Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘United Methodist Church’

Justice. At Long Last, Justice.

Last summer, I posted a story about “Lisa.” As a teen and young adult, Lisa endured years of vicious sexual abuse from then-Rev. Darryl Duer, who led a weeklong summer service camp for UMC youth in New Jersey. When Lisa finally filed a complaint, Duer lost his ministerial credentials, but he kept his fan club. A handful of his colleagues secretly kept bringing their youth to Duer’s camp. No matter how many times Lisa raised the red flag, nothing seemed to change, but she persisted. She was relentless. Just days before the 2016 camp, Lisa learned that the same three ministers were bringing their youth groups yet again. I ran this story just before camp began, and this open letter to Bishop Schol just after the youth groups came home. 

At the same time, Lisa took actions of her own. During camp week, Lisa posted a blunt, direct comment in response to an article by Bishop Schol on the conference’s Facebook page. He was out of town, but he arranged for a telephone meeting with Lisa when he returned. In that meeting, Bishop Schol told Lisa that it hadn’t been his choice to let Duer walk away quietly. He’d wanted Duer to submit to the church’s judicial process, but Duer refused and turned in his UMC credentials. At that point, the bishop no longer had any power over him. This put Bishop Schol’s actions in an entirely new light. Lisa had spent three years believing that Schol had just looked for the easiest way out. She asked him, “Why didn’t you tell me that at the time?” My best guess is that church lawyers forced the bishop to keep the victim in the dark — an all-too-common church policy that ironically increases their risk of being sued.

The bishop promised Lisa that he would meet with the three ministers who had gone to Duer’s camp. Lisa gave him permission to share a series of text messages sent to her by Duer — messages full of graphic, obscene, exploitive sexual content. The day after that meeting, Bishop Schol reached out to Lisa. He told her that he’d had “very frank and forthright” conversations with the clergy, and that when those meetings were over, “it was clear… that the churches would not be advertising or participating in” Duer’s camp going forward. 

But Bishop Schol wasn’t done. He also promised to call all UMC clergy in Greater New Jersey to a mandatory meeting early in the new year to discuss clergy misconduct complaints, and Lisa’s complaint in particular. 

Last Wednesday, that meeting took place. On Thursday, Bishop Schol sent Lisa this extraordinary letter:
“Yesterday I met with 446 clergy from Greater New Jersey to talk about two clergy matters. One was [the summer service project] and your treatment by a former clergy person. I did not share your name but I shared your story. I also had the clergy read the text messages. It was a conversation that impacted our clergy. Clergy wanted to know how you were doing, how we were supporting you. Also several clergy came to me and other clergy have reported that since the meeting other clergy have talked with one another about how they have also been a survivor. We also prayed for you.”

A few weeks earlier, Bishop Schol had told Lisa, “The pain and sacrifice you have made will lead to a better United Methodist Church in New Jersey. You have certainly helped me to be a better bishop.”

THIS IS WHAT JUSTICE LOOKS LIKE! But in Lisa’s case, justice took far too long. Dozens of youth group participants were exposed to danger during the three summers the ex-Rev. ran his secret camp. The additional trauma to Lisa (beyond the original abuse, the isolation and shunning and character assassination by Duer’s fan club) nearly ended her life. Lisa’s long wait for justice was one of the final straws for me; it is one of the reasons I’m stepping away from church, but that’s a story for another post.

Even so — this is justice. Bishop Schol’s remarkable letter to Lisa is a textbook-perfect response to clergy sexual misconduct. He acknowledges the victim’s pain; he tells the whole truth to the whole church; he brings their love and concern back to her; he thanks her for making them a better church; and he promises that he’ll push the church to be better still: “I will be convening a group … to create a clergy and lay leadership ethics policy and program designed to educate leaders…, to build on the support system we have begun [for] survivors, and to do more preventative work.” 

Thankfully, the UMC is already on task. Bishop Schol can find excellent tools for this work on the UMC’s Sexual Ethics website, including a superb guide to helping the congregation heal

I’m feeling grateful today — for Bishop Schol’s long-awaited actions that will make the church safer, but more than that, for Lisa’s courage and persistence. Today, she is the survivor awakening the church.

Healing the Congregation

“Lisa’s” saga* continues: she’ll be speaking with Bishop Schol next week. To prepare him for their meeting, Lisa sent him a resource that should already be close to his heart: a document that spells out the highest standard for responding to clergy misconduct in the United Methodist Church.

