Good news for readers from the United Church of Christ! After I wrote last week about the Canadian church’s superb policy for responding to clergy sexual abuse, I did some more digging into my denomination’s resources. I already knew about the UCC Safe Church policies (here’s the boilerplate text that local churches are encouraged to follow) and the national church’s Oversight of Ministries resource, but I had never been able to find a comprehensive UCC response policy for clergy sexual misconduct. The Safe Church policy offers some information on the process, but not enough to reassure a victim who needs to know that it will keep her safe. The Oversight policy offers a detailed response process for “concerns related to a person’s fitness for ministry,” but it never mentions what those concerns might be.
After attending the FaithTrust Institute’s “Responding to Clergy Misconduct Leadership Training” last November, here’s what I now look for in a church’s response policy:
1. Are the policy and procedures for responding to pastoral sexual misconduct grounded in the church’s theology?
2. Can church members easily find a document containing that policy and those procedures?
3. Does the document clearly explain the behaviors that make up pastoral sexual misconduct?
4. Does it spell out the response process so that even a traumatized person can make sense of it?
5. Does it distribute power so that no single person can control the process?
6. Does it clearly define the roles and responsibilities of all persons involved in the response process?
7. Does it support the victim, keep her or him informed, and involve her or him in the process as appropriate?
8. Does it make sure that the congregation is appropriately informed and supported?
The Oversight manual does a great job distributing power and defining roles, but it falls short in all other areas. But this week I found a new and stunningly helpful document: the Guidelines for Resourcing Committees on the Ministry. When UCC leaders also use the Guidelines, the policy meets almost every point on my checklist. If this blog were a class and I were the professor, I would make the Guidelines required reading. It even outperforms the Canadian policy in one area: it includes an insightful set of “Learnings” about persons who have been abused, persons who abuse, and congregations where pastoral trust has been betrayed (pages 39-46).
And the church really uses this document. The Rev. Elizabeth Dilley, who serves in the national setting of the UCC as the Minister for Ministers in Local Churches, told me, “We use [the Guidelines] in every training for Committees on Ministry and response teams, and encourage their use during actual fitness reviews. We continually refer COMs and response teams to both the Manual on Ministry as well as the Guidelines. Where sexual misconduct is raised as a concern, this document is critical for our committees.”
But the UCC policy still falls short in two areas.
1. It isn’t based in theology. The Oversight manual begins not with a statement of beliefs, but an intellectual treatise on the word “oversight.” How much more powerful would the policy be if it began with a clear statement, “This is what we believe as Church, and this is why we care so much about the issue of pastoral sexual misconduct.”
2. The policy manual is hard to find. When I searched with obvious terms like “UCC clergy sexual abuse,” I found only the Safe Church policies. When I asked leaders at all levels in the church, they invariably referred me to the Oversight manual, and to find that manual online, I had to use the insider term “fitness review.” Most UCC churchgoers wouldn’t be familiar with that term. I only found the Guidelines after three years of searching and sheer dumb luck with my search terms.
Why is it so important to make church policy easy to find? Because clergy sexual abuse destroys its victims’ sense of self. It can take years for a victim to come to terms with the fact that a trusted minister has exploited her. It can take even more years to build up the courage to file a complaint. If a church has a good process but fails to make churchgoers aware, victims of clergy sexual abuse may never feel safe enough to come forward, and their abusers may go on to hurt other vulnerable people. If the UCC and other churches are serious about preventing abuse, they needs to open their policies not only to victims who have already reported, but to all of us.