Better process for handling cases of clergy sex misconduct

Better process for handling cases of clergy sex misconduct

UUA has made strides in giving survivors of clergy sexual misconduct more voice in complaint process

Elaine McArdle


Acknowledging the serious pain and trauma that survivors of clergy sexual misconduct suffer, Jim Key, Moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA), pledged his ongoing support to survivors and said the UUA will continue to make this issue a top priority.

Speaking today at a workshop, “Building Restorative Justice in Cases of Clergy Sexual Misconduct,” Key outlined the steps the UUA Board of Trustees has taken in the past two years to improve the process for dealing with cases of sexual misconduct, including working with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee—which handles complaints—to institute best practices. Among other MFC rules changes, complainants now have the right to meet with the MFC during the process.

As Key noted, in 2013, UUA trustee Susan Weaver convened the Congregational Boundaries Working Group to lead efforts toward a more transparent process that gives a voice to victims and survivors. At GA 2014 in Providence, R.I., Key issued a formal apology from the UUA to survivors and pledged the board’s attention to the issue. Last fall, an advisory group of survivors was created so they remain part of ongoing efforts toward best practices, Key said. The Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of the UUA’s Ministries and Faith Development, has spearheaded new efforts including training programs for advocates for survivors.

Today’s panelists—Key, Lammert, the Rev. Dr. Frederic Muir, who led a study that produced a report on the issue a number of years ago, and the Rev. Gail Seavey of the First UU Church of Nashville, which has been a leader on this issue through UU Safety Net—thanked the survivors who chose to remain in relationship with Unitarian Universalism and help the UUA design a better complaint process despite suffering misconduct from clergy and a process that often served to re-traumatize them.

“It’s important that survivors are fully heard in this review process and that their input is welcome,” said Key, who has met numerous times with survivors over the past two years, and who reiterated his openness to hearing from others who haven’t stepped forward.

Muir described how restorative justice can foster healing for survivors, congregations, and even ministers in these situations. He said it’s a misunderstanding to think that restorative justice means that offending ministers are not punished; to the contrary, even with a restorative approach, ministers can still suffer serious consequences including losing their fellowship status. Committing to restorative justice, he said, “can demonstrate the healing power of our faith.”

But several in the audience, including some survivors who reported clergy abuse in the past and felt marginalized or ignored, said they remain skeptical about the new process. One called the restorative justice approach “naïve” in these situations.

Seavey responded to the criticism by saying that survivors involved in Safety Net “have felt exactly like you.” She said Safety Net, which is working with the UUA board and staff in this area, is “not going to believe” that the system is better “until we see major changes.” She added that it will “take years to change the system and build trust that it has changed.” Key added that the board wants to institutionalize best practices so that they don’t disappear or get watered down in the future.