There are many newcomers and solitary Pagans out there looking for a priest/ess, a teacher, a mentor, someone – anyone – to guide them. I know what it’s like to be hungry for community, but it’s important to be cautious. Sadly, our community is not exempt of dangerous people.
While newcomers to Pagans may be at a higher risk and many of the safety resources are aimed at them, anyone can fall victim to a predator or con artist, and I think we can all benefit from the good advice in the resources that follow.
The Pagan Awareness Network has a number of excellent information pamphlets on its website including one titled Safety in the Circle (pdf) aimed at educating people on basic personal safety and their rights within the Pagan community. Another excellent resource is The Advanced Bonewits’ Cult Danger Evaluation Frame (Version 2.7) Copyright © 1979, 2008 c.e., by the late Isaac Bonewits.
Here are some points to remember:
- Predators come in all shapes, sizes, and sexes/genders. There are sexual predators, financial predators, and psychological/emotional predators.
- Research your potential teacher. Use the internet and inquire within your personal networks to see if people have heard of him/her. If s/he belongs to an established tradition, you should be able to contact someone else within the tradition and verify his/her claims. The first time you meet, do so in a public place.
- Nevertheless, just because a person is well known within his/her community does not mean s/he is safe. A predator’s activities may go unnoticed or unreported for a long time.
- You should know what you’re getting into. A potential teacher should be able to answer your questions about to expect – what are his/her general beliefs and practices? Are there financial charges and, if so, how are these handled, and what do they cover? What kind of training is available? Is initiation required and what does that look like? Is ritual performed clothed or skyclad (in the nude)? Does the teacher boast unverifiable credentials or claim to have access to exclusive knowledge that nobody else may possess? If the teacher is unable to answer questions due to protecting his/her tradition’s oath-bound material, s/he should be able to explain that as well.
- Evaluate the person’s mental and moral qualities. Does s/he have a healthy sense of his/her own identity? Does the person’s “mundane” life appear to be healthy, happy, and balanced? Beware of people who are constantly embroiled in feuds with others, who often react with anger or hostility, are paranoid, and whose bulk of their ritual and magickal work involves the banishing and cursing of others.
- Beware of a person who seeks to exert control over you. Is s/he dogmatic? Does s/he disapprove of you interacting with other individuals and groups? Does s/he require that you seek his/her approval for anything? Are you censored in any way?
- While sexual rites may be practiced in some traditions and groups, they should always be between consenting adults and not involve beginners or new students. Run away from a teacher that demands your sexual participation.
- If it’s a group, observe how the teacher interacts with other members of the group. Does the group have a high drop-out rate? If so, what causes people to leave? How is group conflict handled? Do other group members feel empowered?
Let’s say you find yourself in a situation you’re not comfortable in. What do you do next? There’s no black and white answer to this. It depends on you, the circumstance, and your level of comfort and safety. Just remember that:
- Nobody has a right to touch you without your consent.
- Nobody has the right to endanger you.
- You have the right to leave.
Depending on the situation, you might address your concerns with the teacher in question. In any case, seek support. Whatever is going on, you don’t have to go through it alone. Talk to someone you trust. If you’re a victim of sexual assault, there are national and state-based agencies that can assist you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. In many cases, you can call a helpline and remain anonymous.
What if nothing is happening directly to you, but you witness abuse or something illegal? Predators rely on the unwillingness of people to get involved and this is how they are often able to continue engaging in unethical and illegal behavior. It can be incredibly frightening to intervene, but a culture of silence only enables a predator further and leaves us all feeling unsafe.
Intervene if it safe for you to do so. Your involvement doesn’t have to be physical or aggressive. Simply asking, “What are you doing?” or “Is everything alright?” in a neutral tone with concerned manner may be enough. It will also show you’re paying attention, that you’re willing to help, and may inspire others to speak up as well. Document everything and be as detailed as you can; note the date, time, location, who was present, what happened, etc. Offer your support to someone you think may have experienced abuse. Read this fact sheet from White Ribbon Australia for more information on offering support and taking action (pdf).
While there may be predators and con artists out there, it’s important to keep in mind that most Pagans, like most people, are decent. We need to keep our wits about us without letting ourselves fall victims to outlandish what-if scenarios and approach everyone with suspicion. And we need the courage to stand up for what’s right, for ourselves, and for others. We all need to be the community we want to build.