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Church relies on policies, awareness to combat sexual abuse


NOTE: A sidebar, UMNS story #367, is available with this report. Photographs of the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, Bishop Jack Tuell and Bishop Joe A. Wilson are available at online.

By Joretta Purdue and Tim Tanton*

Headlines about clergy sexual misconduct are prompting members of all denominations to look hard at their own churches and ask pointed questions: To what extent is this a problem in our congregations? What is being done to address it? Are our members, especially young people, safe?

Though the Catholic Church is struggling with a growing sexual abuse scandal, the problem of clergy misconduct is not isolated to one church. United Methodists and their counterparts in other denominations have also contended with cases of sexual misconduct over the years. Most recently, a former United Methodist youth pastor in Jackson, Tenn., was indicted by a grand jury for sexually abusing three teen-age boys.

In addition to issues of protecting church members from misconduct, whether by clergy or laity, the problems in the Catholic Church raise questions about accountability and leadership. Could a cover-up occur in which Protestant church officials put a lid on clergy sexual abuse and simply move offenders to different congregations?

United Methodist leaders who have worked on such issues say that prevention and education are emphasized throughout the denomination, and pastors and bishops are trained and retrained. Moreover, they say, the church's process for handling misconduct complaints decreases the likelihood of a high-level cover-up similar to what the Catholic Church experienced in Boston.

"What the denomination … does is to take every allegation seriously," said the Rev. Stephanie Hixon, who heads the staff of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, headquartered in Evanston, Ill.

In May, the denomination's Council of Bishops issued a statement on church-related sexual abuse, saying in part, "We are committed to addressing sexual misconduct promptly and forthrightly … [C]lergy and other persons within our communion who abuse children or who are sexual predators will not be knowingly shielded or protected."

"The United Methodist Church is in front of the curve," retired Bishop Joe A. Wilson of Georgetown, Texas, told United Methodist News Service. "I think that we have dealt with procedures, and we have dealt seriously with sexual misconduct for the last 10 years, and if there's any conference that does not have a policy intact and any bishop who is not thoroughly trained in how to manage such accusations, then I would be very surprised." As Fort Worth (Texas) Area bishop in the 1990s, Wilson dealt with one of the most-publicized cases of clergy misconduct, when several women accused a prominent pastor of sexual harassment.

The denomination's policy has evolved through the years, Hixon said. Current policy is expressed primarily in two resolutions of the General Conference, the denomination's highest legislative body. One deals with sexual ethics of church personnel - paid and volunteer - and the other outlines actions to reduce the possibility of child sexual abuse and measures to employ if such an accusation is made.


"The United Methodist Church renews its stand in opposition to the sin of sexual misconduct and abuse within the church," according to the resolution titled "Sexual Ethics Within Ministerial Relationships." The statement, adopted by General Conference in 2000, is a revision of an earlier version passed in 1996 and is included in the church's Book of Resolutions.

Sexual misconduct in the ministerial relationship is "a betrayal of sacred trust, a violation of the ministerial role and the exploitation of those who are vulnerable in that relationship," according to the resolution. Such abuse occurs when a person in a ministerial role of leadership, lay or clergy, engages in sexual contact or sexualized behavior with a congregant, client, employee, student, staff member, coworker or volunteer.

"Sexualized behavior," according to the resolution, includes such actions as "displaying sexually suggestive visual materials, making sexual comments or innuendo about one's own or another person's body," as well as kissing, touching and sexual intercourse.

"Those in positions of authority in the church, both clergy and lay, have been given much responsibility, vested with a sacred trust to maintain an environment that is safe for people to live and grow in God's love," the resolution states. "Misconduct of a sexual nature inhibits the full and joyful participation of all in the community of God."

When people are ordained as clergy, they enter into a covenant or sacred trust, Hixon explained. Similarly, those who fill leadership roles in any aspect of the church's life - including camp counselors and youth leaders - are entrusted with maintaining integrity and safety, she said.

The resolution "Reducing the Risk of Child Sexual Abuse in the Church," passed by the 1996 General Conference, recommends specific measures for prevention to congregations, annual conferences (regional administrative units) and churchwide agencies. The resolution cites Christ's warning to adults of the consequences of causing children to stumble. It also quotes the denomination's Social Principles: "Children must be protected from economic, physical, emotional and sexual exploitation and abuse."

