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FaithTrust Institute hopes religious institutions will be sanctuaries of safety for women

Step by step for more than 30 years, the Rev. Marie Fortune has seen progress as the faith community has addressed religious, spiritual and cultural issues related to sexual abuse and domestic violence.

Marie Fortune
Marie Fortune

While many regional and national denominations have established policies and procedures for handling complaints of clergy misconduct, many need to do more, and few faith-based nonprofits have policies, Marie said.Seeing the changes over those years, she is hopeful.

She knows the FaithTrust Institute, which she founded in 1977 as the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence, has had international, multi-faith and multi-cultural impact, providing communities and advocates with tools to address abuse that betrays trust in congregations.

The institute works with Asian, Pacific Islander, Buddhist, Jewish, Latino/a, Muslim, Black, Anglo, Indigenous, Protestant and Roman Catholic organizations, providing training and consultation in person and in videos, internet and print.  It does training on clergy ethics, congregational safety and health, healthy families, human trafficking and sexual exploitation. FaithTrust urges religious institutions to foster a climate in which abuse is not tolerated, so they can be sanctuaries of safety, where individuals can experience justice and healing.

After studies at Yale Divinity School in 1976, Marie, who grew up in North Carolina, served as interim pastor at Tolt Congregational United Church of Christ in Carnation—drawn to the Northwest by an intern year in Seattle.

At Tolt, she volunteered at Seattle Rape Relief, where she felt called to serve the church by addressing women’s experiences of violence and sexism. 

Her questions about sexual assault and domestic violence were met by silence in the parish and among clergy colleagues, but survivors at the rape crisis center had faith questions they were afraid to ask their pastors or rabbis.
Marie realized theological education and religious upbringing did not prepare clergy to respond to violence against women from a religious context, so clergy could not help church members deal with violence they experienced. Secular agencies couldn’t help clients with religious questions.

Because there were agencies providing services for victims of sexual assault, Marie decided to focus on education about sexual and domestic violence and formed the Center for the Prevention of Sexual and Domestic Violence. 

In 1979, the program went national, focusing on advocacy, education and religious issues related to child abuse and domestic violence.

A phone call in 1983 from a woman who experienced sexual harassment from her pastor made Marie aware of abuse of power in congregations.  As the center received more calls, they realized victims needed to have support.

“Averaging three to five calls a week, we offered women support until the late 1990s,” she said.
That was the impetus for the clergy ethics program.  Because victims were spread across the country, the center developed resources and trained people to respond to them. Survivor organizations formed, offering counseling and advocacy.  Some denominations, like the United Methodist Church, trained advocates in their regional conferences.  These advocates now receive the complaints and offer retreats for survivors.

“Some pastoral counselors have added advocacy and therapy for survivors.  Some work with regional churches. Others are independent,” she said.

Marie said retreats are effective, because as they come together women realize they are not alone and see others are at different stages, so they know there is hope.

“I’m pleased at associations people have made and carried on over many years,” she said.
After one retreat, facilitators developed the first video, “Not in My Church.”  The script shared stories of retreat participants.  Issues came to life.  Marie finds it effective in introducing “the many faces” of clergy misconduct.

“Survivors have remarkable strengths,” Marie said. “Their stories convey their faith and commitment to the church. It surprises me, because it would be easy for them to chuck the church.
“While some have left, many are grounded in faith and determined to live their values even though they experienced people who did not live those values,” she said.  “Although wounded, many continue to believe what they were taught and maintain integrity about participation in their faith.” Marie said the video is “a powerful tool for education to help change the system.”

FaithTrust Institute consults with judicatories, helping them develop policies and procedures, but does not have resources to assist in other settings.  Secular groups advocate for legal protection in the work place.

Marie said most churches and faiths have policies—some better than others.  Many mandate boundary and ethics training for clergy—from two hours every three years to one day every other year.  She said at least a day a year is needed to cover basics and reach new clergy.

The institute urges seminaries to require boundary training and have policies about professors dating students or students’ relationships with congregants in field-work, said Marie. 
Teaching a clergy ethics class at the Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry, she finds students thoughtful and eager to integrate ethics in their ministry to assure quality of life for congregations.

“Awareness of boundaries means healthy ministries,” she said.  “Professional boundaries relate to finances and confidentiality, as well as sexual relationships and power. Independent churches, with no wider office for women to go to with a complaint and no one to deal with clergy who violate policies, leave a victim of sexual, emotional or spiritual misconduct with only legal action.

The institute helped the Seattle Archdiocese start training programs in 1990, but Marie said most dioceses have consulted with Catholic resources on the pedophilia crisis. While she sees progress toward a shift in values and expectations, Marie knows some people do not understand, do not want to under-stand and may never understand.

“With media coverage of Protestants addressing clergy misconduct in the 1980s and 1990s case by case, one woman at a time, each was seen as an anomaly,” Marie said. “Media overlooked the wider context of many cases and did not cover how institutions responded and established ethics.
“With media coverage of the Catholic crisis focusing on sexual abuse of boys,” she said, “awareness of abuse of girls and women was lost.” Marie said policies should address abuse of power by clergy with any person of any age.

Are there fewer cases of clergy sexual misconduct?
“It is hard to tell, because churches and faiths are still catching up on incidents 10, 20 and 30 years ago,” said Marie, who hopes that as education takes root there will be fewer incidents.
Awareness of ethics and guidelines among lay members varies with denominations.  Some distribute policies, post fliers on bulletin boards, provide brochures or put information on their websites, listing inappropriate behaviors and where to call for help.

“It’s important to be proactive, to let people know the avenues to address and end abuse in their faith communities,” she said. “Few denominations, however, educate congregations.
“If everyone understands what boundaries are appropriate, everyone can help assure professional conduct,” she said.  “It’s important for laity to be informed, especially when clergy learn the rules but think they are above the rules.”

Marie listed some dynamics affecting congregations’ health: 

• Leaders may not know what happened.  If they are aware, they may take sides.
• Confidentiality required in legal cases can lead to silence that creates suspicion.
• A congregation’s health before the misconduct is a factor.
• Strong lay leadership helps a congregation come out spiritually strengthened. 
• Pastors who follow abusive pastors need special training.
• Congregations need to do background checks on pastoral candidates.

“If the whole system is aware, it is hard for offender to move to other churches,” Marie said.
“I’d like to see us move faster, but we are moving forward one step at a time,” she said.  “When we are aware, we can be part of the solution.”

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