“After Clergy Sexual Misconduct: A Process for Congregational Healing” is that document. Based on guidelines drafted by Episcopal Bishop Chilton Knudsen, the process was developed in 2006 by the Rev. Dr. Bonnie Glass MacDonald, a UMC deacon. The document may be ten years old, but it was new to me, and in all my years of advocacy, I have never seen a better resource for helping congregations heal.

Why does the church need this resource? As MacDonald says, “In situations of crisis or misconduct, congregations often … want to put the crisis behind them as soon as possible. But experience has shown that ignoring the intense feelings that naturally occur after a violation will cause more trouble in the long run.” She reports that after an event of clergy misconduct, congregations often descend into fearful conflict. Factions form, pastors turn over quickly, and the church loses energy, focus, hope, and members. Without intentional healing, this cycle can last many years, and may repeat itself with new acts of misconduct. For the sake of every member of the church, both present and future, “each congregation must be helped to deal openly with the misconduct.”

Note that word: openly. Incidents of clergy misconduct cannot be swept under the carpet. The church’s response must be confidential enough “to protect fair process and avoid additional harm to victims,” but the basic facts must be shared with clergy, church staff, lay leaders, and congregants. Why? Because ultimately, there are no secrets in a congregation. If leaders try to whitewash an event of pastoral misconduct, the facts will morph into cancerous nodes of rumor, accusation, and innuendo, and those cancers will destroy the church. 

“The Process for Congregational Healing” helps leaders handle each step of their response, from the staff meeting to the congregational letter to (ultimately) the congregational meeting. The document spells out how to support the victim, what behaviors to expect from the accused minister, and how to speak with the youth and children of the church, who need to be included even if none of them was directly harmed. 

What happens when congregations don’t go through an intentional process of healing? They may become suspicious, angry, depressed, fractious, highly reactive, hopeless, and fixated on matters of human sexuality. Far from shining the light of the kingdom of God, these congregations become a toxic burden to the denomination.

I’m sharing this resource for clergy and churchgoers of all faith traditions. I recommend all my readers look at the UMC’s Sexual Ethics site. If only all faith traditions cared enough to develop resources this robust and thoughtful! More to the point: if only UMC leaders cared enough to consistently use the wisdom from their own denomination.

* See Lisa’s story here, my open letter to Bishop Schol here, and Bishop Schol’s excellent response here

Open Letter to Bishop John Schol

Dear Bishop Schol,

The UMC youth groups have returned from the JUNE Project led by disgraced former minister Darryl Duer. It’s too late to protect these kids, but it’s not too late to safeguard the future.

In 2013, you received “Lisa’s” complaint against Darryl Duer for clergy sexual misconduct. You judged rightly that Duer was unworthy to be a minister in the UMC, but you judged wrong when you let him go quietly. Secrecy may have been easier in the moment, but look at the danger you have brought on your congregations. At least three of your ministers continue to give Duer access to their youth groups. If any of those young people are harmed, their parents could claim that you knew of the danger and failed to warn them. 

In 2014, when Lisa learned that Darryl Duer was still running the JUNE Project, she contacted you to ask you to keep UMC youth from attending. You sent a note to three of your ministers, telling them that that a former camp participant had made a serious, substantiated complaint against Duer. In response, he canceled that summer’s camp, but he was back in business the very next summer. At least one of your ministers, Pastor Brian Neville of Hillsdale, brought his youth group in 2015. Here’s their slide show, including a big, clear photo of Darryl Duer. 

You claim that you continue to monitor and warn others about Duer. Really? Did you not know that your ministers are still working with him? If you look at Facebook you can see that Hillsdale UMC participated in the JUNE Project again last week, and that St Peter’s of Ocean City was there too. St Peter’s has re-labeled the project as “Hope Rescue Mission,” but it’s the same camp. One of the photos clearly shows Duer in a leadership role. Gibbsboro UMC may or may not be at the camp, but they are still big fans of Darryl Duer. Pastor Rob Lewis proudly lists “JUNE Project” in his staff bio as one of his leadership roles, and he invited “Pastor Daryl Duer” (sic) to speak at the church’s potluck breakfast worship on July 3.

In short: by failing to give clear warning, you have put countless young people in danger.

Since Mr. Duer no longer has credentials in the UMC, I understand that you can’t stop him from running his service project. But you can communicate the truth clearly to all of your ministers, all of their congregations, and the parents of all the young people who have ever participated in the JUNE Project. And the truth is that Darryl Duer sexually abused a former camp participant. He did so by exploiting his power as minister, his knowledge of her life history, and her trust in him as a minister. He does not deserve the trust of young people or their parents; he is a dangerous man.

