UU clergy sexual misconduct roll call

The Rev. Dan Harper commented on some of the things that bug him about the Unitarian Universalist Association; one is “and too much tolerance of clergy sexual misconduct.”


Current clergy guidelines and attitudes protect sleezy (but non-criminal) clergy with a veil of silence and fog of frustration. I’ve talked with other ministers about X who somehow escapes censure and keeps a good name by skirting the edge of the rule, and in this case, I suspect past it. Certainly past what most people would consider decent. But time, effort, and hard proof are wanting. All I have left is a leer and a cold shoulder, the occasional word of warning to likely marks and a kind word to one of X’s easy targets. There seems to also be a double standard: the more conspicuous or famous a minister, the more “liberty” is given.

I don’t welcome a libel case, so I won’t say more.

But I’d like the clergy and tuned-in laity here to chime in. Do you know someone like X? A “yea” or “ney” is all I ask; certainly no names. So as not to confuse matters, let’s leave it to ministers in fellowship within the UUA.

By Scott Wells

Scott Wells, 46, is a Universalist Christian minister doing Universalist theology and church administration hacks in Washington, D.C.


  1. I can think of 3 easy examples. None of these persons has had their fellowship challenged (to the best of my knowledge). The examples include a Mr. X (who is married) and who made an advance on me (while I was a seminary student) at the GA in Cleveland. The next example is a Mr. Y who had romantic relationships with a number of women in his parish from the 1970’s through the 1980’s, and then he retired. But that spectre hangs over his former church, and the local town’s suspiscion of every male minister that came after him. Some families left this church for a nearby UCC church. The third person I will call Mrs. Z, who had an affair with a married man in her congregation who was seeing her for pastoral counseling. In her case she was exposed, quietly resigned, and moved onto ministry elsewhere.

    In each case the minister had some position of authority in pastoral relationships (ordained minister and seminary student, pastor and parishoner, counselor and counselee). Roman Catholic bishops are not alone in sweeping sexual misconduct under the rug.

  2. Are ya kidding me? How about the good ole ministers (see, I’m not even saying what GENDER they are!) who commit serial adultery and still get the plummiest pulpits?

    Of course all is forgiven if you marry your fling, no matter how you met. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. And I mean verbatim.

  3. I know of four cases where I trust the source enough to be quite sure there was serious misconduct (not counting the case I know of where the minister was censured). I do the same as you: ignore the perpetrator, and feel that I’m not doing very much.

    When I learned of the case of the colleague who left his wife for the woman to whom he’d been giving marriage counseling, I asked why the hell one doesn’t lose one’s fellowship for that, and was told that if no one in the congregation pressed for it, the MFC didn’t pursue it. Excuse me? Aside from the unlikelihood that no one pressed for it (how about the husband?), since when is fellowship up to the congregation? I was about to go to the MFC for preliminary fellowship at the time, and it tarnished the experience to know that the standards are so low–or low for some, at any rate.

    Since both libel and miscarriages of justice are serious concerns, I don’t think we can do much about it by griping on blogs. We need to express our concern to the MFC.

    Amy (who is not Mrs. Z mentioned above) ;-)

  4. I’m not afraid to name names. I guess I won’t do so here because it seems to worry you, Scott. But of course to discuss this subject properly we have to talk about the very prominent minister of a New York City UU church, a UU church I did not join because of its tolerance of his “indiscretions” (admittedly, there were class reasons also why I didn’t join that church but went to another Manhattan UU church instead). [I’ll let this stand. Once one’s line-crossing hits the papers, as this one did, I think we can say it is open for discussion. Or at least a Lexis/Nexis search. — Scott/BitB] I suspect every poster to this thread, and surely most if not nearly all UU ministers know exactly who I mean. In my mind, divorcing your wife and marrying the parishioner does NOT make everything OK.

