Guest Post: Trials and Misconduct within the United Methodist Church

broken-angelIntroduction

Beyond the local church, there are all sorts of people that fill particular roles in the United Methodist Church. Some work at the regional level and help shepherd candidates through the ordination process. Some work at the national level and coordinate trainings to help people deal with religion and race issues. At both regional and national levels, some write curriculum, some send missionaries overseas, some do accounting, some grow pensions, some compile worship resources…

…and in the midst of these roles, there are people who work with victims of clergy misconduct.

The work is extremely delicate, confidential, and rarely known. Sometimes it is a single designated volunteer who works with these people. Sometimes it is a clergy team or a clergy/lay team. Sometimes it is a staffperson.

And today, one of those persons read this blog and had something to say. A person with tons of experience in this role read HackingChristianity’s trial coverage and musings on “stopping the trials” and penned the following email. I am honoring their request to post it anonymously because the nature of their work is confidential.

But they write to articulate why we need an accountability structure…but not the one we have. The one we have right now makes it extremely easy to prosecute pastors for performing same-gender weddings, and unconscionably difficult to charge pastors who have committed sexual, personal, or financial violations.

I have proofed some text and added section headings to make the letter more readable, but 95% of it is from the writer. Here it is…

Trigger warning for victims of sexual or emotional violence: you may want to skip this one.

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Helping Victims overcome a weighted system

I and others have had the horrible responsibility of taking a particular role: helping church members, participants and clergy in our area who have been affected by sexual misconduct or harassment to better understand the system of bringing disciplinary action (charges) against alleged perpetrators.

Most of the people we work with are not people who were just beginning to write the required letter or because they did not know whom to contact. No, most of these conversations were because a person had filed charges, sought a resolution and were experiencing obstacles and miscommunication with those attempting to administer the disciplinary process. Church officials had ignored charges, assigned advocates who had been ignorant of the requirements of the Book of Discipline, and in one case, a victim was told she must attend a meeting with the Bishop and the alleged perpetrator without her advocate because the Bishop was going on a trip and would not reschedule.

Some of the people who have contacted me and others have initially appeared to be less than reliable, with a poor grasp on boundaries or reality. Others have been personally annoying or infuriatingly passive or conflict avoidant. I can easily imagine them failing to make their cases clearly or with the persuasive etiquette needed to succeed in a bureaucratic or judiciary setting. How convenient when predators choose victims who are already perceived as less trustworthy, persuasive or articulate than the successful and often charismatic perpetrator.

To a one, the victim/survivors have told me, “I do not want to hurt the church. I do not want to go to the police. I do not want to make this public.” Several have given a variation on the sentiment: “I do not want this to hurt the evangelism of the gospel.”

I cannot speak to the truth or validity of any particular case. But to speak in generalities, these are women (and men) who have been harassed, disrespected, assaulted, bullied, and shamed by church leaders………and then find additional frustrations as they seek to simply find someone within the denomination who is willing to listen, care and act for what is right.

The system too often still works to presume the innocence of the accused at the expense of trusting and caring for the victim/survivor. The result is that the system appears to be designed to cover up, protect those already in power, maintain the status quo at all costs and avoid any significant accountability.

Victimless trials on TV as actual victims go unheard

From my seat, in this role, I keep reading about the trials against pastors who conduct weddings. Weddings, where people say things like “I do” and “pledge in sickness and in health.” Celebrations of commitment and love and purity are being conflated with rape, assault, bullying and harassment.

The trial system was created to ensure that no clergy person can embezzle offering plate dollars and walk away. It was written to establish an accountability that will protect children, vulnerable adults, clergypersons and congregations. It’s designed to prevent or respond to when a person is hurt–physically or sexually hurt, not the mythical hurt of the privileged losing the comfort of hegemony.  It should never be used to ensure doctrinal conformity to an oppressive majority view.

And knowing the struggles that people have trying to bring to light sexual misconduct, I am nauseated when I hear days of coverage about a trial of a father who conducted his son’s wedding or of a woman defrocked because she lives in a monogamous, committed, child-raising family.

