A 1992 UU Women’s Federation survey revealed that policies on clergy sexual misconduct among the majority of religious organizations do not exist. Ministerial misconduct is so egregious in that it takes advantage of the trusted relationships between clergy as authority figures and congregants who are predisposed to being open and vulnerable. It is a violation of all that is sacred and holy in the faith community. If one cannot be safe within the folds of one’s faith community, then where can safety be found? Great harm is done to the offended party that can result in self-blame, shame, loss of community and friends, spiritual crisis, loss of faith, family crisis, and divorce. Psychological distress such as depression and even suicide are real risks that these victims face.
Our perceptions about a phenomenon are often reflected in our language. Erroneously referring to abuses of power as “affairs” rather than ministerial misconduct is an example of misnaming a behavior. This is particularly important in educating congregants, as even the offended party may mistakenly refer to the abuse as an affair. Equally important are professionals such as therapists who work with individuals that were offended/abused by a clergy person. A congregant once informed me that she did not feel like a victim because she was a fully consenting adult. Yet, she did not understand the power imbalance between herself and the pastor, and how this negatively impacted her ability to function as a fully consenting adult. Diana Garland, Dean of Baylor University School of Social Work asserts, “It is not an affair. It is an abuse of power. Regardless of who intended what, the religious leader is the one in the position of responsibility.”
We also cannot allow offenders to rush to reconcile with the appearance of contrite behavior and remorseful behaviors. We cannot confuse restorative justice with honoring victim survivors and women fighting for autonomy over their bodies. We cannot allow the apologies to drown out the voices of victim survivors. In some cases, the abused congregant was viewed as having brought “a good man down.” The offended individual plaintively stated, “We should be getting this right,” referring to the disparity in how offenders and the offended are viewed and treated; the rush to forgive the offender and the push back against the offended. It was as if they were telling her, “He said he was sorry. What more do you want?” To which the resounding reply is “Justice!” And what does that look like? That is a subject needing a future post on its own!
As UUs, we extoll individualism and rail against authority. We do not like to be told what to do, so the idea of boundaries is sometimes met with mixed feelings. Yet, boundaries exist in almost every aspect of our lives, whether they are ground rules, covenants, or simple guidelines. The belief that we are “all adults” without need for boundaries makes us particularly vulnerable to boundary violations. The power that ministers hold is real, and we do ourselves a disservice when we disown it or minimize it. Congregants and boards hold power, but we cannot deny the power of our organizational and institutional backing—along with our training and credentials that confer authority—especially when navigating the relationships that we develop with our congregants.
Warmest regards, Rev. Qiyamah