence by not responding in a timely fashion. That may not necessarily be fair, but it’s true.

If you’re not ready to respond to something traumatic happening, then I may decide that you’re not ready for my financial support. Several institutions responded quickly to the Kenny Klein situation, and good for them; they were demonstrating their professionalism.

I’m not asking for you to develop a complete response: part of your plan absolutely should be “we’re going to do X and then we’re going to wait for further information.” I am asking you to think about how you will communicate to other interested parties – both within and without your organization – how you are addressing the situation. If your group is large enough to have a web page, then who’s going to post a statement on the web page? Who’s going to answer the Wild Hunt’s email when they ask you what is going on?

Having a plan to protect children is an essential minimum. If you want to take this several steps further, you could also think about all the other categories of offense that someone can be accused of – inappropriate sexual conduct with adults, misuse of controlled substances, financial impropriety, and so on and so forth. Think about the particular situations that your organization and events put you at risk for – misuse of authority in a hierarchical organization? misbehavior at events, whether private or public? civil disobedience during a protest? (Remember to include that last one – if you’re going to have a policy that anyone who is arrested for anything is automatically suspended, consider the possibility that the arrest was in service of a good cause, also.) Obviously, some of those you can wait to deal with; many of them can be treated as broad categories (felonies against people merit automatic suspension, etc); but the larger your organization is, the more you have to think about all these possibilities.

Groups and organizations that are unwilling to do this work are building things that are not designed to last, and they’re not doing the best job they could of serving our communities. If you say it can’t happen here, then you’re contributing to the continuation of the problem. Please, think the unthinkable – ahead of time.

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About Literata

Literata is a Wiccan priestess and writer. She edited Crossing the River: An Anthology in Honor of Sacred Journeys, and her poetry, rituals, and nonfiction have appeared in works such as Mandragora, Unto Herself, and Anointed as well as multiple periodicals. Literata has presented rituals and workshops at Sacred Space conference, Fertile Ground Gathering, and other mid-Atlantic venues. Literata offers healing and divination services as well as customized life-cycle rituals. She is currently completing her doctoral dissertation in history with the support of her husband and four cats.
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