The United Church of Christ (UCC) and the United Church of Canada may soon be in full communion. What does this mean, and why is it good news for the UCC?
When two churches are in full communion, they agree on essential doctrines. They recognize one another’s clergy as valid ordained ministers within both traditions. The leaders form a closer relationship. The churches learn from one another. Ideally, the two churches strengthen each other’s weaknesses. If the UCC and the United Church of Canada come into full communion, it will be good news especially for victims of clergy sexual abuse in the UCC. The Canadian church’s policy for responding to abuse stands head and shoulders over the policies in any church in the U.S.
What makes the United Church of Canada’s policy so strong?
1. It’s easy to find. Anyone can search “United Church of Canada sexual abuse” or similar terms and locate the church’s Sexual Abuse Prevention and Response Policy and Procedures manual.
2. It is grounded in theology; specifically in the church’s creed. For example, the creed calls the United Church of Canada to “seek justice.” The statement shows sexual abuse to be a justice issue, and it holds the church responsible for a just outcome.
3. The policy is clear, concrete, and rigorous. It clearly defines the behaviors that fall under the term “sexual abuse.” It clearly states who may file a complaint (victims, parents of minors, and people with first-hand knowledge). It clearly states that the church will not respond to anonymous complaints, and that allegations must be supported with clear and convincing evidence.
4. It distributes power so that no single person controls the process. It defines the roles of all involved in the process. It provides a step-by-step checklist for every person in every role. The manual spells out the process for handling complaints, and illustrates it with an easy-to-read flowchart.
(Copyright © 2013, The United Church of Canada)
5. It gives special protection to legal minors. When the victim is a minor, the policy requires church officials to report suspected abuse to law enforcement first, and only to open a church investigation when it won’t interfere with the legal process.
6. It requires all church responders to read and understand the policy, attend a training, and be familiar with the local resources for victims (educational, therapeutic, legal, medical, etc).
7. It keeps the victim informed and supported at every step. She or he is given a copy of the policy and procedures at the very first meeting, along with specific resources for pastoral care or counseling support. When the investigation ends, she or he is given a copy of the investigator’s report. If the church wishes to resolve the case informally, church officials must first ask the victim for permission. (Oh, to have had this kind of support from my former church!)
Even with a strong, clearly articulated policy, responding to clergy misconduct is difficult at best. No doubt there have been and will continue to be bumps in the road for the United Church of Canada. But their policy gives responders a clear road map. Since I now make my home in the UCC, I am praying for full communion, and I’m praying that my church adopts this superb policy and process.