Safety in the Community

Getty Images / Scott MacBride

Getty Images / Scott MacBride

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.

4 thoughts on “Safety in the Community

  1. So very true. Often the predators who are frauds and scam artists are a lot harder to prove guilty of their crimes. However their crimes are just as real and in many cases, devastating to their victims.
    All people, whether new to the scene or not, need to keep their hands in their pockets and do their research. More than any other business, religious/spiritual fraudsters use their methods to get to the real fears and superstitions of their prey, and use that to their advantage. If you are told that things will get worse if you don’t get the fraudsters help, if you don’t pay them a huge amount of money – not once, but several times, or that no one else will be able to do what they are offering – then it is time to walk away.
    The Pagan scene in Australia does indeed have a grapevine, and it is a very useful tool in when it comes to finding out business owners histories. Newbies have more avenues available for research than ever with the internet and word of mouth at events/meetups/etc. Facts, not gossip or bias, equals knowledge and empowerment. There is nothing wrong with determining fact from gossip either – ask what the specifics are, and don’t go by petty squabbles and personal issues like ‘I don’t like her, she didn’t like my friend’. (Yes it can be that petty and simple lol) And it’s only through that empowerment that bullies and predators of all types will have the pool of available victims made smaller.
    And I agree, we do all need to stand up and protect ourselves, others and any form of community we want to build. Predators, and the ones that enable and aid them cannot keep harming others if there is unification. These days, ignorance is simply no excuse, and it can’t replace common sense and caution.
    You are so right, there are some wonderful people and practitioners in the pagan scene all over the world, Australia is no exception to that.

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    • Thank you for your comments. You touch upon a really important point that I didn’t. We often see people running to Witchcraft in desperate need of help. They are looking for a quick solution to some problem. These folks might as well have a big bull’s eye on them; they are easy prey for con artists willing to sell them bogus spells and other services. Other than doing research and intervening when we can, it’s important to continue educating the public about Witchcraft and Paganism.

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  2. Thank you, so much, for this. I would add to that: If anyone demands you participate in the use of alcohol or any other substance, run like hell. I have been very fortunate in my life to find exactly the right teachers for me at exactly the right times. I found each of my teachers through participation in regular life circumstances (one was a coworker) and by belonging to and attending the public rituals of several groups (1 of them, I now belong to; and, I formed a 2nd group with individuals I met primarily through the 1st).

    And, please use your common sense and trust your intuition. If it feels icky, it probably is. If a group demands you be skyclad at the initial meeting, run away. Talk to people you trust when you ask about a potential teacher.

    And, I know that not everyone agrees with me in this issue, but I’m going to say it anyway. A mentor (HP or HPS) should not charge for your training. Typically, there is an arrangement which benefits the group (for instance, the construction of an altar, the creation of a centerpiece, etc.) and perhaps a gift to the HP or HPS. Some groups do require dues or fees. This amount should be reasonable and go toward the expenses of a group (refreshments, craft and working supplies, etc.). There are certainly lots of educational classes and workshops that you can participate in (online and in person). These are not the mentor type of relationship for which I’m talking. When an educator prepares materials and curriculum, they are entitled to reimbursement for their time and work. When we train new initiates/dedicants/etc., the goal is to further the tradition and the growth of the movement, not to line our pockets.

    Its strictly my opinion and I certainly have no ill will toward anyone who charges for training. It is just not my path.

    Thank you, very much, for your well thought out and organized essay.

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    • Thank you for your comments and the compliments. Those are good tips about drugs and alcohol. I’m also of the school of thought that traditional Wicca does not cost money and I agree that covens may have dues or some other system in place to pay for supplies and that certain classes or workshops may cost money.

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