An Olive Branch | Ethical Misconduct
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Helping fractured communities

The Issue – Ethical Misconduct

Spiritual leaders are responsible for protecting the welfare of students and guiding their awakening with compassion. Spiritual leaders violate ministerial ethics when they have sex with their students or use physically or psychologically harmful teaching methods.

In the teacher’s role, the spiritual leader is expected to bring resources, talents, knowledge, and expertise to serve the best interests of everyone in the sangha. Sex, physical harm, and abusive language are not part of that professional role. The teacher is entrusted with the well-being of students and has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of those who trust him/her. This legal duty is also an ethical obligation. It is always the responsibility of the teacher to uphold their professional role and maintain a clear boundary with students.

The Results of Ethical Misconduct

Whenever a spiritual leader is accused of ethical misconduct, the aftermath is traumatic for everyone involved. People feel betrayed. Victims/survivors are marginalized, misunderstood, and often forced from the community. The families of all involved suffer as well.

Usually people take sides – allying themselves with the spiritual leader or with the complainant. The community splinters. The stability of the organization is threatened and its ability to pursue its mission is compromised. Often the financial viability of the organization is at stake as donor loyalty erodes.

An Olive Branch’s Approach to Accusations of Ethical Misconduct

An Olive Branch serves as a neutral entity, ready to help after there has been an ethical breach by a member of an organization’s leadership. We offer a deliberate, multi-step process of listening and education.

Our process includes working with the organization’s board, listening to the statements of both the accused and the accuser, and gathering the perspectives of members and leaders.

We work collaboratively with the hierarchy of the organization and, if needed, the insurance company, local mediation services, and any attorneys involved.

As a community goes through a difficult or traumatic shared experience, they may lose confidence in their spiritual community’s direction. Participating in a formal healing process is an important step in restoring harmony and confidence about the future. An Olive Branch creates an intentional space for exploring how events unfolded and for everyone to have a voice. This healing opportunity is a deeply powerful experience and is truly a step forward.

Neutrality of An Olive Branch

As a project of the Zen Center of Pittsburgh, An Olive Branch has its roots in Soto Zen Buddhist practice of the dharma. We base our actions on the Buddhist Precepts of being helpful, causing no harm, and living to benefit all beings. We have worked with groups from different spiritual traditions, employ impartial deep listening skills, encourage responses from everyone involved in a dispute and maintain confidentiality (except where mandatory reporting rules apply). When requested by a client, we provide adjudicatory input after every effort has been made to hear all sides of the story.

There are, however, two areas where An Olive Branch is not neutral. These two concepts are foundational for An Olive Branch:

  • All 501c3 organizations in the United States must have a governing board that carries out its fiduciary responsibilities which include establishing and enforcing an Ethics Policy and a Grievance Procedure.
  • A sexual relationship between a spiritual leader and his/her students is never ethical.