Reforms take aim at clergy misconduct

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It is easy to think of clergy misconduct as a Catholic or evangelical problem. It's not.

Image: © Sergey Timashov/iStockphoto

© Sergey Timashov/iStockphoto


Jim Key, the moderator of the Unitarian Universalist Association, was moved to tears after Emily* (starred names have been changed) told him her story.

In her first year out of college in a new city, Emily, a lifelong UU, sought counseling from a minister for concerns about her sexual orientation. The minister at the church Emily was considering joining, a woman, invited her home one night and sexually assaulted her, Emily said. Over the next three years she became “enmeshed in an abusive, dominating relationship that the minister insisted had to be kept secret from everyone.” When Emily learned the minister had begun another relationship with an even younger woman in her ministerial care, she sought help from a therapist to extricate herself. The minister of the UU church she had previously attended advised Emily to file a formal complaint so this abuser could not keep hurting other women.

As much as the abuse she documented in her 2005 complaint pained her, Emily says she was “absolutely devastated” by what followed. “I was shut out of the process, treated like a bother by UUA staff, silenced and asked to protect the minister, and ultimately not told the findings of the Ministerial Fellowship Committee, the credentialing body for UU ministers,” Emily told trustees and top UUA staff earlier this year. “I remember hearing the words ‘closed door tribunal’ to describe what was happening in the [Roman] Catholic Church, and I remember that resonating.” She has not joined a church since.

Nothing has damaged religious communities in recent years as much as the sexual misconduct of their spiritual leaders. Since the 1970s the unfolding stories of televangelists procuring prostitutes and priests abusing altar boys have eroded public trust in all churches. It’s easy to think of clergy misconduct as a Catholic or evangelical problem. It’s not.

Unitarian Universalism has its own problem. We have even had our share of media scandals. Clergy sexual misconduct—ministers who have sexual relationships with their parishioners—has damaged individuals, families, whole congregations, and Unitarian Universalism’s credibility.

How widespread is the problem? There’s no way to know. But the Rev. Deborah Pope-Lance, whose research and consulting has focused on the impact of clergy misconduct on UU congregations for the past thirty years, believes most congregations have been affected by it. “As many as two-thirds of our congregations have been served in living memory by a minister known to have engaged in sexual misconduct there or elsewhere,” she said. “At first I said that timidly because we can’t imagine our ministers would do that, but now we know they can and have.”

“When I sat down with [misconduct survivors] eyeball to eyeball, it changed me,” said Key, the UUA’s top volunteer leader, who has a background in corporate ethics. In May he went to Nashville for a town meeting and worship service about misconduct, sponsored by First Unitarian Universalist Church and its Safety Net social justice project, with fellow UUA trustee Natty Averett and the Rev. Sarah Lammert, director of the UUA’s Ministries and Faith Development staff.

In June, Key told the General Assembly in Providence, Rhode Island, “I want to express my deepest apologies to those of you who have been victims of UU clergy sexual misconduct, whether you have come forward or not. . . . It is unacceptable that a minister has taken advantage of you sexually and emotionally. It was not your fault.”

Key’s apology was not the first. At the 2000 General Assembly, the UUA’s then-Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery also apologized for clergy misconduct. Over the past two decades the UUA has made many reforms, especially in ministerial education. But misconduct survivors feel leaders are only now beginning to listen to them and ask how to help repair the damage.

“We at the UUA don’t want to add to the pain of an already painful situation,” said Lammert, who reported that the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) has investigated twenty-three complaints of sexual misconduct in the past twenty years. None involved purported abuse of a minor or vulnerable elder. Two ministers were exonerated, eleven were removed from or resigned their fellowship, and the remaining ten were reprimanded or suspended from service.

Because the UUA only publishes names of ministers who resign their fellowship or who are removed from fellowship, Emily still does not know how the MFC ruled on her complaint.

“It’s tremendously painful to hear those stories [of misconduct survivors],” Lammert said. “I feel very sorry to hear what happened. We are open to feedback and are revising our processes so they are compassionate, fair, and equitable.” Earlier this year, Lammert presented a candid “gap analysis” to the board, detailing where the denomination has fallen short, what it has done, and what is left to do.

Responding to sexual misconduct and harassment is “clearly the weakest area of sexual health” for the UU denomination and its congregations, a Religious Institute report commissioned by the UUA concluded back in 2010. The Institute encouraged the UUA to look at the model work of the United Methodist Church. “We should be embarrassed that moderate mainline churches have been so far ahead of us on this issue,” said the Rev. Debra Haffner, the report’s author. “We like to think we are leaders in sexual justice. We have to start in our own home congregations.”

In the 1970s and ’80s it was not uncommon for ministers to have relationships with congregants and then to divorce their wives, Pope-Lance said. Some preyed on parishioners, engaging in multiple affairs. Some routinely made inappropriate sexual remarks to women—what we now call sexual harassment. “General Assemblies in the 1970s could feel like Carnival or a Roman bacchanal,” Pope-Lance said in her 2011 Berry Street Address to the UU Ministers Association.

