Suspended bishop moves toward church trial

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Key points:

  • United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño has been suspended with pay for more than a year as complaints against her are under review.
  • The Western Jurisdiction has announced that a committee has found reasonable grounds to bring charges against her to a church trial.
  • The Council of Bishops says it cannot interfere in the case at this stage of the church’s judicial process.
  • The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s policy book, calls a church trial “an expedient of last resort” and urges a just resolution instead.

United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, suspended from her duties for more than a year, appears heading toward a church trial.

The Western Jurisdiction announced late May 4 that the jurisdiction’s committee on investigation has found reasonable grounds to bring to trial charges that Carcaño violated church law.

“We regret that a just resolution has not been attained,” said Bishop Dottie Escobedo-Frank, president of the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops, in a statement.

She went on to say that the committee on investigation has identified five charges under the Book of Discipline’s Paragraph 2702.1, which lists the denomination’s chargeable offenses. However, the Western Jurisdiction did not disclose the five charges.

“The Book of Discipline requirement (Paragraph 413.3b) that this process be conducted confidentially prevents sharing details of the circumstances giving rise to the complaints or the content of the bill of charges that have been sent forward,” the jurisdiction said.

In a statement released May 9, Carcaño shared that she also regrets that the situation has reached this point. 

"While I regret that my complaint process has reached the place of an expected trial, I continue to have faith in our disciplinary procedures, and even greater faith in our God who does bring forth light in moments of darkness and healing in brokenness," she said. "I am in prayer for a trial process that is led by our United Methodist commitment to fairness and justice."

The Council of Bishops has no plans to intervene in the case at this stage of the denomination’s judicial process.

Western Jurisdiction leaders announced the suspension of Carcaño on March 9 last year while complaints against the bishop were under review. She has been on leave with pay and benefits ever since. The jurisdiction said her suspension will remain in effect as the process moves ahead.

In the meantime, retired Bishop Sally Dyck continues to serve as interim episcopal leader of the California-Nevada Conference, the regional body where Carcaño has been assigned since 2016. Dyck is also the Council of Bishops ecumenical officer.

“I would encourage all of us to pull together as the body of Christ in the California-Nevada Annual Conference,” Dyck said in a pastoral letter after the Western Jurisdiction’s announcement. “If you can, talk to each other, pray for each other (especially those whose understanding and perspective is different from yours), and love one another (the commandment that Jesus gave us to love was not just for those who see things our way).”

While Carcaño’s absence has been very public, no one has made public the nature of the accusations against her. That has led to both confusion and concerns about whether she is receiving due process.

Carcaño, elected by the Western Jurisdiction in 2004, is the denomination’s first Latina bishop and one of its most prominent episcopal leaders. She has championed the human rights of immigrants, and has done so both within the denomination and on the national stage. She recently led the denomination’s Task Force on Immigration.

Throughout its meeting this week, the Council of Bishops — an international body with bishops from four continents — has heard both from United Methodists who want the episcopal leaders to intervene and reinstate Carcaño and those who want the process to remain in the Western Jurisdiction’s hands.

The advocacy followed a recent ruling by the Judicial Council — The United Methodist Church’s top court — upholding the constitutionality of relatively new provisions in church law that allow the Council of Bishops to intercede in complaints against fellow bishops.

“We were very clear in executive session that we honor the Judicial Council’s decision,” said Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton on May 5, reporting out the bishops’ actions after a closed session. “We will work to honor that and comply with it in receiving requests to undertake responsibility for complaints when they come our way.”

Previously under church law, a complaint that a bishop is ineffective or guilty of misconduct has been handled entirely within the church region where the bishop was elected. For a U.S. bishop, that means adjudication happens within their jurisdiction.

The Discipline’s Paragraph 413 still says a complaint against a bishop first must be submitted to the president of the college of bishops in that bishop’s region — or to the college’s secretary if the president is the one under complaint. 

But one new provision in Paragraph 413 allows the Council of Bishops — “at any time in the process, after a complaint is filed, including after a just resolution” — to remove a complaint from a college of bishops by a two-thirds vote.

Before the ruling, the Council of Bishops had convened a Paragraph 413 Task Force to work on criteria for how complaints will be processed. That remains a work in progress. 

Even before the Council of Bishops meeting this week, Carcaño’s suspension has received pushback. Both MARCHA (Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic/Latino Americans), the denomination’s Hispanic/Latino caucus, and ethnic leaders in the California-Nevada Conference have called for Carcaño’s immediate reinstatement.

Meanwhile, a group of California-Nevada Conference clergy said that returning Carcaño to active service without a just resolution or the findings of a church trial “would create a depth of conflict and division that could undermine the mission and ministry” of the conference.

The Western Jurisdiction acknowledged that the denomination’s judicial process has taken time.

Carcaño was initially suspended under the Discipline’s Paragraph 413.3(a). That measure allows for a jurisdiction’s college of bishops, in consultation with the jurisdictional committee on episcopacy, to suspend a bishop “when deemed appropriate to protect the well-being of the complainant, the Church and/or bishop.” However, that provision says the suspension is “not to exceed 60 days.”

But if a resolution is not reached at that stage, a complaint under church law can move from supervisory response to a judicial-complaint process where it moves into the hands of counsel for the church and then a committee on investigation.

The Discipline’s Paragraph 2704.1c says that if at least five members of the committee on investigation recommend doing so, the jurisdiction’s episcopacy committee may suspend the person under complaint “pending conclusion” of the church trial process.

In Carcaño’s case, the committee on investigation paused its work when she appealed to the Judicial Council.

In late October last year, the denomination’s top court declined to rule on a judicial complaint against the bishop while the church judicial process is ongoing. However, four of the nine participants in the Judicial Council’s deliberations disagreed with the majority — saying that fair process had been violated and that the bishop should be restored to her office.

But with the Judicial Council ruling, the committee was able to resume its work.

It’s not an exact analogy, but a committee on investigation has a similar role to a grand jury in the U.S. court system. The committee ultimately has responsibility for holding a hearing before determining if evidence supports a bill of charges.

One big difference between a committee on investigation and a grand jury is that the committee does not just hear from the counsel for the church and witnesses making the case for charges but also from the person under complaint and that person’s counsel. But ultimately it is up to the committee to determine which witnesses to question, what to ask them and what written material to request. Neither the person or people bringing the complaint nor the person under complaint has the right to cross-examine witnesses before the committee on investigation. 

That’s not the only difference between the church’s judicial processes and that of U.S. courts.  

The denomination’s Book of Discipline calls church trials “an expedient of last resort” and urges a just resolution of complaints before it ever gets to that point.

The Discipline defines a just resolution as an agreement “that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible.”

“We continue to hope and seek for a just resolution while preparing for trial,” said Escobedo-Frank, who like Carcaño is Latina and an advocate for immigrants.

“We ask all to join us in prayers for all the complainants, Bishop Carcaño, the California-Nevada Annual Conference and the Western Jurisdiction.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.


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