History of UUA Task Forces (2000-2016) on Misconduct and Sexual Health, and Institutional Response

Chalice at General Assembly

Response to the 2016 Berry Street Essay

Dear Colleagues—

I know many of you have been talking about or thinking about the powerful Conference in Berry Street Essay presented this year by our colleague, the Rev. Gail Seavey. It raised some challenging and painful issues about ministerial misconduct in Unitarian Universalism. For some of you this was new information while others have lived with varied levels of awareness about this for many years. Regardless, Gail has provided us all with a new opportunity to engage in the work of providing a healthier future for our ministry.

I recently met privately with Gail to talk about her Essay, and I want to express my gratitude to her for the many years of advocacy and partnership she has provided to me and many others as we have worked over the past decades to move the UUA to a justice-making institution. To be sure, there remains a gap between our highest aspirations and our current capability in this area. At the same time, I wanted to make sure that you as my colleagues have accurate information about the steps the UUA has taken over the years to improve our policies and become more compassionate and fair to complainants. I also want to invite you to join us in this important work if you have suggestions or would be interested in applying to be a volunteer advocate at some point in the future.

Attached is a brief history of the UUA’s work to move towards restorative justice. The truth is that we failed many people in the past. Our UUMA guidelines were not adequate, we lacked training in sexually healthy institutions, and the Ministerial Fellowship Committee’s rules were not in keeping with the best practices available to religious institutions. We focused more on the accused minister than those harmed. We’ve apologized publically for those mistakes, and we’ve partnered with groups like Safety Net, The Religious Institute, and the Faith Trust Institute to make substantial progress in all of these areas. The UUA Board of Trustees has been a strong supporter of this work.

Please feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions about the attached report. I speak for the whole UUA Administration when I say that we are committed to a fair and just future. As our colleague the Rev. David Pyle noted in his formal response to the Berry Street Essay, this work is all of ours to do with one another.

In Faith,

Sarah Lammert

Director of Ministries and Faith Development

Ecclesiastical Endorser, UUA

July, 2016


Two major task forces have been convened by the UUA to review and recommend policies and procedures regarding the prevention and response to sexual misconduct. The first, which completed its work in 2000, involved some false starts and confusion about who should own the problem – UUA staff or a task force made up of representatives of various stakeholders. Ultimately, the work done was incredibly valuable and offered some first real steps in both institutional accountability and restorative justice for victims. Some of the changes implemented as a result of this report included:

  • The Office of Ethics and Safety in Congregational Life was created in 2002. An intake person outside of the Ministries Department (now Ministries and Faith Development) was designated as a more neutral, safe person to report to, and a dedicated phone line was installed. A Consultant for Ethics in Congregational Life was contracted to work with complainants and investigate claims.
  • Many resources were generated to support safe congregations. These are aggregated on uua.org under the heading of Safe Congregations . The process for filing a complaint is explained; and links are provided to reports such as “Towards a Sexually Healthy and Responsible UUA,” as well as other resources like “Balancing Acts” which identifies steps for congregations to take to create safe congregations (including working with sex offenders who may come to congregations).
  • The UU World regularly reports on relevant issues.
  • The UUA partnered with Church Mutual to provide risk assessment tools to congregations.
  • Trainings in safe congregations are available on line, through districts and often at General Assembly.
  • A public apology to victims/survivors was made by the UUA at the Nashville General Assembly in 2000. A letter of apology was generated to send to complainants by the UUA President when appropriate .
  • A file summary was added to the information offered to congregational search committees to offer greater transparency about the contents of ministerial records.


