Last month, in a widely covered trial, the United Methodist Church gave the Rev. Frank Schaefer a 30-day suspension for officiating at the wedding of his gay son. Last Thursday, when he refused to give up his clergy credentials, the church defrocked him.
The next morning, New Jersey Bishop John Schol offered a heartfelt statement of support for Frank Schaefer. His voice breaking with emotion, Bishop Schol spoke his sorrow to gay and lesbian Methodists in the Greater New Jersey Conference. He told them, “There are many people in the United Methodist Church who care about you, love you, and are very sad about what’s happened.”
I applaud Bishop Schol’s compassionate message to LGBT people, and I salute his courage in standing up for his defrocked colleague. But I could not disagree more with the central point of his message: “I do not believe that trials are helpful to our church.” Schol says we need to follow the example of the early church, who “knew how to be in conversation and bring wise people together to hear and listen.” He said, “I would like to see trials within the United Methodist Church stopped.”
I couldn’t disagree more. As painful as church trials can be, they are an important element of justice. If the church replaces trials with informal huddles of “wise people,” offenders will find it easier to manipulate the process. Far too often, offenders choose to resign quietly so they can avoid a trial. Without the publicity of a trial, offenders can continue to prey unchecked; they just have to find a new church to prey in.
The congregation also pays a price for secrecy. When a pastor takes sexual advantage of a vulnerable congregant, the congregation receives a wound. Without disclosure and a healthy process, this wound can fester for years, or even for generations. In pain, the congregation often turns against the victim: blaming her, shunning her, and multiplying her trauma manyfold.
Victims pay the highest price of all. Most of us only report our abusers when we realize that other women (or men or children) are at risk. I paid a high price for reporting “Pastor Kevin,” but I would have paid that price to protect even one woman. Most victims feel the same way. If our abusers remain at large, then we have sacrificed for nothing.
I hope Bishop Schol will reconsider his position. A fellow survivor, whose complaint Bishop Schol handled earlier this year, has written about her experience. In addition, I have posted a letter in response to his message. I hope he will read my letter and take it to heart. As church, we need a process to resolve conflict and to protect the most vulnerable. Without trials, the church will always be at the mercy of the most skilled manipulator in the room.