Filing a Complaint with the Denomination

One of the most important decisions you will make is whether or not to file a complaint with the Ministerial Fellowship Committee (MFC) of the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA). This is the body that credentials Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministers, and as such, it is currently the arm that can reprimand and defellowship, i.e. withdraw a minister's credentials.

For the past decade, and as we write this report, the MFC has been the only body in Unitarian Universalism to adjudicate complaints of clergy sexual misconduct. Its normal focus is on whether to fellowship ministers in the first place. As such, it is not only very busy, but its focus is very much on the minister, and not on any given congregation, much less an individual such as a complainant. Historically, the MFC process has treated complainants as evidence, not respected witnesses or plaintiffs, let alone people in great need of pastoral care. As a result, its response is at best a very limited justice, absent of compassion or understanding of your real needs. There is no provision for help paying for therapy or pastoral counseling, nor does the MFC have methodologies to reinstate complainants with their communities. The chances of being severely revictimized by this process are almost 100%.

Tragically, Unitarian Universalism is like most denominations and faiths in not having found a way to shift its focus to the victims and survivors of clergy sexual misconduct. In the last few years, however, the leadership of the UUA have increasingly understood this failing. The UUA Executive Vice President's eloquent apology at the 2000 General Assembly, the formation of the panel writing this report and the pilot advocacy programs are significant indicators of their growing concern and their desire to remedy this imbalance.

Meanwhile, as a victim or survivor, you cannot afford to simply trust the UUA's good intentions. Instead, you need to assess the pros and cons of filing a complaint in as clear-eyed a fashion as you can muster. We hope some day soon this section of the report can be rewritten, but until then here is a list of early warning signals that the UUA's adjudicatory process is still extremely dangerous for victims and survivors:

  • There is a lack of clarity about who your primary contact person is at the UUA;
  • Your phone calls are not returned;
  • In a spirit of "it's your problem, not ours," staff suggest you seek therapy;
  • The accused minister is consistently referred to as just the "minister" (rather than defendant), while you are referred to as the "complainant" (rather than congregant);
  • The MFC procedures remain largely unchanged from the 1990s. In particular, look for rights given the defendant minister that are not accorded to you. The most telling points are:
    • The MFC will not commit to sending you their findings;
    • They will not agree to inform you of and allow you or your advocate to be present at hearings;
    • They indicate they are willing to arrange a "voluntary resolution" with the defendant minister without input from you.

On a more positive note, early signs that the process has improved include:

  • The staff you speak with evidence concern and a willingness to help;
  • The UUA provides you with an advocate;
  • You are given after-hours, emergency contact numbers;
  • The UUA gives you a copy of this guide;
  • Arrangements are made so that you don't have to bear significant long distance charges;
  • You are told that members of the MFC, its chair in particular, have had substantial education, including recent refresher training, on clergy sexual misconduct.

One aspect of filing a complaint that bears special attention is confidentiality. While not all victim/survivors feel the need for confidentiality, many (probably most) do. Actually, for many the absence of confidentiality in UU processes is reason enough not to break the silence. So in a sense this absence becomes a form of collusion.

There are two things that work against confidentiality. First is a fairly widespread notion that it's the same thing as secrecy. A request for confidentiality is often interpreted as being manipulative or cowardly. But this isn't true. Confidentiality is one of the few forms of protection the institution can offer you as you enter into a hazardous process. Just as newspapers keep the names of rape victims in confidence, so the UUA needs to make every effort to keep your name in confidence if you so choose.

The second barrier is that Unitarian Universalism is not as hierarchical as many other denominations and faiths. We use a model called congregation-based polity. In practical terms this means the locus of power rests with individual congregations, not with UUA executives. Chances are the leadership of any given congregation will not have much background in clergy sexual misconduct, and thus is unlikely to quickly understand issues like the need for confidentiality. It's particularly unlikely if the accused minister is still in the area. However, when you file a complaint with the MFC, normal patterns of polity are not being used. You are responding to its policies at an associational level, working with its ministerial credentialing process, and the UUA and MFC need to respond to you accordingly.

Currently the MFC does not automatically provide for your confidentiality. Until this piece is clearly addressed by the UUA, we would recommend that you discuss the risks and benefits of releasing confidentiality with your advocate. Your right to confidentiality will be honored by the MFC only if you request it. If you want it, in your initial letter of complaint to the MFC you should stipulate this. You might write that the MFC cannot consider your letter a formal complaint until it assures you that it will make every effort to keep your name in confidence, and that when the MFC contacts the minister it will stipulate serious sanctions against him if at any time he discloses your name.

If you do decide to try filing a complaint, initial contact is likely to be frightening and confusing. It's a point in the process where the risk of revictimization is high. You will be breaking the silence to an unknown and possibly hostile audience. However, looked at from a different perspective, it's the point when the onus of responsibility shifts from you to the UUA, where it belongs. The UUA cannot be expected to help if none of its staff have heard the facts. Meanwhile, alerting them to the problem, you become not only a victim of clergy sexual misconduct, but also a messenger of bad news. That's a volatile combination, and is one of the main reasons why having an advocate is to everyone's advantage, not just yours. The UUA needs to know. But what you have to share is hard for you to talk about and hard for them to listen to. An advocate bridges these painful gaps.

It not only takes great courage to confront the denomination, it is also an amazing testament to your belief in the worth of Unitarian Universalism. It says you believe our faith is capable of justice and mercy, and that you hold us to a higher standard. To quote Marie Fortune: "Perhaps the most powerful message we can receive from these women is that of their profound faithfulness, courage, and resilience. I am convinced that their love of the church is far greater than mine and their faith... far deeper than mine. Many of them have stood up to the powers and principalities of the church, have asked for what is rightfully theirs, and have refused to be silent or to disappear." (Victim to Survivor, p. xiii)

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