    When I was growing up , the minister of my UU church in [a state too small to hide an identity. Scott/BitB] was fooling around with at least one parishioner. He even did so in the church building itself. Members of the church knew about it, but he was charismatic and had a sufficient hold on the congregation that no one managed to oust him. He eventally retired with honor — perhaps he’s the minister mentioned in a post above. [Sorry, no. The minister I’m thinking of is still active. Scott/BitB] Since then he has done some admirable social justice work. I wish him much success with this, even though he is a sleaze and perhaps these efforts merely give him further access to more women. I’ve always wondered if his post-retirement work is an effort to assuage a guilty conscience.

    I didn’t know about any of this when I was in Sunday School–in fact, I had a pretty idealistic idea of ministers as more moral and holy than the average person. And I thought that UU congregations would surely hold their occasional philandering minister to higher standards. Shows what I knew.

    I’ve been disappointed that UUs replicate disfuctions in other denominations. Thankfully, at least I’m not aware of any covered-up activities involving children. I’m glad of that, and that if we’re not perfect about policing our own, at least most UU ministers are “on the side of the angels” and need no policing.

  5. All I have heard is rumors, mostly. That, of course, doesn’t mean these rumors aren’t true! Some, in fact, are well substanitated. I do also remember some UCC scandals (local to where I grew up) when I was younger as well. I, however, am very well-behaved and in general much more square than PeaceBang.

  6. I just read over these comments, and I cannot BELIEVE it. Well, I guess I can believe the part about sexual inappropriateness, but I can´t believe no one would say anything? What, exactly, is the problem?

  7. I’d say the rules — which are broad and vague — and the political power and influence some more prominent ministers wield are a problem.

  8. My sense is that people do say something. Usually quite loudly! All of the situations I am aware of, I am aware because they were reported to the board of the congregation and/or to the association leadership. I do not know why action isn’t always taken, however. The problem does seem to lie at least in some part with the “hearing” rather than the “speaking”.

    Is this the experience of others, or is it more complicated than that? I should note, by the way, that my sense is that most clergy people aren’t terribly aware of what is going on in other pulpits unless an issue becomes public. I , at least, don’t get out of the parish too often these days…

  9. Of course I know an X sort of minister. He had his fellowship chalenged but bullied the ‘witnesses/ victims” so that he is still a Rev. But he is no longer able to serve congregations.

    So my question is how well has all of the testing and classes have had on our generation of ministers? All of the creepy ministers I have known of are baby-boomers.

  10. Misconducting ministers that I know of have three qualities in addition to their tendency to sexually misconduct themselves: they are highly charismatic, they know how to manipulate people/congregations to their advantage, and they give off the impression (to those they fool) that they (the ministers) are THE church. I think that all three of these are tied to the reasons that our democratic churches sometimes let misconductors stay in their positions after ethical boundaries have clearly been crossed. Congregants think, “Oh, if we lose Rev. X, our church just won’t be our church anymore!” People have *a lot* invested in their image of church. And you can bet Rev. X uses that to his (or her but usually his) advantage. He’s got a manipulative personality. That’s how he managed to cross the lines in the first place and that’s how he intends to stay in his position when his misconduct comes to light. He wines and dines the board, explains “his side” of the story, maybe cries a little in public, and does his work to discredit those who dare to call him on his actions. He does sermons–without any specific reference to himself–about how we are all “only human” and how we “must forgive.” Oh, and yes, as peacebang pointed out if he “makes right” by getting married much of the congregation is all too eager to forgive him.

    In addition, I’ve observed that misconductors (or even charismatic/manipulative ministers who don’t misconduct) tend to discourage their congregation from district and continental ties. They (minister) and the congregation are somehow “different” or “better” or “more special” than all those other UU congregations out there. So when the misconduct comes to light the congregation can be scared about the prospect of a different minister because they’ve been led to believe in both subtle and unsubtle ways that the other ministers out there are a boring and inferior lot.

    Sad, sad stuff. I am heartened by what Hank said above about most of these ministers being of an older generation that was not inculcated with a consciousness about misconduct during their training. Maybe this will be reduced? Also, I know of few misconductors who have gotten away with it since the MFC tightened its rules and procedures in the early 1990s. I know of one Gen X misconductor but that person did not retain a ministry position. I just hope that after more time in their pulpits the younger generation of clergy doesn’t fall prey to the temptations of thier forebears.