  • This is hypocrisy. A victim of sexual assault watches her(his) abuser remain in the pulpit week after week because the disciplinary system is so full of bureaucracy that navigating it becomes an onerous burden of many hours and frustration for the victim.
  • This is sinful. Too many church leaders are poorly trained and unprepared to deal with disciplinary processes; therefore, victims must both advocate for themselves and educate denominational staff and leaders along the way.
  • This is evil. Trials were not granted for the woman stalked by her pastor, the clergywoman bullied by her SPRC chairperson, the congregant who found himself without a church home because he had dated the pastor, and the clergy who left the ministry because the district superintendent asked her to remain appointed at the church after a member wrote a series of detailed threatening letters.
  • This is just plain ridiculous.  Beth Stroud, Jimmy Creech, Frank Schafer and others are defrocked, but trials are too much to ask when the perpetrator and victim happen to be heterosexual. [editor's note: removed "Karen Damman" from list per comment below. See here]

I’m sick and tired of it. I can’t sit silently by and allow my church to eat herself from within. We MUST do something differently.

What we can do differently

We must prioritize training and education, not only for our clergy and lay leaders to ensure they have healthy boundaries and understandings of their positions of power, but also for all clergy, lay and denominational leaders to ensure that they understand the disciplinary process – and understand how to relate respectfully towards victims. Until we take seriously the need to pursue expert training on relating to victims who are alleging abuse, we will continue to reify the harm and act in ways reflective of the original assault.

We must stop the show trials. We have to stop equating ministry with misconduct. We must learn to respect the victims and survivors.

I don’t have a conclusion. I just have a call to action for those in power –

  1. Care. Take the time to do this well.
  2. Ask Questions.
  3. Read a book about sexual assault.

And if you are a district superintendent, bishop, conference staff person or on the conference sexual ethics team or member of a board of ordained ministry: take questions of sexual ethics seriously. It IS happening in your area. Maybe facing ethical violations is unpleasant, but put on your adult boots and act like a responsible clergyperson / professional. Do not ignore or avoid it simply because it is difficult, unpleasant or you are secretly feeling like the bad guy because you have to hold someone accountable.

We must change how we treat victims

Because when we treat victims with respect, we are following the model of Jesus and the Samaritan woman. Because when we seek out training, we are becoming faithful stewards of the ministry to which we have been called. We have a responsibility to care for the vulnerable, the least, the last, the widows and orphans.

I remind you of the prophet Isaiah’s words (1:17)

Stop doing wrong
Learn to do right
Seek justice
Encourage the oppressed
Plead the case of the widow
Defend the orphan.

Widows and orphans – voiceless, powerless, untrustworthy, non-citizens, and our call is the defend them, and plead for them.

Seek Justice. Not for me. For them.

========

A powerful letter reminding us that the disciplinary procedures serve an important role and one that we have made serpentine in its process–essentially re-traumatizing victims–while the Show Trials are done easily. How just is this system, really?

Here’s my response: Stop the Trials of the victimless ecclesial violations and pour those resources into educating/empowering the accountability processes so that violations with actual victims get justice. 

Thoughts?

(Photo credit: “Angel with a Wounded Mouth at Wesley Methodist Church in Cambridge” Creative Commons share)
 
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Comments

  1. Sandy Warren says

    I agree. The trials we are seeing are horrible and unneccesary. It is sinful to ignore the sexual misconduct of clergy when LGBT are not involved. An unconscionable bias and unfair to victims of sexual abuse by clergy.i

  2. Julie Smith says

    I recently acted as Advocate for a Clergy person accused of misconduct related to use of church property for pornography. I could find more information about the trials for clergy who performed same sex marriages than I could for this issue. Even though in a recent Conference wide event it was clear that the use of pornography amongst both our clergy and laity was serious. There were serious questions regarding process, evidence, who was being represented and what interests. There is a huge handbook available to BIshops and DS (you can download) outlining the process, etc. but it can’t be used as authoritative–so when I had questions there was no precedent I could turn to. I had to ask for the Elder’s family to be contacted to offer support. I don’t think the church where the misconduct occurred received any support other than a letter read and a DS showing up on a particular Sunday. Our system of “restorative justice” needs help.

  3. says

    This is very well written and unfortunate to the extent it is true. Might it be possible to post the original email (without name and address), as you indicate this is 95% the original.

    • says

      Raymond, the only edits I made were adding section headers, correcting a few typos, and changing “ALL CAPS” to bold type. They were readability edits, not substance edits.

  4. Mary says

    I’m in total agreement with the end point: put these resources toward supporting victim/survivors and congregations dealing with the aftermath of Clergy malpractice/misconduct. Three things to add: 1) the way the process is handled across conferences varies widely, some do it way better than others, 2) one reason we don’t see public trials of clergy for sexual misconduct is because (I think) many of the cases that are brought are settled in the mediation process, often with the clergyperson surrendering their orders, and 3) Rev. Karen Dammann was not defrocked in her trial, she was found not guilty.

