Berry Street lecture takes on clergy sexual misconduct among UU ministers

Berry Street lecture takes on clergy sexual misconduct among UU ministers

Secrecy harms victims and congregations, honesty fosters healing, the Rev. Gail Seavey urges fellow ministers.

Elaine McArdle
The Rev. Gail Seavey

The Rev. Gail Seavey delivers the Berry Street lecture June 22, 2016. (© Nancy Pierce/UUA)

© 2016 Nancy Pierce/UUA


With an emphasis on power dynamics and the critical need for scrupulous honesty and truth, the Rev. Gail Seavey on Tuesday night took on the painful topic of clergy sexual misconduct and exhorted her fellow Unitarian Universalist ministers to stop keeping secrets so that UU congregations and the faith can thrive and grow in a healthy manner.

“I have seen smart people, good people, fail to understand the impact of sexual misconduct, how pervasive and systemic it is, not just among us but throughout our culture,” said Seavey, speaking at the 196th Ministerial Conference at Berry Street, known as the Berry Street lecture. “For years the system at the UUA and in many of our congregations has been to protect the privileged instead of the vulnerable.”

In her talk, “If Our Secrets Define Us,” Seavey gave an historical context of clergy sexual misconduct in UU congregations, including the reluctance of UU ministers to criticize their colleagues. Some who did, she noted, were censured. Estimating that one-third to one-half of UU congregations in the U.S. have been affected by clergy sexual misconduct within recent memory, Seavey described the psychological trauma to individuals and the severe damage to congregational health, and noted the problem isn’t limited to male ministers. Facing the issue head-on rather than concealing it is not only the moral thing to do, but also results in healthier congregations and a healthier denomination, Seavey said.

“Keeping secrets about the times we fall short of our ideals stops us from developing an ever more nuanced power analysis with others who have also suffered from intersecting cultural secrets,” said Seavey, senior minister at First UU Church of Nashville, Tennessee, a congregation that suffered from ministerial misconduct before she arrived there. Since then, First Nashville became a denominational leader in addressing the problem through the creation of UU Safety Net, which seeks to effect changes in policies and procedures around clergy sexual abuse in Unitarian Universalism.

“There are colleagues in this room who have chosen to keep the harm they have done in their ministerial role a secret,” Seavey said. “Sometimes I despair and wonder if your secret tortures you as much as Hawthorne’s Rev. Arthur Dimmesdale’s secret tortured him. I know, however, that most of you have been faithful to the people you serve.”

She urged her colleagues to keep their eyes wide open to the problem and to be rigorously honest in reporting it. When she was finished, Seavey received a standing ovation, and a line of women UU ministers encircled the stage, holding hands, in support of Seavey.

The Berry Street lecture is presented each year to the members of the Unitarian Universalist Minister’s Association (UUMA), traditionally on the night before General Assembly begins. Next year, the Rev. Sofia Betancourt, assistant professor of UU Theologies and Ethics at Starr King School for the Ministry, will give the lecture.

You can watch the lecture here. [Editor’s note, 11/7/19: The video of the lecture is no longer online.]