The second task force was led by the Rev. Debra Haffner of The Religious Institute in 2010 and served to broaden the framework of the conversation from focusing on responding to misconduct to a more comprehensive plan for building a “Sexually Healthy and Responsible UUA.” Her plan includes an emphasis on prevention (for instance, requiring better training for ministers on sexual health and boundaries) and on broader sexual justice issues such as advocacy for the LGBTQIIA community. She found that while the UUA is a leader in some areas of sexual justice, there were still key areas to be addressed. Some changes implemented as a result of her report included:

  • The MFC added a Sexual Health, Sexual Boundaries, Sexual Justice competency for ministerial candidates. The Religious Institute offers an online course for ministers and other religious professionals, and there are additional required readings for ministerial candidates.
  • The UUMA strengthened its ethical code regarding sexual ethics and the MFC holds ministers responsible for that standard.
  • The UUA strengthened its inclusion and non-discrimination policy and its sexual harassment policies and training for staff.
  • The UUA re-invested and re-committed to keeping Our Whole Lives up to date, training adequate facilitators, and providing staff support for this program. We continue to revise OWL and are currently adding an OWL program for elders.
  • The UUA and Religious Institute partnered to launch the “Sexually Safer Best Practice Congregation” initiative.
  • A Regional Safer Congregation Roundtable was created and a staff member from each region trained to support congregations with resources and guidance.

In 2013 a petition by a group called Safety Net (a justice ministry of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville) called on UUA leaders to focus on assessing and improving our response to victims of misconduct. Both candidates for UUA Moderator and the Chair of the MFC signed the petition, indicating their support. Once elected as Moderator, Jim Key created a Board Working Group on Congregational Boundaries, whose work included a review by Marie Fortune of the Faith Trust Institute of the MFC’s Rules and Policies and the creation of a Best Practices guide in February, 2015. In response the MFC passed a number of amendments to its Rules (specifically Rules 16, 20 and 21) and also updated its policies and procedures. Highlights include:

  • Giving the complainant(s) the right to be heard in person when a minister accused of misconduct comes before the MFC;
  • Ensuring that any investigation of ministerial misconduct is conducted by individuals outside of the MFC;
  • Clarifying that complainants will be kept informed of procedures and outcomes, and have a right to appeal a decision not to remove fellowship if new information comes to light;
  • Ensuring that an advocate will be offered when a person is considering filing a complaint, and not just when they have already filed a formal complaint. A training of 12 advocates was held in October 2015 led by Marie Fortune; this group meets for ongoing training and support quarterly.
  • Cleaning up language that was confusing or disparaging, such as the use of “alleged victim” instead of “complainant.”

In 2015 Jim Key made an institutional apology at the General Assembly on behalf of the UUA Board of Trustees to the victim/survivors of ministerial misconduct and pledged to continue on the path of creating a just UUA.

Continuing Work

Marie Fortune identifies the following elements as critical to Justice-Making in response to misconduct:

  1. Truth-telling (giving voice to the victim);
  2. Acknowledging the Violation (by someone who matters);
  3. Compassion (listen to and suffer with the victim);
  4. Protecting the Vulnerable (prevent further abuse);
  5. Accountability (confront the abuser and impose consequences);
  6. Restitution (institution makes symbolic restoration of what has been lost, e.g. payment for therapy)
  7. Vindication (set the victim free from the suffering – can involve forgiveness, repentance and reconciliation)

The work to date has focused on steps 1-5. Currently, the UUA is working with the Faith Trust Institute to update and improve the Safe Congregations web page to create clearer links/guidance for complainants. We are also creating a complaint procedure manual.

The UUA is just beginning to address step 6, largely because of the conundrum of congregational polity. The question for us is: Could we make symbolic restitution because it is the right thing to do vs. our direct “responsibility?”

The UUA does provide a letter of apology in reference to step 7 but does not have a mechanism for following up with victim/survivors to find out what would help them to feel vindicated (for example, facilitating removing a picture of a misconducting minister from a congregation’s wall of honor).

About the Author

UUA Ministries and Faith Development

The Ministries and Faith Development (MFD) staff group serves Unitarian Universalism by creating healthy, transformative, multigenerational, and diverse ministries and religious education. MFD includes a Director's Office and several functional offices.

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