Thursday, January 21, 2010

Getting Our Act Together on Sexual Misconduct by UU Leaders

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.


  1. I'm not sure I know what I'm talking about when I talk about this topic. On some level, I really don't care if two consenting adults date and one of them happens to be the minister. And if I call up a minister friend and talk about a bad day, I'm honestly not sure if that's being a friend or freelance pastoral care. Part of me doesn't think it matters. I think Marie Fortune is wrong to think that a lot of us don't serve dual roles for each other a lot of the time. Power imbalances are a part of life.

    And frankly, I've known enough people who were creepily into one minister or another, who might take romantic rejection badly that I have real concern about false accusations. (And I have known a church well where there was a provably false accusation made by a third party.)

    When a minister has actually done something illegal, call the cops. Otherwise, I'm really not sure where the lines are or where they should be, to say nothing of what should be done when they are crossed.

  2. CC: Thanks for your comments. Fortune has been known to say that clergy should never pursue a relationship with anyone in their congregation or otherwise under their pastoral care. I would not go that far; in fact I would agree with her earlier recommendation that a minister should be above board about it, and that the minister's partner should seek pastoral care from an associate minister or other source.

    But, there are cases where a minister turns out to be a sexual predator, and damages the entire congregation as a result; read Fortune's book covering one such case, Is Nothing Sacred? (ISBN 0-06-062683-6) where she also discusses the ethical reasons why clergy need to tread carefully with regard to meeting their own needs for physical and emotional intimacy.

    My point here is that we still do not have a clear idea of what to do in the event we suspect any leader -- minister, educator, administrator, lay leader -- of breaching sexual ethics. How do we make sure whoever follows up on a complaint is both impartial and well prepared? Hence my suggestion to have District offices train select people to be ombuds when needed.

  3. I only really know personally about one complaint that took place in the UU church. In that case, the minister faced a Minister's Association inquiry into the matter and was disciplined for it. My understanding is that nothing illegal occurred, so the police were never involved.

    The minister could have said it didn't happen but apparently did not. My vague impression is that neither party was delighted with the result (the minister finding the punishment excessive and the other party finding it insufficient), but my impression from what I know about regular criminal law is that this is usually the case with that sort of thing.

    I remain skeptical on the issue, though I will try to get a copy of Fortune's book.

    At the least, I think there should be clear guidelines about what does and what doesn't constitute clergy sexal misconduct. As a side project, I'm working on a mystery novel that includes a pastor who is dating and I put up a blog post some time ago asking about the rules on clergy dating. I got 21 responses to that post and I wouldn't say there was a clear consensus.

    Unclear rules for professional conduct really bother me, especially when:

    1. The person's career is at stake if the violate rules that might not be clear

    2. The person is a figure, like a minister, that people tend to become emotionally involved with. If a minister gets divorced and starts dating again quickly, for example, I would call that none of our business unless the new significant other is provably in the minister's pastoral care. But some are going to be very quick to start crying misconduct, not because it is, but because a minister's divorce can be an emotional issue for the congregation, too, and even if the minister is ready to move on, the church might not be.

    Also, what counts as pastoral care? I go to a CEO-model church and have talked out a problem I was having with the senior minister exactly once in the six years I've been a member. One other time I stopped by to make a minor complaint about someone whom I felt was dominating Joys and Concerns. A third time, I stopped by to make a request on the behalf of the youth group.

    In my six or so years at this church, that's literally it as far as my one-on-one interaction alone with the senior minister. That's very typical in my church.

    I'm not looking to date the senior minister, he's not my type and I'm not his. But is that a pastoral care relationship by any reasonable definition of the term? I really don't think it is. But I'm sure (assuming the non-existance of our significant others) that if we were to date, lots of people would call that sexual misconduct.

    Anyway, yeah, clear rules are a good thing, and we don't have them as far as I can tell.


  4. Also, my understanding is that Martin Luther King had a fling with someone in his congregation at one point, and a great many other women, for that matter. If that's not an indication that very good people can sometimes be flawed in this way, I don't know what is.

    I realize we as descendents from the Puritans are petrified by the idea that other people have sex, but I can't help but think that punishing people who might otherwise be very good and ruining careers is not the answer if everything was consensual when it happened.


  5. As a minister for the past ten plus years, I can add that I agree that UUMA guidelines can seem overly strict and even punitive when it comes to friendships in the congregation, both romantic and platonic.

    I have tried to be careful about this issue myself, having all my life been in careers where there was an imbalance of power (welfare work, teaching, counseling) and knowing how easy it is to hurt someone by being too involved with that person. I've been lucky to have that experience, because lots of people are ignorant of how seductive it can be to be idolized by someone less powerful.

    I have a general rule of not dating anyone in my congregation and, at my age, am rarely tempted any more! But friendships within the congregation are hard to avoid, here in this small rural community. So I try to be evenhanded in my associations with congregants, mostly see them in church-related social contacts, and don't play favorites. That said, I do know one couple much better than others in the congregation because, as a part-time minister who once lived in Seattle and commuted to the island once a month, I stayed with them every weekend and got to know them much better. It happens that way when you have morning coffee with people who are still in their bathrobes.

    I'm also lucky to have a congregation of emotionally-healthy folks---at least so far!


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