In the early ’90s, three instances of UU clergy misconduct brought national media attention. In the most shocking case, the Rev. Mack Mitchell was arrested and convicted in 1992 for raping a teenage girl he had helped to emigrate from Tibet. Mitchell lost his job and ministerial fellowship, after members of the Massachusetts congregation he served raised an alarm. He was imprisoned for three years.

Fox Television’s A Current Affair aired a segment in 1991 in which a camera crew confronted the Rev. Tony Perrino in his driveway about accusations that he had sex with multiple parishioners from his California church. He was removed from ministerial fellowship in 1990 but has continued to preach occasionally at UU churches. (Update 11.10.14: After this issue went to press, Perrino died at the age of 86.)

In the highest profile case, New York magazine in 1991 ran a blistering feature about the beloved minister of All Souls Unitarian Church in Manhattan, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Church, who left his wife—the religious education director—to marry a layperson he had been counseling about her marriage. In emotional upheaval, the church voted on whether to keep him as minister. They voted yes. Church served until his death from cancer in 2009.

UUs don’t often use the language of sin, adultery, and fornication. That may make it harder to see what’s wrong with sexual relationships that appear to be consensual. Any sexual behavior by a minister toward a parishioner is unethical and damaging, in the same way it is for a therapist to have such a relationship with a patient, say religious professionals who specialize in sexual health. It is an abuse of power, and the minister is responsible for setting a strict boundary, according to Diana Garland, a Baylor University researcher whose 2008 study found that 3 percent of women currently attending churches have been victims of clergy sexual misconduct as adults.

In thirteen states and the District of Columbia, ministers who have sexual relationships with parishioners they are counseling could be prosecuted. Pope-Lance believes other laws forbidding sexual relationships between counselors or therapists and their clients could also be applied to ministers. “These states have recognized there’s a public health and safety issue in how clergy conduct themselves,” said Pope-Lance. “For the person counseling vulnerable congregants, sex cannot be part of that relationship.”

Unlike a therapist, a minister also has a professional relationship with the parishioner’s community of friends, compounding the damage not just for the individual but for the entire congregation, said Pope-Lance, who trains “after-pastors,” interim ministers who serve churches that have been hurt by sexual misconduct. After-pastors report that those churches divide into factions, mistrust any clergy, and suffer more from all-around bad behavior: reactivity, manipulation, secrets, lies, triangulation, boundary pushing, bullying, threats, and power struggles. The dysfunction can last for generations.

As women began joining the ranks of ordained ministers in greater numbers in the 1980s, they joined forces with laywomen’s groups to demand study groups, task forces, trainings, and worship and curriculum materials about sexual misconduct. Seminarians and new ministers took courses from Pope-Lance or teams trained by the Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune, a United Church of Christ minister and a pioneer in addressing misconduct.

But survivors’ needs were hardly addressed, according to a new wave of activists. In 2008 First UU Church of Nashville—which has documented its own history of ministerial misconduct and discloses it in all new-member classes—launched Safety Net to demand renewed attention to clergy sexual misconduct. The pace of reform has been picking up, they say.

A course in sexual boundaries and ethics became required for all UU ministerial candidates in 2010. After years of debate, the UU Ministers Association in 2013 adopted a code of conduct stating simply that ministers agree not to have any sexual contact with anyone in the churches they serve. The old code listed lengthy exceptions, depending on marital status, consent, and potential “negative consequences.” The professional organizations for UU religious educators and musicians are looking at revising their codes of conduct, too.

Safety Net members are now working closely with the board and UUA staff on a timeline for improving the complaint process.

  • Safety Net and the UUA have applied for a grant to fund the training of advocates who can guide anyone who has a concern about misconduct through the process or answer questions, even before a complaint is made.
  • Safety Net founder Anna Belle Leiserson is drafting a clearer, more pastoral UUA webpage on misconduct, with resources to help victims, even if they never make themselves known.
  • The MFC has proposed changing its process to invite complainants and their advocates to come before its Executive Committee to tell their side of the story, at the MFC’s expense. The UUA Board of Trustees is discussing the proposals at its October meeting. (Update 11.10.14: The board asked the MFC to clarify whether advocates could be lawyers.)

“I’m hopeful at how this team is starting to turn things around,” said Leiserson, a misconduct survivor who also told the board her story. She, too, found the complaint process that followed her report—of an unwelcome sexual advance by a minister in the early 1990s—and the angry responses of some people in her congregation more hurtful than the incident itself. At last, she said, she is getting the ministry she was looking for two decades ago and is being listened to. “It seems so simple. That’s what victims need more than anything else.”

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Correction 12.1.14: Earlier versions of this article identified Leiserson as cofounder of Safety Net, based on information provided by the group.