The Rev. Brent Hawkes was charged in December with indecent assault and gross indecency in connection with sexual assaults allegedly committed against a minor in the mid-1970s, when Hawkes worked as a teacher in Nova Scotia. Despite these charges, which were only made public Feb. 1, Hawkes is still scheduled to preside at Sunday services as senior pastor of Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) of Toronto. What gives?
A Catholic priest, by contrast, would now typically have been suspended as soon as a credible allegation was brought forward, let alone once the RCMP had laid charges. Though many Christian organizations still have room for improvement, the chastening experience of terrible scandals has shown the need to put child protection first.
In a chilling interview with Daily Xtra, Anne Brayley, the chair of MCC Toronto’s board, appeared to have learned none of these lessons. She first ducked the question of whether any changes would be made to Hawkes’s access to children. Pressed, she said, “at the moment, business as usual.”
As Daily Xtra noted, many MCC members have been subjected to sexual violence. During the church’s time at its first property, in the east end, a well-liked member of the congregation was charged with sexual offences allegedly committed against minors some years earlier. In a sermon confronting that situation, although Hawkes opined that there was no current risk to children, he himself acknowledged how agonizing it might be for abuse survivors to worship alongside an alleged perpetrator.
Yet in an interview this week with the CBC, Brayley said, “the outpouring of support for Brent has been absolutely unbelievable, by all the congregation.” Really, all?
The board has declared its “steadfast support” for Hawkes, who in 2001 celebrated the first same-sex wedding in Canada. A web page responding to the allegations referred to his many awards, including the Order of Canada, and described him as “a man of high integrity and an inspirational community leader.” Yes, well, people used to think Bill Cosby was pretty inspirational too.
When will people learn that popular leadership is no guarantee of uprightness? In a town in England, 700 people signed a petition supporting one Rev. Chris Howarth, a priest of the Church of England and former deputy headmaster. (Full disclosure: Howarth is my wife’s godfather.) After a three-year suspension while he awaited trial, he is now serving 10 years for multiple sexual offences against two young men. Their lives have been devastated, and, the judge recognized, the community’s lack of sympathy towards them aggravated the impact.
MCC Toronto pointed out that the offences Hawkes is alleged to have committed predated his involvement with the church and therefore said it would not be paying for his defence. Even so, it gave him space to post his own declaration of innocence. Who does that?
Former Ontario premier Bob Rae tweeted in support of Hawkes and his legal husband, “stay strong Brent and John, we’re with you.” Rae’s reaction flies in the face of best practices.
Although the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests backs some dubious causes, its procedural advice on its page “What to do When Your Minister if Accused of Abuse,” is sound. “Support the accused minister privately,” SNAP urges. It points out that even if the accused is innocent, children who are being victimized by someone else will be less likely to report their abuse when they “see adults they love and respect publicly rallying around accused perpetrators.”
In 2012 a volunteer MCC minister in California, Brandon Hamm, was arrested on multiple felony charges related to child pornography. MCC said it suspended him immediately. The Rev. Dr. Nancy Wilson, MCC’s moderator, expressed her shock over the allegations, declared MCC’s commitment to creating a safe sanctuary for all of its members and community participants, and pledged prayers for every person who was affected. This time none of that has yet happened.
Here’s what MCC Toronto needs to say: We take seriously all allegations of sexual misconduct and, regardless of the outcome of pending legal proceedings, grieve for all survivors of sexual abuse. In the interest of ensuring a safe environment for everyone, we are suspending the Rev. Dr. Brent Hawkes from all public duties until the charges against him can be resolved in a court of law.
Alan Yoshioka started attending MCC Toronto regularly in 1984 and soon created the first gay column in a Canadian student newspaper. He left MCC in 1991 over a procedural issue and eventually lost his faith before God drew him back to Christianity. With his wife, Theresa, he now co-directs SSA Pastoral Outreach, an apostolate to build up the Catholic Church’s capacity for pastoral care related to same-sex attraction.