Bishops, chancellors learn techniques for responding to sexual misconduct complaints

A day-long seminar on responding well to sexual ethics complaints against clergy drew more than 90 United Methodist bishops, chancellors and other conference officials who asked questions, debated church law and shared best practices with each other.

“There is a great need for these skills,” said Darryl W. Stephens, Assistant General Secretary for Sexual Ethics at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, which sponsored the May 2 training in cooperation with the General  Council on Finance and Administration.

Stephens said the training was designed to equip conference leaders to respond well to complaints.  About three quarters of those attending were either bishops or chancellors (conference lawyers). Bishops are responsible for responding to sexual misconduct complaints against clergy and others in ministerial roles.

A just response to a complaint involves fair process (following the United Methodist Book of Discipline ¶363), provides support for both the accused and the alleged victim(s), and provides for congregational healing, Stephens said. During discussions, attendees asked that the group come to consensus on practices where the Book of Discipline is not clear or leaves room for discernment about what should be done, he said.

For example, the discipline allows for (but does not require) the use of a Response Team in cases of alleged sexual misconduct. A Response Team can provide an advocate or support person for the alleged victim and also facilitate a process for congregational healing, as required by the Discipline.

Only about half the annual (regional) conferences in the U.S. currently have a trained and ready Response Team, Stephens said. The group voiced strong consensus in favor of using Response Teams as well as the need for specialized training for this ministry.

[For more information on Response Team ministry, see Book of Resolutions 2012, pp. 131-34, and http://umsexualethics.org/ConferenceLeaders/ResponseTeams.aspx.]

The training agenda allowed plenty of time for discussion, both in plenary sessions and in smaller conversations at tables.

“The participants brought a great amount of experience and expertise to this event,” Stephens said. Attendees were very engaged, asking questions and sharing their insights, he said.  An overwhelming majority of participants said they would recommend this training to a colleague.

Interpreters were provided for about 10 bishops from the Central Conferences, who reported having had much different experiences from conference leaders in the United States.  In Africa, for example, talking about sexuality at all is taboo, so bishops said it is almost impossible to find alleged victims who will report or witness to an allegation. Training might need to be developed specifically for bishops and chancellors in those contexts, Stephens said.

This event in conjunction with the Legal Forum is a perfect example of,  “good interagency cooperation,” said Stephens. The Finance agency’s Legal Department hosts a forum with bishops and chancellors early in each quadrennium. This is the first time GCSRW has held a joint event with the Legal Forum.

Rick Rettberg, GCFA’s general counsel, co-led the GCSRW-workshop along with Stephens and consultant Joy T. Melton, lawyer and author of Safe Sanctuaries. Both Rettberg and Melton serve on the UMC’s Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force, convened by Stephens on behalf of GCSRW.

“The elimination of sexual abuse in our churches is an issue of denominational significance. GCFA is committed to working with other agencies in the church, including the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry to achieve that goal,” Rettberg said. “We thought the COSROW event was complementary to the topics presented to our bishops and chancellors in the Legal Forum, and we are very pleased with its success.”

GCSRW led a similar training session for more than 70 district superintendents and other leaders in January 2011 as part of “Do No Harm,” a sexual ethics summit sponsored by the Interagency Sexual Ethics Task Force.  The agency is planning to train other district superintendents and conference officials designated by the bishop to handle sexual ethics complaints at the next “Do No Harm” event, anticipated in January 2015 (dates and location to be announced this Fall).

Stephens said the turnouts at the training sessions and the feedback on seminar evaluations indicate a great need for this kind of service.

“Handling sexual ethics complaints is not something that can be learned by trial and error,” Stephens said. “It has to be right the first time.”

Susan Keaton is communications director for GCSRW.


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