When Lisa filed her compaint, she did it for one reason: to save other young people from what happened to her. She has never asked anything of the church but to keep Duer away from its youth. In 2013, you wrote a letter to clergy about a former pastor implicated for misuse of funds. You could have — you should have — written a similar letter to clergy warning them about Darryl Duer. With his offense, it wasn’t mere dollars at stake, but human lives.

Please, Bishop Schol — it’s not too late to do the right thing. 

Yours in Christ,

Catherine Thiemann


Update, August 7: this newspaper account confirms that Gibbsboro UMC also brought a group to Duer’s camp.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

UMC Protecting a Predator

Dozens of young Methodists are in immediate danger.

This Sunday, July 31, unless leaders in the UMC take action, at least three youth groups from Greater New Jersey will arrive at Olivet Blue Mountain Camp in eastern Pennsylvania to spend a week under the leadership of a known sexual predator. 

Here are the facts.
* In 2013, “Lisa” (not her real name) filed a complaint of sexual misconduct against then-Rev. Darryl Duer. He wasn’t her minister, but he was the minister who led the summer service project that she had attended with her church youth group since she was in junior high. Duer had begun giving Lisa love notes and personal gifts when she was only 15. When she turned 18, he offered pastoral support, but very soon began demanding sex. He abused her for several years, telling her that his sexual abuse was God’s way of loving her. He knew of her history of abuse growing up, and he correctly assumed she wouldn’t know she was being abused. But eventually she figured it out.
* Bishop John Schol of the UMC’s Greater New Jersey jurisdiction received Lisa’s complaint. Rather than launching a formal investigation, Bishop Schol simply asked Duer to hand in his ministerial credentials. He later characterized Lisa’s complaint as “serious and substantiated,” but at the time he chose to cover it up. He hid the truth from Duer’s congregation, his fellow ministers, and the parents of the youth who had participated in those summer camps over the years.
* In 2014, Lisa learned that Duer was again offering the camp, and that three of Bishop Schol’s ministers were bringing their youth groups. After a great deal of effort on Lisa’s part, and with the involvement of the national church office, Bishop Schol agreed to inform those three ministers of Duer’s offense. In response, Duer canceled the camp.
* Lisa thought this was the end of the story. But in early 2015, Lisa saw online postings for Duer’s camp on one of the same three church websites. She wrote to the minister immediately. He assured her it was “old information,” and he promised to take down the posting. She believed him at the time, but later that summer she found evidence that this minister had brought his youth group after all, despite Bishop Schol’s warning in 2014. This youtube video shows the youth group’s presentation afterwards. Duer’s face is prominently shown in one of the slides.
* The horror continues. A few weeks ago, Lisa learned that Duer is still running the camp, and the same three churches are still bringing their youth. On July 5, Lisa sent a powerful email to Bishop Schol and a to key contact in the denomination’s national headquarters. She waited two weeks for a response, then wrote to a higher authority in the national church. She also reached out to the bishop in Eastern PA where Duer’s camp would take place. Although she’s heard from the national office, she has yet to receive a response from either bishop, and the national office seems to lack the power to take action.
* Lisa posted a comment about this situation on Bishop Schol’s facebook page. An administrator immediately took down her comment, but at least she had their attention. The bishop has finally agreed to speak with Lisa by phone about how he handled her case. He has also promised to “talk to” the three ministers when their youth groups return from Darryl Duer’s camp. But with a full week left before the train wreck, Bishop Schol said it was too late to stop his district’s youth from attending, or to inform their parents of the danger. 

Where is the leadership? Where are the shepherds who are supposed to protect the sheep from wolves like Darryl Duer? Does it really fall to an obscure blogger to get this word out? The odds that any of my readers know any of those parents is infinitessimally small. Still — if you do know someone involved, please share this warning. Young people have a right to expect a safe experience when they attend a church-organized camp, and parents have the right to know if their children are about to walk into a viper’s nest.


Update, afternoon of July 28. I’ve now spoken with the bishop of Eastern PA. She had not received Lisa’s email; she is very concerned and has promised to do what she can to keep UMC youth safe.


Update, January 2017: Bishop Schol’s excellent response.

Disappointing News from the UMC

Last month I came across this article about church response to clergy sexual misconduct. It was so clear and strong! It’s rare to find writing this good on church response. I wondered, “Who wrote this?” Then I looked at the byline. Of course — the Rev. Dr. Darryl Stephens, a former leader from the United Methodist Church’s Commission on the Status and Role of Women. Stephens now writes and teaches, and I’m sure his work helps many, but he is painfully missed by victims and survivors within the UMC. During his tenure on the Commission, he provided extraordinary support to at least one survivor whom I know. No one has yet filled his shoes, but at least the Commission is still working to protect and promote the dignity of women. A Commission executive described that work here in 2012, saying “We are getting more requests than we can handle.” 