  5. Txcon says

    Jeremy-

    I frequently disagree with much that you write, although I enjoy reading your blog because it is articulate and frequently well-reasoned. I’m not sure if I agree with your sentiment that same sex trials are unnecessary, but I agree 100% with this post. If these kinds of abuses are going on, they need to be rooted out – and I would absolutely agree that financial or sexual misconduct, particularly where there are victims should be given top priority over trials over these marriages or even over apportionments.

    I am glad that your thoughtful investigation of this issue gave your confidant the confidence to share that email with you, because this is something that we all needed to know about. Thanks for posting it.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Txcon. I’m glad to have you as part of the loyal opposition ;-) And I also praise God that the confidant chose to write to better the conversation overall. Thanks for articulating that for the rest of us.

  6. Zzyzx says

    The sad reality is that, when it comes down to it, the UMC is like any other institution the world has ever seen. Ultimately, when pressed to an extremis like with cases of abuse, the UMC only really cares about protecting the institution over caring for the victims. Just like the Roman Catholic Church with abusive priests and just like any company trying to cover up any kind of scandal. But, “what you hide in the darkness, I will expose for the whole world to see.”

    Maybe the leadership needs to go read some Arthur Miller to remember how a spirit of suspicion and litigiousness ultimately destroys its social context. I can’t help but feel that if the UMC comes to an end, our current situation will be one of the major contributing factors. We’re ultimately slaughtering the sheep entrusted to our care in order to make the gathering wolves happy.

    • says

      My UMC had adopted a statement of welcome that included LGBT people (voted on in an open meeting by the Church Council). We were not a reconciling church, but at least took that step. A new “conservative” pastor was appointed, who removed all traces of the statement without consultation with anyone. When it was noticed, and he was questioned, he claimed it was in violation of the Discipline, and made a presentation to the Church Council making that claim using a PowerPoint with misleading and blatantly untrue information. I filed a detailed complaint with the Bishop, and attempted to provide the PowerPoint (which again, had been presented in an open meeting of the Church Council), but the pastor refused to provide it.

      I was told by several other ministers what to expect. That the Bishop would first do all he could to protect the institution, and second to protect the minister. And boy did he ever. The mental gymnastics he went through in the letter he sent as his findings were astonishing. I’ve not found a single person not confounded by trying to follow his reasoning.

      As this was a newer Bishop who had recently published a lengthy statement calling on the UMC to quit using the Discipline to beat LGBT people over the head. Despite that, he could act only to help the minister save face.

  7. says

    I hope that this level of conversation continues. I am somewhat surprised at the amount of ignorance throughout the process that seems to be pervasive per this emailer’s writing. As part of our training we are required to be trained in our disciplinary process and are expected to re-up it evert 3-5 years or so. I don’t understand people’s being dismissive of complaints or initiating the charge process; part of our training is also workshops on Safeguarding God’s People and Safeguarding God’s Children to learn what to watch for — for ourselves and in others.

    At the same time, much of this does not surprise me. I watched from a distance as a complaint was filed against someone and the bishop didn’t follow due process and seemed from the get go to assume the accused cleric was guilty, rather than innocent, because there was a component of the complaint related to sexuality. In his attempts to “save her name” and “save her hardship” he may have denied her the opportunity to actually have a cleared name from any accusations.

    For accusers and accused, let us pray to God.

  8. Jan Nelson says

    Thanks, Jeremy, for sharing this. It’s important for so many reasons, and I hope the writer will receive my thanks as well. The piece does a great job of explaining what the disciplinary/trial process IS for, highlighting how the process has been hijacked for an inappropriate agenda. But it also tells the truth about something most of us (including me) would like to think no longer happens in our church. We need to know about this stuff, uncomfortable as it is.

  9. says

    I’m late to seeing this post, but I guess here’s what it’s got me thinking. Jeremy, I agree with you that disciplinary procedures (I’d rather use the term accountability structures) play an important role. But my question is: if the disciplinary procedures are serially misused to prosecute pastors for offering the ministry of the church equally, and also serially misused to cover up actual abuse, when do we say: Ok, enough of that. The system is broken.

    I’ve spent a lot of time and energy–as I know you have–defending the connectional system. But after General Conference 2012, at which I experienced members of a church that frankly despise each other unable to agree about rules; after idiotic and puritan clergy trials continue to make national news; after reading this article; after seeing how denominational bodies and conferences often get in the way of missional ministry and outreach to young adults; I’ve gotta ask:

    Are we just doing this wrong?

    And not a little bit wrong, where we change some language in the Discipline and it gets better.

    Like, a lot wrong.

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