Safe sanctuaries

The need that fired the 1996 resolution also brought about regional training events and the creation of the manual Safe Sanctuaries: Reducing the Risk of Abuse in the Church. The churchwide Boards of Discipleship and Global Ministries developed the book, in cooperation with the risk management area of the General Council on Finance and Administration. The manual contains suggestions, sample forms and other information to help congregations make their own plans for child abuse prevention.

Peggy Halsey, an executive with the Board of Global Ministries, has been encouraging its use for the four years since it was published. Training sessions across the United States also were included in the effort, said Halsey, who deals with issues facing women, children and families. The manual is a guide for local congregations and is available from Discipleship Resources at (800) 685-4370.

Halsey wants every congregation to implement policies and procedures addressing the issue as called for by the resolution.

"Churches can do this on a step-by-step basis," she said. "They can begin to implement a plan." She advises congregations, particularly small ones, not to be intimidated by the scope or cost of the recommendations but to begin a step at a time.

For example, the denomination recommends that at least two unrelated adults be present with any child or group of children, but a church that has just four Sunday school teachers might not be able to meet that requirement immediately. In such a case, the church might add one teacher to circulate at random among the four classes while others are being sought, she said.

Another aspect of this problem concerns the church's responsibility when a member of the congregation is a convicted sex offender. In response to a number of inquiries, last summer Halsey wrote an article on "When the Abuser Is One of Us" for Interpreter, the denomination's magazine for church leaders. In the article, she suggested that the church council develop a written and signed covenant with the offender. If the offender is opposed to a covenant, Halsey observed, then he or she probably has not really come to terms with the problem.

Hixon praised abuse survivors for their courage to break the silence, for saying what was helpful and what was not, and for letting the church know how better to be the church. The church has learned that "there has to be comprehensive response," she said.

Some recent training events have been devoted to teaching church members how to provide care when misconduct has occurred. Many people are affected in such cases, Hixon noted. Besides the victim or victims, their families, the congregation and the minister's family may need help.

"There has been a broad range of training focused on clergy," Hixon said. The church's bishops have had several training sessions on this subject over the years. Now, more and more laypeople are also being trained.

Taking action

Retired Bishop Jack Tuell of Des Moines, Wash., is a former attorney and an expert on church law. He said he knew of only one case during his tenure - in the 1970s and '80s - in which a clergy person was accused of having sexual contact with a minor, and the church dealt directly with that situation. The clergyperson surrendered his or her credentials and left the ministry, Tuell said.

As leader of the Fort Worth Area in the early 1990s, Bishop Wilson dealt with one of the most widely publicized clergy misconduct cases in the United Methodist Church. The Rev. Barry Bailey, a well-known pastor who led one of the denomination's largest congregations - First United Methodist Church in Fort Worth, Texas - retired in 1994 after several women complained that he had sexually harassed them.

Several months after leaving office, Bailey surrendered his clergy credentials rather than face a church trial. Many of the women filed lawsuits, but the church settled the cases; Wilson stated at the time that the settlements were not admissions of guilt by any party. Bailey always maintained that he was innocent.

When a bishop receives a report of misconduct, taking immediate action is important, according to Wilson. "The most effective bishops are those who will take those stories and do their research and determine whether or not there is truth in them." Care must be given in dealing with both sides, treating each with fairness and balance, he added.

"We have to review the lives of those who have been hurt and touched by misconduct, and we have to be able to give them some margin of credibility and also to take seriously their hurt and their pain," Wilson said. "And once we do that, then I think we as a church … have a procedure that is balanced. We're not trying to in any way prejudge, but we're trying to accept both sides in a balanced way and use our very best skills in researching their validity."

A wise bishop consults with the conference chancellor and follows the procedures laid out in the Book of Discipline for dealing with misconduct cases, he said.

Could the United Methodist Church experience a high-level cover-up of clergy misconduct? "My judgment is that it would be much more unlikely to happen," Wilson said, "and I think the reason is that our church has taken very seriously the pain caused by sexual misconduct of any nature."

He "would be very surprised in this day and time" if a bishop would deliberately participate in a cover-up, he said. "The intentional cover-up is what I would doubt. That's primarily because there's been so much training, and there have been so many reviews of what we do."

The procedures are there, he said. He added that the church has "accepted very early on the value and the sacredness of relationships of genders different than our own, and we have always recognized that. … That's part of our whole inclusive policy that the United Methodist Church has been very strong in."

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*Purdue is news director of United Methodist News Service's Washington office. Tanton is news editor for UMNS.

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