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Complaints against Bishop Talbert dismissed

8/30/2000 News media contact: Tim Tanton · (615) 742-5470 · Nashville, Tenn.

Complaints filed against United Methodist Bishop Melvin G. Talbert regarding his handling of an investigation into possible clergy misconduct have been dismissed.

A three-person committee led by Bishop William Dew of the Phoenix Area found no substance to the complaints against Talbert, who will retire as head of the church's San Francisco Area on Sept. 1. His area includes the California-Nevada Annual (regional) Conference.

The complaints followed a controversial decision by the annual conference's committee on investigation not to prosecute 67 pastors for their involvement in a same-sex union service. The service was held for two Sacramento women in January 1999 as an act of protest against the United Methodist Church's prohibition of same-sex ceremonies.

Talbert received complaints about the pastors following the ceremony. He turned the complaints over to church counsel, who forwarded them to the committee on investigation. After several months and a hearing, the committee decided that grounds did not exist for putting the 67 pastors on church trial. Talbert, who didn't serve on the committee, announced the decision Feb. 11.

The committee's decision stirred criticism from people who believed that it was contrary to the denomination's Book of Discipline. The critics were further angered by a personal statement that Talbert made regarding his opposition to the denomination's stand against same-sex services.

The decision was followed by complaints filed against Talbert himself. Two of the complainants cited the bishop's handling of the case involving the 67 pastors. The third accused him of lying, stating that Talbert said he had upheld church law but at the same time had allowed clergy members to violate that law by performing the Sacramento service.

The complaints against Talbert were sent to Bishop Dew, president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops. The chairperson of the jurisdiction's episcopacy committee named a clergy member and a layperson - both from outside Talbert's and Dew's annual conferences -- to work with the bishop on resolving the complaints. The committee finished its work in late July, and Dew wrote letters to the complainants in early August.

"I find no substance to the complaint against him and I find no fault with Bishop Talbert's response to the events which culminated in the decision by the Committee on Investigation on Feb. 8, 2000," Dew wrote on Aug. 3 to Jacque Vance, an Orangevale, Calif., laywoman who filed the first complaint. "Therefore, all complaints received concerning this matter are dismissed.

"While there may be disagreement about the prudence of Bishop Talbert's remarks following the decision of the Committee on Investigation, he was exercising his freedom of expression as he fulfilled his understanding as bishop giving leadership in faithful exercise of paragraphs 414.1 and 414.3 of the Book of Discipline," Dew concluded.

Talbert was pleased with the outcome. "I believe that our church has a good process for dealing with these kinds of situations," he said. "I am very pleased that the process worked in my case.

"There was no question in my mind that this was the way it should have been, but when a complaint is filed, you never know how it's going to turn out until the appropriate authorities act," Talbert said Aug. 29. "But I feel justified and vindicated."

Vance's pastor, the Rev. Mike Goodyear of First United Methodist Church in Orangevale, said the system is not fair. "The way the system is functioning now in the Western Jurisdiction, there is no justice," he said. "For us, it's a justice issue."

Vance had complained that Talbert set aside initial complaints filed by members of First Church following the Sacramento service. She also had said that the bishop put his annual conference above church law. During his remarks in February, Talbert had described the annual conference as a more fundamental covenant that "has precedence over this one narrow focus of law" in the Book of Discipline.

The dismissal of the complaints is final, Dew said. The church offers no other recourse for appeals in this kind of case, he said.

"We did not have any information that would suggest that Bishop Talbert in any way participated or interfered with the process of the committee on investigation of the annual conference," Dew told United Methodist News Service. "The committee did its job. Following the committee's decision, Bishop Talbert made a public statement. ... (His) remarks had no bearing on the decision of the committee on investigation because it followed their decision-making process."

The complaint about lying, filed by Sacramento lay member Don Fleharty, also was deemed groundless by Dew's committee. "What it amounts to is his opinion that Bishop Talbert said something that's not true," Dew said regarding Fleharty's complaint. " ... He basically said he didn't believe Mel Talbert. That didn't make (the complaint) true."

A third complaint was similar to the one filed by Vance, Dew said. In it, the complainant accused Talbert of saying that the 60-plus ministers didn't violate the Book of Discipline, but Dew noted that it was the committee on investigation that decided the matter.

Vance was assisted in filing her complaint by the Coalition for United Methodist Accountability, a new conservative-led organization. The Rev. Ira Gallaway, chairman of CUMA's steering committee, said the group will discuss what it can to do ensure accountability among bishops.

"Our accountability procedure which the General Conference has adopted is not working, and somehow we've got to look at that very carefully at the next General Conference to see that bishops do not protect each other," he said Aug. 30. General Conference, which meets every four years, is the church's top legislative body.

Gallaway said the bishop influenced the committee through his leadership and the appointments he has made to it. "We feel that Bishop Talbert's leadership has encouraged the action of the committee on investigation, and his support of (its decision) is actually in direct conflict with the action of General Conference."

The coalition's steering committee will meet soon to discuss the situation in the California-Nevada Conference, including the recent departures of evangelical pastors, Gallaway said.

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