Perusing Robin’s ever-indignant “emerson avenger” blogsite, I ran into an open letter dated March 26, 2009, from the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashville to the two candidates for the leadership of the UUA entire. It was about clergy sexual misconduct, as follows. “We also know that, just as with other types of abuse, silence is a large part of the pattern and that silence often endangers more victims, impeding both justice and healing. So, even though it is a difficult topic, it must be broached for the truth to come out and progress to be made.” I’ve decided to respond to this.
A report at the UUA website recall, “A call for justice was voiced by UUMA chapters in the southeast and the Pacific northwest in 1984 and 1985 as they articulated their concerns about the effects of clergy sexual misconduct on congregations and ministry.”
It also says: “The interfaith "cloud of witnesses" who have educated, motivated and inspired us include many professional clergy, caregivers, and lay leaders. Marie Fortune (founder/director of the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence) and Heather Block (author of Advocates Training Manual: Advocating for Survivors of Sexual Abuse by a Church Leader/Caregiver, Mennonite Central Committee, Canada, 1996) defined our work as "giving voice to the voiceless," called our attention to power and authority issues, and clarified many fiduciary responsibilities.”
I have never been sexually abused by clergy, UU or other. I “vas dere Chollie” when this issue surfaced and was a clergy member of the PNWD Ministers’ Association. I know what the PNWD case was but not the SE case. I also know a lot of cases that were never defined or prosecuted or even made public. Some of them because they involved consent and most, I think, because of confusion about what they were at all.
The PNWD case involved an ordained man, acting as a trained counselor, who repeatedly and systematically took his female adult counselees into bed, often their own. No one among the clergy had the slightest suspicion that this was happening until one of the women blew the whistle. I don’t know what sort of supervision he had from the counseling community or even what specific training he had had. He was not a handsome man but he was warm and popular. It was a big city church and that church was nearly financially broken when the lawsuits were paid and the bill came for “re-counseling” the women. The hearts of some of the more idealistic clergy also broke, but it was a tolerant community. A minister who had proven to be a predatory gay had been removed from active service, but was tolerated at meetings if he attended.
I was serving in Montana at this time and knew about the case of a divorced Presbyterian minister who had been “romancing” a cluster of members of his congregation. Each, thinking she was either engaged or about to be engaged to this man, allowed intimate relations. When one of the women, through being indiscrete with a friend in spite of cautions, discovered there were several “fiancees”, she did not sue -- rightly thinking she had been a fool. Instead one Sunday she arranged for all the women to wear bright red and sit together in a front pew. He got the message and soon left.
When I read over the UUA and UUMA responses to the problem (posted at the UUA website), I see two major blind spots, maybe more. The first one is over-reliance on experts, like Marie Fortune and specifically Marie Fortune, who denominational officials hoped would shield them from accusations of incompetence and guide them in a situation where, indeed, no one knew quite what to do. But Fortune and company were almost entirely focused on victims, rather than perpetrators. The idea was that unwanted sex was the result of a power gradient which allowed a “big person” to prey on a “little person.” So the strategy was to blame power and build up the defenses of the vulnerable, plus restoring their self-worth.
The second was to see sexual events and acts apart from the whole webwork of social relationships that constitute a congregation and a denomination. The problem was seen as about defenseless women and children and situations that were defined as “equal” were supposed to be all right, as though there ever any human relationship that is truly equal. One person is always more needy, more uninformed, more confused than the other, even if both are forty-year-old economically secure professionals, even if the sex is gay, even if the sex is consensual. The difference may be slight but it IS there. None of the participants in the more equal relationships wanted to define themselves as sex victims, especially the clergy. Perhaps this is why no one pursued the question of sexually predatory laity.
The economy of power, sex and secrets has been the stuff of novels from the very beginning of institutional religion, regardless of whether it is Christian or Buddhist. (The latter were having similar problems at this time, having accommodated a flood of female and young supplicants.) Institutions, such as schools, have always wrestled with the problem, as we are esp. aware in the context of residential Native American and Aboriginal schools or Catholic parishes. Maybe this is because institutions define the hierarchical relationship that they feel is at the core of abuse. Anyway, the missionary impulse is always a dangerous one, inviting abuse.
As a former UU minister, a celibate seventy-year-old female who has served in both the US and Canada, in both small fellowships (who normally have no minister) and small congregations, I see the landscape rather differently. Religion and congregations with ministers are about power. The minister is the focus of the power -- those who control the minister control the resources of their congregation. They have a certain underground status, access to normally undisclosed information, and influence on the ministers’ actions. This is particularly true of illicit relationships, because another huge source of power in a hierarchical institution is secrets: being able to blackmail, to attach information seekers to oneself, to influence events.
I see this same complex of forces of status/sex/secrets/power on the Blackfeet Reservation -- have watched it for fifty years. From the outside, the most seemingly powerless people can be the ones who own the game. (Call it bone game, stick game.) Fritz Perls used to say that the underdog always wins. A black female supervisor told me that being black is a huge advantage because “we’ve always seen the whites from their evil underside” and because public sympathy in liberal circles in automatically on the side of minorities.
The most common game is probably Eric Berne’s NIGYSOB. “Now I’ve Got You, You SOB!” in which a person seems to be inviting the victim closer and closer, until there is enough evidence to suddenly turn on them. “Why don’t you, yes but” is a good game as well. The weak one describes a problem, the strong one suggests cures, the weak one has a reason why it won’t work, the strong one tries another answer, the weak one has a reason why that won’t work either, and on it goes, until the weak one is finally able to convince everyone that the strong one has no clue what they are doing and are actually powerless. (Kids are great at this.) The game of “chaos” in which the poorer chess player simply turns over the table is kind of a beginner’s tactic.
The point is that ministers, esp. now that females and older second-career people are common, may also be scared, dislocated, lonely, or confused. Predators -- who may be laity or may be colleagues -- are happy for the opportunities. Where’s the book and the workshops for that? When I was in the ministry, on two different occasions men I hardly knew bluntly asked me for sex. Could I have sued them for that? If they had used force, of course, I could have simply gone to the criminal law. Should a female minister do that? What tough old cop wouldn’t laugh?