Web of Caring and Commitment

Interpersonal violence and sexual abuse are two of the most troubling issues we have to deal with in our society today. As we become aware of the abuse in families and congregations, we can become overwhelmed by the amount of pain that surrounds us and the frightening violations of trust and intimacy that have occurred in our religious communities. When abuse occurs there is great brokenness. The brokenness extends to the interrelated lifesystem of the congregation: the victim and victim's family; the congregation and wider association of congregations; the perpetrator's family, friends, and colleagues; and the perpetrator. Over the past two decades Unitarian Universalist (UU) lay leaders, ministers, and Unitarian Universaslist Association (UUA) professional staff members have increased their awareness of clergy sexual misconduct and raised their courageous voices to break the silence around incidents of clergy sexual abuse and call for justice and healing. We must heed this call. For the health and wholeness of our congregations and our association of congregations, we must respond compassionately with a web of caring and work for restorative justice with steadfast commitment.

A call for justice was voiced by Unitarian Universalist Ministers Association (UUMA) chapters in the southeast and the Pacific northwest in 1984 and 1985 as they articulated their concerns about the effects of clergy sexual misconduct on congregations and ministry. They asked the UUMA executive committee to address issues of sexual ethics in the ministerial Code of Professional Practice. After careful dialogue and thoughtful discernment, UUMA ministers amended their Code in 1987 and 1988 to include sexual ethics. The Ministerial Fellowship Committee used this Code as a basis for addressing the issues of clergy sexual misconduct. Ministerial Fellowship Committee members have voiced their concerns and addressed these issues tenaciously in the 1990 decade by amending their rules and procedures and setting new credentialing policies.

Early in the 1990s the issue of clergy sexual misconduct took on increased urgency in the Unitarian Universalist Association because of reported incidents of misconduct and media attention on this problem. At the 1991 Hollywood, FL, General Assembly the courageous voices of UU Women's Federation Board members and UUA Women and Religion Committee members issued a Call to Action. The Task Force on Clergy Sexual Misconduct (Task Force I) was convened with representatives from concerned UU organizations and planned their work in programming, education, and healing involving both laity and clergy. Their 1991 Call to Action concluded: "We join our voices together with concern for the victims, families, congregations, and clergy."

The UUA Department of Ministry and UUMA sponsored the 1992 training of ten clergy teams (led by Marie Fortune of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence) who then conducted trainings and educational workshops in most UUMA chapters and theological schools. Liberal Religious Educators' Association (LREDA) amended and expanded their Code of Professional Practice. In the UUA Religious Education Department, the Youth Office developed its Code of Ethics for Persons Working With Children and Youth in UUA Sponsored Programs in 1986 and the Curriculum Office published About Sexual Abuse and most recently Our Whole Lives.

In 1992 the UUA Board of Trustees appointed a Task Force on Congregational Response to Clergy Sexual Misconduct (Task Force II). It was charged with creating materials to deal with congregational responses to the issue of clergy sexual misconduct and to make recommendations concerning laity education. Its work produced a theological reflection essay, the creation and training of district Safe Congregations teams, and informational as well as worship resources for congregations. Their strong voices advocated for institutionalizing an ongoing response to clergy sexual misconduct.

Lay leaders and religious professionals published monographs on sexual ethics in UU journals and periodicals throughout the 1990s, and the UUA published Creating Safe Congregations: Toward an Ethic of Right Relations in 1997. In 1998 and 1999 courageous voices have been increasingly resolute in their attention to healing and justice for victims/survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. The Is Nothing Sacred Retreats and Second Circle Gatherings have focused the need for an institutional response and ministry with victims/survivors and congregations. For further references to our Unitarian Universalist history tending to these issues see the documentation in the resources section of the Creating Safe Congregations Workbook.

Current Unitarian Universalist Association initiatives toward inclusion, wholeness, and covenantal relationship are the common ground upon which the work of the Safe Congregations Panel stands. These endeavors continue to contribute inspiration for our recommendations. The Panel's reflections and recommendations are linked to, informed by, and in alignment with the following endeavors: interfaith coalitions, especially the Our Whole Lives sexuality education project; Journey Toward Wholeness; Fulfilling the Promise.

The interfaith "cloud of witnesses" who have educated, motivated and inspired us include many professional clergy, caregivers, and lay leaders. Marie Fortune (founder/director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence) and Heather Block (author of Advocates Training Manual: Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by a Church Leader/Caregiver, Mennonite Central Committee, Canada, 1996) defined our work as "giving voice to the voiceless," called our attention to power and authority issues, and clarified many fiduciary responsibilities. The collaboration of the Unitarian Universalist Association and United Church of Christ on the Our Whole Lives sexuality education project provided valuable insights to the Panel's work, especially the components of advocacy and training.

Journey Toward Wholeness initiatives and Fulfilling the Promise programs have enlightened and empowered the work of the Safe Congregations Panel. In collaboration with the Journey Toward Wholeness actions, we want a deeper understanding of our institutional responsibilities and judicatory accountability to oppressed groups, especially victims/survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. In keeping with the Fulfilling the Promise re-covenanting work, we covenant with each other and our Association to fulfill the principles and imperatives of our Unitarian Universalist faith. This means providing companions and safe places where justice, mercy and love are lived out for, by, with victims/survivors of clergy sexual misconduct.

With collective hands, understanding minds, transforming hearts, and hopeful spirits, we gain strength and wisdom to carry on and lead on in this valuable work.

For more information contact safecongregations@uua.org.