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Missouri Conference ordered to pay $6 million to church musician

 


Missouri Conference ordered to pay $6 million to church musician

May 5, 2005

By Fred Koenig*

COLUMBIA, Mo. (UMNS)—The United Methodist Missouri Annual (regional) Conference has been ordered to pay $6 million in damages to a former local church music director.

A civil court jury found in favor of Teresa and Sid Norris of Springfield, Mo., awarding them $2 million in compensatory damages on April 29 and $4 million in punitive damages on May 4. The couple sued the Missouri Conference for intentional failure to supervise and act on complaints against a pastor more than six years ago.

Mrs. Norris — music director of Campbell United Methodist Church from Sept 1, 1997, to April 26, 1998 — and her husband filed the lawsuit in Greene County Circuit Court in 2002, contending the conference did not appropriately respond to informal complaints that were filed against the Rev. David Finestead, and that this alleged failure to respond put Norris in danger. Norris alleged that Finestead, then pastor of the church, raped her on March 25, 1998, in her office at the church.

"We are disappointed by the verdict and will begin to immediately pursue what our options may be, including the possibility of appeal," said the Rev. Steve Cox, director of connectional ministries for the Missouri Conference. "Six million dollars is more money than we have in terms of assets, and this will have a tremendous impact on the conference," he said. Conference leaders will meet May 6 to discuss financial and legal options for future operations, he said.

"We have been on Missouri soil for 200 years, and we are confident we will be here for another 200," Cox said. "We are particularly disappointed that ministries will have to be reduced to pay the damages."

The defense in the April 18-May 4 trial argued that the complaints before the alleged rape described sexual harassment and inappropriate language, and that the conference responded by following disciplinary protocol, including getting a signed resolution agreed upon by those bringing formal complaints.

The defense also argued that the bishop and district superintendent could not have known that physical danger or assault was likely. The attorneys also told jurors that no police report was filed, the rape was not reported for six weeks, no forensic evidence was found to support the allegations, and that Finestead denied the allegations and provided an alibi witness.

The defense attorneys contended that although there were complaints received about Finestead before the alleged rape, the complaints were not of a nature for leaders to suspect Finestead would commit a violent act or that anyone was in danger.

When Mrs. Norris accused Finestead of rape, the conference followed its standard procedure, and then Missouri Area Bishop Ann Sherer called for an investigation. Finestead was suspended while the investigation committee, consisting of clergy with lay observers, reviewed the complaint and referred the case to a church trial.

"Sexual misconduct is not tolerated in the United Methodist Church and in addition to the policy in the United Methodist Book of Discipline, the Missouri Conference (had) strict procedures for what to do," Cox said.

Before the trial began, Finestead withdrew his clergy credentials from the United Methodist Church and was ordained by another denomination. Since he was no longer an ordained elder in the denomination, the church trial never took place.

Finestead was not criminally charged. A separate civil lawsuit filed against him in 1999 is still pending. Finestead now resides in Louisburg, Kan., and serves the First Baptist Church there. According to his Web site, he is in the hospital being treated for cancer.

Sherer testified in the civil trial, as did the Rev. Elroy Hines, who was the bishop’s assistant at the time, the Rev. Jim Ireland, then district superintendent, and members of Campbell United Methodist Church.

The jury was instructed that the case was based on six elements, and jurors would need to believe that all six elements were true to return a verdict for the plaintiff. The elements were:

Sherer and Ireland were Finestead’s supervisors;

  • they were certain or substantially certain that Finestead would cause harm;
  • they disregarded this known harm;
  • this harm caused damage to Norris;
  • the damage was within the scope of the known risk; and
  • the damage occurred on the property the defendant owns or occupies.

To award punitive damages, the jury had to find the annual conference guilty of "reckless indifference." Nine or more jury members had to agree to return a verdict on the damages and the punitive damages. The decision was unanimous.

Because the lawsuit was a civil case, the proof required was less than for a criminal case.

"You’ve probably heard (that) in a criminal case, you must be convinced of something beyond a reasonable doubt," Dan Craig, attorney for the Norrises, said in closing arguments.

"This is a civil case, and the burden is that these things are more likely to be true than not true," he said.

*Koenig is the editor of the Missouri Review, the newspaper of the Missouri Annual Conference.

News media contact: Linda Green, (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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