By Desmond Ravenstone
At the 2000 General Assembly, UUA Executive Vice-President Kay Montgomery acknowledged shortcomings on how UU leadership has dealt with sexual misconduct, and pledged a number of changes. Certainly there have been improvements, principally in prevention through education, screening prospective leaders and other proactive measures. Yet when looking at the whole picture, there are still questions which need to be addressed, the most central being how to file and pursue a complaint of sexual misconduct.
The reader will also notice that I am not limiting this discussion to ordained ministers, or even to professional leadership. Volunteer lay leaders are also entrusted with authority and access, and must be held just as accountable for their actions. And when a member or attendee of a UU congregation feels exploited or abused, to whom should they go for support, healing and justice? What can they expect in terms of process and responsive actions?
In my own research, I’ve not seen any clear answer to these questions. There is much talk about “restorative justice,” but little clarity about how that is to be achieved. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee, which oversees ordained UU ministers, does have a process for handling complaints, but even this has been criticized for falling short in terms of openness and clarity. In my opinion, the UUA needs to develop and present a clear protocol for handling sexual misconduct within congregations, and this article is my attempt at developing and presenting a model for such a protocol.
First, we need to define what we mean by sexual misconduct. This definition should be rooted in our core values of individual dignity and right relationship; it should focus on the emotional and relational context in which sexual activity takes place. Our sexuality can and should be a source of joy, pleasure and nurturing, a way of expressing intimacy and love. In contrast, sexual abuse and exploitation occur in a context of fear and intimidation. To avoid the latter, and foster the former, our sexual and relational ethics need to be based on two central principles:
a) Consent – Each person should be able to give and receive sexually with full knowledge, power and agreement. We are deprived of that power whenever there is deceit, intimidation and/or coercion.
b) Safety – Each person should be able to give and receive sexually without fear of bodily or emotional harm. While no one can assure this with absolute certainty, each person should take responsibility for minimizing the risk of harm to all concerned.
With clergy and other religious community leaders, another factor must be taken into account. Whenever someone is entrusted with leadership, they are given access to power and knowledge; and when there is an imbalance of power and knowledge, consent can be compromised. For this reason, our leaders must take great care to avoid what Reverend Marie Marshall Fortune refers to as dual relationships – maintaining two conflicting relationships with the same person at the same time, in particular a personal/sexual one (which should be equal and mutual) and a pastoral/leadership one (with its inherent power imbalance). This is not to say that a minister or leader can never have an intimate relationship with someone in their community, but that providing pastoral care or direct supervision with an intimate partner is a conflict of interest which must be avoided.
Education and pastoral guidance are essential in both preventing and recognizing sexual misconduct. But how do we respond when such breaches occur? To whom should a complaint or concern be taken, and how should they respond?
My suggestion is for the District office to appoint an impartial ombuds whenever a complaint is filed, to look into the facts and recommend the appropriate course of action. This would take pressure off the congregation’s leadership, while assuring that the process is handled by someone with direct access to all involved. The ombuds can also look beyond simply determining the respondent’s culpability, by considering what role the congregation’s policies, practices and awareness of issues played, and how these might be corrected.
There may also be cases where a formal adjudication would be necessary, in the form of a hearing before an impartial board. Once again, I would suggest that the District office appoint impartial members to the board, in consultation with all concerned. Additionally, the ombuds role would now shift to one of advocate for the complainant. The hearing itself should follow specific guidelines, and the board be required to make its decision by consensus, to assure confidence in the process. This confidence is essential, given that congregational polity makes the board’s decision advisory rather than binding. Likewise, the board would not have the power to suspend or revoke ministerial or DRE credentials, but their findings should be forwarded to the appropriate bodies for action.
Finally, while we all hope that sexual misconduct will not occur, we also have to admit the fact that it will. Even with the best preventive measures, our leaders are human and capable of error – or worse. To that end, we not only need to continue proactive education such as the Safe Congregations program, we also need to train select individuals to serve as ombuds and hearing board members. Such training can be seen in the same light as first aid and self-defense preparations – we hope never to use them, but realize their ultimate necessity and benefit.