Clergy sexual misconduct: one survivor's voice

Plenty of churches get it wrong when it comes to clergy sexual misconduct. Who’s getting it right?

The Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) is blazing a trail that other churches would do well to follow. They just wrapped up their 54th annual General Assembly, “Building a New Way.” In a move that may be unprecedented in any faith tradition, the UUA GA program included not one but three workshops on clergy sexual misconduct, as well as a plenary address by UUA trustee Susan Weaver on the church’s new initiatives.

These were the workshops:
* In Sexually Safer Congregations: Building a New Commitment, the Rev. Debra Haffner, co-founder of the Religious Institute on Sexual Morality, Justice, and Healing, shared the UUA’s new process, goals, and model policies, and urged UU congregations to renew their commitment to preventing misconduct and abuse. UU World senior editor Michelle Bates Deakin had written in 2013 about early steps in this effort.
* In Building Restorative Justice in Cases of Clergy Sexual Misconduct, the leaders of the UU Safety Net described the steps they are taking to improve the church’s process for dealing with clergy sexual misconduct. UU World senior editor Elaine McArdle summed up this workshop here.
* In Clergy Sexual Misconduct: Breaking the Silence, clergy and lay leaders shared the Sacred Listening Process that leaders in Nashville are developing along the lines of the StoryCorps model.

The UUA’s 2015 program reflects decades of dedicated hard work. The church in the 1970s “could feel like a carnival or a Roman Bacchanal” in the words of UU minister Deborah J. Pope-Lance. By the 1990s, things were beginning to change. Individual UU ministers were beginning to write about the need for appropriate boundaries and standards of sexual ethics, as Pope-Lance did here, and as the Rev. Sam Trumbore did here. At the 2000 General Assembly, then-Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery offered a public apology to victims and survivors of sexual misconduct by UU clergy. Over the next two decades the UUA moved forward in many areas.

But according to survivors, only in the past decade has the UUA made real progress. In this effort, no survivor has been more influential than Anna Belle Leiserson of Nashville. In 1993, disappointed with the UUA’s response to her complaint, she asked church leaders for changes in the process. She stayed with the church and became a leader, speaking at General Assemblies and serving on panels. Eventually, the quiet resistance of church leaders wore her down. In 2006, she writes, “I gave up. Or so I thought.” But a few months later, she suddenly realized that her congregation — First Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville, or FUUN — had “a powerhouse of potential activists.” In 2007, Leiserson led this team to create the UU Safety Net. After a slow start, which Leiserson writes about here, the Nashville effort has become a model for the national church.

One of Leiserson’s partners in this effort was FUUN’s minister, the Rev. Gail Seavey. She had served as an after-pastor in several settings early in her career, and had inexplicably thrived. She talks about her surprising success here, and about the lessons she learned from the challenging role of after-pastor. Another Safety Net leader, Dr. Doug Pasto-Crosby, has written about why the church tends to ignore and discredit the voices of survivors. He also writes about the traumatic impact on congregations after an instance of clergy sexual misconduct. Pasto-Crosby insists that the congregation can only heal when they help the survivor to heal. “Restoring the connection between survivors and their church community is the most important work a congregation needs to do after ministerial misconduct.”

When I named this blog “Survivors Awaken the Church,” I imagined it as a future event. Together, we survivors will awaken the church. But the awakening has already begun. Thanks to the brave and persistent Anna Belle Leiserson, the Unitarian Universalist Church has opened its eyes.

Comments on: "Unitarian Universalist Association: Awakened by One Bold Survivor" (7)

  1. Mary Ramsay said:

    I was a victim of clergy sexual abuse in the early 1980s. I did tell: my friends, the Associate minister in her first call, and finally the church. I was not believed. The minister said I was Schizophrenic, and that too was believed.
    I I was approached by the Bishop who asked me why I’d left ( I was very active there, though 27) and I told him. His response was ” these things happen in all churches”. Finally, I gave up on churches all together.
    A few years later I was in a weekend workshop with Marie Fortune, and the healing began. It IS possible to become whole, though it took me over two decades. I’m now a UCC minister, and my painting about clergy abuse is at the Faith Trust Institute. There IS hope!

  2. Mary Ramsay said:

    (See next comment for Mary Ramsay story!)

  3. Mary Ramsay said:

    See below. So glad I found this site!

  4. This article is a “puff piece” that totally disregards very recent attempts by current UUA leadership to cover-up and deny “such despicable crimes as pedophilia and rape” committed by “certain Unitarian Universalist ministers”. The UUA cannot be trusted. It’s leaders brazenly lie to cover-up and deny UU clergy sexual abuse.

  5. “At the 2000 General Assembly, then-Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery offered a public apology to victims and survivors of sexual misconduct by UU clergy. Over the next two decades the UUA moved forward in many areas.”

    In fact, Executive Vice President Kay Montgomery’s public apology to victims and survivors of sexual misconduct by UU clergy turned out to be all but completely empty of sincerity, especially her fraudulent pledge that the UUA would “bend towards justice” for victims of UU clergy sexual misconduct. In reality the UUA not only did virtually nothing to provide any real and tangible “restorative justice” to past victims of UU clergy sexual misconduct, but continued to “bend justice” in numerous ways to delay and deny justice to clergy misconduct victims. It is the long overdue recognition that Kay Montgomery’s “official apology” wasn’t worth the breath it was spoken with that led to clergy misconduct victims and victim advocates calling for a second UUA institutional apology. Sadly, the UUA’ second “institutional apology”, that UUA Moderator Jim Key delivered in his 1st Moderator’s Report during the 2014 UUA GA, is even more problematic than Kay Montgomery’s worthless apology in that it contains outright lies about UU clergy sexual misconduct in general, and UU clergy sex abuse of children in particular.

  6. Dear Ms. [redacted,

    About a year ago I started distancing from working on clergy sexual misconduct (CSM). Then on July 1, I went into the deepest hibernation I could create for myself. So I only learned of this post yesterday.

    In the words of Brother David Steindl-Rast: “This gratitude wells up in our hearts … as if something were filling up within us, filling with joy, really…. And then it comes to a point where the heart overflows and we sing, and we thank somebody.” I thank you from the bottom of my overflowing heart for seeing me, for affirming the importance of survivors to awaken the church to its full potential, and for guiding survivors back to our birthright of spiritual practice.

    Thank you from the bottom of my overflowing heart,
    Anna Belle Leiserson

  7. I’m also curious about the data, which seem biased to me. How can we trust the UUA to fix the clergy abuse problems when they’ve tried to deny them so vigorously in the past? I’m not about to believe that people are safe from UUs just because the UUA says so.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: