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Clergy Sexual Misconduct


Who sets policy for the United Methodist Church? Only the General Conference can speak officially for the United Methodist Church. Every four years, delegates at each conference revise the Book of Discipline and Book of Resolutions. The Social Principles, in both books, are described as a "prayerful and thoughtful effort on the part of the General Conference to speak to the human issues in the contemporary world from a sound biblical and theological foundation as historically demonstrated in United Methodist traditions." The Book of Resolutions is not legally binding but serves as a guide for the church for reference, encouragement, study and support.


(Posted 8/02)

The United Methodist Church has firm rules against clergy sexual misconduct, and church leaders are trained to respond swiftly to complaints.

The denomination's highest legislative body has called on each of its regional administrative units, called annual conferences, to establish written policies and procedures aimed at preventing sexual abuse by paid and volunteer church leaders, and for handling complaints that might arise about sexual misconduct. The policies are revised regularly.

The denomination uses the term "clergy misconduct of a sexual nature" when boundaries and relationships sacred to the clergy office and authority are violated through sexual behavior. Whether suggestive remarks, unwelcome touching, sexual harassment, rape or other actions, such misconduct is an abuse of power.

Sexual misconduct is a form of disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church because it violates the sacred trust held by clergy. Some forms of misconduct may lead to a church trial and possible loss of ministerial orders. Some offenses are also crimes, and allegations of such a nature are to be reported to law enforcement authorities in accordance with relevant state laws.

In church law, chargeable offenses in instances of clergy sexual misconduct may come under categories outlined in the denomination's Book of Discipline (Paragraph 2702) that include immorality, crime, disobedience to the church's order and discipline, relationships or behaviors that undermine the ministry of the pastor, child abuse, sexual abuse, sexual misconduct or sexual harassment.

The Book of Discipline's statute of limitations does not apply to sexual abuse or child abuse allegedly committed after 1992. That year, the church's legislative body removed those offenses from the statute of limitations. The church's supreme court, the Judicial Council, in decisions 691, 704 and 723, ruled that this change was not retroactive.

The church makes clear its opposition to sexual misconduct in a resolution adopted by General Conference in 1996 and revised in 2000, "Sexual Ethics Within Ministerial Relationships."

"The United Methodist Church renews its stand in opposition to the sin of sexual misconduct and abuse within the church," the resolution states.

"The wisest investment, of course, is in the prevention and training of anyone and everyone who may find themselves in paid or volunteer roles of ministerial leadership."

The denomination's Commission on the Status and Role of Women provides resources and leadership related to the church on this issue. According to the commission, "Sexual abuse is a sexual invasion of the body by force. Sexual abuse may be rape, sexual assault, incest, indecent exposure, statutory rape, involuntary or voluntary deviate sexual intercourse with a child, promotion of prostitution, pornography with children, indecent assault, a deliberate violation of emotional integrity, a hostile, degrading act of violence." An executive with the commission adds that the list of examples is not comprehensive.

Child sexual abuse

General Conference adopted a resolution titled "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church" in 1996.

"Tragically, churches have not always been safe places for children," the resolution states. "...Such incidents are devastating to all who are involved: the child, the family, the local church and its leaders. …God calls us to make our churches safe places, protecting children and other vulnerable persons from sexual and ritual abuse."

The resolution contains specific recommendations for local churches, annual conferences and denominational agencies. Extensive training about abuse and its prevention has been held within the denomination and continues. Churches are also encouraged to have a written plan for handling any allegations.

The resource Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church was specifically developed by the denomination to help congregations and people associated with schools, camps and other church-related facilities or events educate themselves and put protective practices into place.

Complaints against clergy

The United Methodist Church's practice is to respond to any charges of sex abuse or child abuse swiftly and with compassion for all affected parties. A clergyperson charged with such actions is afforded all the rights of fair process. Based on the nature of the allegations, the accused clergyperson is often relieved of his or her duties while the matter is resolved and always when there is a question of safety. Under no circumstances would a pastor under this kind of complaint be transferred, nor would the church cover up such actions.

"Ordination and membership in an annual conference in the United Methodist Church is a sacred trust," the 2000 Book of Discipline states in a section on complaint procedures. "The qualifications and duties of [clergy] ... are set forth in the Discipline, and we believe they flow from the gospel as taught by Jesus the Christ and proclaimed by his apostles. Whenever a [clergy]person ... is accused of violating this trust, the membership of his or her ministerial office shall be subject to review."

Such reviews are primarily held to resolve any violations of the sacred trust and to further God's work of justice, reconciliation and healing. Complaints about sex abuse are treated seriously and may lead to a church trial if charges are brought after investigation. In addition, church officials are committed to cooperating with law enforcement authorities in cases where the crime of sex abuse may have been committed.

Sexual harassment

Writing and implementation of policies on clergy sexual abuse and sexual harassment have coincided with the growing awareness of these problems in society.

"Sexual harassment according to the United Methodist Church is a sin," the Commission on the Status and Role of Women has said. This kind of harassment is described as "a continuum of behaviors that intimidate, demean, humiliate or coerce," as noted in the church's resolution "Sexual Ethics Within Ministerial Relationships," found in the 2000 Book of Resolutions.

In 1992, the church adopted a resolution calling for the "Eradication of Sexual Harassment in the United Methodist Church and Society." The resolution was revised in 2000.

"Sexual harassment is a barrier to hospitality," the resolution states. "This alienating, sinful behavior causes brokenness in relationships - the opposite of God's intention for us in human community."

The resolution outlines legal and policy development on sexual harassment in the United States, the United Methodist Church efforts toward eradication of this problem, and work in the areas of international research and policy. The resolution also suggests strategies for United Methodist agencies, annual conferences and church leaders.

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