  11. as a board member of a church where misconduct was alleged, information was not shared with the board at the time of the “misconduct”. The investigation was handled by the board president and HR chair. The rest of the board (and congregtion) was kept in the dark. Later the same minister moved on to another church where misconduct was alleged, and action was taken. Apparently there was a relationship with a church member. This led to not granting fellowship to the minister (who was in the process at the time). This led to resignation of several members who thought the minister was unfairly punished. It made me feel like we perhaps had not taken sufficient action. It is tougher in a “he said/she said” situation vs. an admitted affair with a person being counseled (which I believe would cause a therapist to lose their liscense, yet I’m sure also happens).

    When you are a bystander in the middle of one of these cases, it is a tough situation for the congregation to handle. Trust has been abused. There are other cases of abused trust by ministers however (one minister was very antagonistic towards men, verbally abusive to many congregants). How can we not expect this if the ministers are human like all of us? What we don’t have to do is put up with it. Luckily, both of the above ministers are no longer active in UUA.

  12. I’ve also known a minister who was falsely accused and may only be a minister today because the “witness” claimed to have seen said minister with someone who was actually out of town when the indescretion supposedly happened.

    Just sayin’


  13. there is little required of us in seminary, Rev. Deborah Pope Lance offers a week intensive at Andover Newton in Boston that some attend, with a bit of scholarship from the UUA…otherwise, it is really what you glean from CPE, ministerial internship and maybe a class on pastoral care that addresses boundaries. should really, really be more (as should anti-racism IMHO)

  14. Just realized that we were only supposed to be talking about UU ministers, and the falsely accused minister I described above was not a UU.

    That said, we do know false accusations, and sadly ones not so easy to disprove, do happen. I’m sure that most if not all of the people on this page did what people say they did, but still, the possibility of innocence does exist.


  15. I am in the Prebyterian church…a victim and witness to a coming church trial involving a pastor (not the senior pastor) who engaged a couple of us (males) in conversations about his penis. A woman was also shown porno. What I have been told is that this same pastor was confronted with similar allegations years ago in our church with one exception….in talking to a student in his office he dropped his pants and exposed himself. He was given some counseling by our denomination and allowed to continue in levels of leadership (without the facts being known to anyone…not the congregation or the rest of senior staff or elders. It was only known by the senior pastor and the executive pastor. I am trying to seek an audience with our monthly leader meetings to let them know what has happened and you can imagine the resistance I’m receiving as the senior pastor now knows my intentions. I have no desire to “go after him”. The only way our church can respond to the victims is if they know what has happened.
    Our church is very influential.. We have a membership of 5000. I’ve been told I will make a lot of enemies if I disclose, but I have to…no matter what the cost is to me.

  16. It takes courage to speak up on this subject. Thank you all so much for doing just that. I thought you might want to know that this is on the Board’s radar at the moment. You can see an item attached late to the agenda of the most recent Board meeting here:


    My prayer is this will make a difference. I truly believe our association has the potential to model for other faiths how to respond to misconduct, but we have a long way to go.

  17. For the sake of transparency, I will state that I just got a comment from someone — I’m not counting a would-be commenter I’ve long banned — whose remarks name a particular minister. The charge suggests adultery (and tackiness) but mostly focuses on the minister’s leadership style: I hear an ax being ground. For that reason and the concerns I’ve stated above, I’m disallowing the comment.

  18. Scott (and other UU ministers)

    I’m on the board at our UU church- we need to create a clergy sexual misconduct policy. Do you have any advice? Examples?

    thank you

  19. About a week ago, a reader posted a comment. I normally allow comments so long as they have a genuine email address (and aren’t from a particular, banned person) but this one has some damning charges which — so far as I can tell — are based on heresay and though nobody is named, the description is narrow and can be linked to particular persons.

    I’m disallowing it but, because it’s an exception to my normal policy, am noting it.

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