More than 800 people have signed letters urging the West Ohio Conference to reopen the complaint against a clergyman accused of sexual misconduct and abuse.
At issue is the resolution the conference reached in late December with the Rev. Donald Heckman, a United Methodist prominent in interfaith work who faced formal accusations of harassment, misconduct and abuse from four women. The West Ohio Conference has oversight of Heckman’s ministry as an ordained elder.
The letters denounced the conference’s settlement as unjust because the four women who filed the complaints were not involved in the development of the resolution.
The United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective, an advocacy group of clergywomen under 40, circulated the first letter among United Methodists to show solidarity with the four women.
“We are writing this letter because the survivors of Heckman’s abuse have asked for our support, and we give it unreservedly,” said the letter signed by 760 United Methodists from across the United States and delivered to the conference Feb. 10. “It is clear that there is no justice in this resolution.”
Interfaith workers, including some of Heckman’s former colleagues, are circulating a second similar letter in their community. As of Feb. 10, that letter had drawn 111 signatures.
“A case that has ushered both the UMC and interfaith communities into the #MeToo movement now further shines a light on the hypocrisy of our faith, our traditions, and our commitment to a better world,” the interfaith letter said.
The four women, who include Heckman’s ex-wife, detailed their accusations to UM News after a United Methodist panel determined there was enough evidence for a church trial. Heckman already had faced charges of criminal harassment in 2012 in New York City and subsequently pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct.
The resolution avoids a church trial, which the Book of Discipline — the denomination’s policy book — calls “an expedient of last resort.” The 2016 Discipline did not require that those filing complaints be consulted how the matter resolved
Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, who leads the conference, said he has received multiple communications regarding the resolution.
“Nothing I will say here can lessen the pain and harm caused by Heckman,” Palmer said. “We followed the process available to us through the Book of Discipline. We did so in faith and hope that it would contribute to resolution and healing.”
Under the resolution, Heckman — who goes by Bud — is retired under complaint. He can no longer represent himself as under appointment nor perform ministerial activities in the name of The United Methodist Church.
The agreement also states that Heckman “publicly acknowledges in writing his personal regret” for harassment, sexual misconduct and not being celibate in singleness and faithful in marriage.
However, he retains his clergy credentials and may use the title “the Rev.”
That title matters because “it makes it known The United Methodist Church still stands behind him,” said the Rev. Kate Smith, one of the young clergywomen who helped craft the United Methodist letter. Smith, a member of the West Ohio Conference, is pastor of mission and outreach at Hyde Park Community United Methodist Church in Cincinnati.
“I think the stripping of his credentials would show women … that there is accountability and there are repercussions for when we harm people,” Smith said. “It would show we are held to higher standards because there is a sacred trust.”
The Rev. Janessa Chastain, pastor of Grace United Methodist Church in Mesa, Arizona, is another clergywoman who helped craft the letter.
“This kind of harassment and assault is far too common for so many of us young clergywomen,” she said.
“This behavior requires a swift and strong condemnation. I am tired of those with power — our bishops and conference leadership — continuing to take the cowardly route of turning a blind eye to this abuse.”
The United Methodist letter contends that Heckman already has violated the terms of the resolution, and his clergy credentials should be revoked. Specifically, the letter points to Heckman’s December statements to UM News and other media that strongly denied the four women’s allegations or that he caused them harm.
Tahil Sharma crafted the letter being circulated in interfaith circles. Sharma knew Heckman through that work, but in 2018, Sharma became aware of accusations against Heckman.
Sharma said he saw no other way to approach the matter than with a letter among his colleagues.
“Rather than making an echo chamber where we just talk about how we feel terrible about this situation, the most key part of the interfaith movement is making sure we hold each other accountable,” said Sharma, a Hindu-Sikh who is an interfaith minister in residence for the Episcopal Church’s Diocese of Los Angeles. He hopes to deliver the letter to the West Ohio Conference by the end of the month.
Heckman did not respond to attempts to reach him about the letters.
The Rev. Robert Costello, a Greater New Jersey Conference member who served as Heckman’s advocate during the resolution process, said he advised Heckman not to respond to media inquiries. Costello said he is no longer involved in the case.
However, those who filed the complaints say justice has yet to be done.
Megan Anderson, one of the women who brought the complaint and a Catholic, said she is touched by the show of solidarity particularly from United Methodist clergywomen.
“The language was great and their demands were on point as well,” Anderson said. “They were firm and confident. I know signing this letter might have been a risk for some of them too, and it truly means a lot that they would take this risk on our behalf — for people they don't even know personally in many cases.”
Cassandra Lawrence, an advocate for the four women who brought the complaint, said the letters provide “hope that there can be justice and accountability.” She said she has heard from at least 18 women who have accused Heckman of harassment, though only four filed the complaints.
“If someone who has harmed more than 18 women can't have his credentials removed, what exactly does a clergy person have to do to violate that sacred trust?” said Lawrence, who is herself a United Methodist clergy candidate.
Palmer said he continues to pray for the survivors and everyone who has experienced this kind of abuse.
“We labor for the day that this will not happen again,” he said.