Unfortunately, the Commission may soon be turning down all requests. The quadrennial UMC General Conference is happening this week in Portland, Oregon. While the media focuses on the church’s positions on hot social issues like human sexuality, they’ll likely give a collective yawn to church governance issues. Yet some of those changes have enormous implications! Within the next few days, the church will vote on whether to adopt “Plan UMC Revised.” Hidden deep within this dull-sounding plan: it would eliminate the Commission on the Status and Role of Women

I’m sure the UMC would tell me not to worry. The commission on the Status and Role of Women may be going away (as well as the Commission on Religion and Race), but the vital work will continue via a newly constituted “United Methodist Committee on Inclusiveness.” Golly, isn’t that a fine-sounding name? Unfortunately, I believe it’s a hedge. Rather than explicitly naming the needs of women and racial minorities, the church only says it’ll be “inclusive.” Considering the fact that the UMC still punishes ministers who perform same-sex weddings, even though those marriages are legal in all 50 states, it’s clear that “inclusive” is actually quite selective. By replacing commissions on gender and race with an ill-defined office of “inclusiveness,” the UMC waters down its promise to fight against racial and gender bias.

This is happening in other institutions as well. I spoke this week with a friend whose husband leads the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) training for a branch of the U.S. military in his region. My friend told me some sad news. “My husband’s old C.O. knew how important this work was, but his new C.O. told him ‘Spend as little time as you can on this issue. Just keep the Pentagon off our backs.’ “ Under the new command, my friend’s husband has to divide his time between SAPR and racial sensitivity training. He is no longer a SAPR trainer; he’s a “diversity officer.” He now has to do two full-time jobs, without the time or resources to do justice to either one.

It’s hard to stay optimistic when I learn that a major denomination is eliminating an office that made such a difference to survivors of CSM. It seems lately that anytime I hear good news (like when the local bishop finally disclosed my complaint against Scott to the congregation at St Paul’s), there’s bad news right behind (like when leaders at Scott’s new church publicly call my complaint “meritless.”) “Spotlight” notwithstanding, as a society we are still massively in denial about the scope and impact of clergy sexual misconduct. 

But the work continues. I take courage from the good things that are happening, like the study on church response to CSM, coming out this fall from Baylor University’s Garland School of Social Work. (Please note the survey is now closed.) I have faith that when I need a break from the work, there will be others to speak truth and carry the baton forward. 

A Great Victory for One Survivor

“Ocian in view! O! The joy!”
— journal of William Clark, on reaching the mouth of the Columbia River.

On a cold November day in 1805, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark rejoiced to see the Pacific “Ocian.” After eighteen months and nearly four thousand miles of hard travel through uncharted territory, this was a great victory. The Corps of Discovery had failed in their primary goal — discovering a shipping passage across the continent — and they still had a cold wet winter and year’s return journey ahead of them. Even so, there’s no doubt that their expedition’s greatest day was November 7, 1805. The U.S. Mint even created a nickel to commemorate the moment.

Every long journey has these buoyant moments. No matter how discouraged and fatigued we are, journeyers get new courage from the miracles and victories along the way. Even with all the new stories of clergy abuse and institutional silencing, I’m constantly encouraged by the small triumphs in the lives of my fellow survivors, and by the support of our allies.

And last week, one survivor accomplished something so great that I feel like Captain Clark. “O! The joy!”

***

Last summer, “Anonymous Girl” filed a complaint against the United Methodist minister who led a service trip for youth groups in his region. A week later, her bishop sent her an email: “Over the weekend, Rev. ____ submitted his clergy orders to my office. This means that he has resigned as a clergy person.”

“Just like that,” reflected Anonymous Girl, “in a week’s time the process was over. It happened quickly and I got what I wanted: this person will not work in a ministerial role in the United Methodist Church with vulnerable populations.”

But it wasn’t over. The hard work of healing had only begun.  Anonymous Girl spent months struggling with emotional pain and with questions about her own role in the abuse. The abuse had not been her fault, but like most survivors she felt she must have done something to cause it. Severely traumatized, she spent most of the winter actively planning to end her life. What was it that gave her the strength to stay? Was it when she found out that a local Methodist pastor had invited her defrocked abuser to lead a Bible study in his church? Did she decide to stay so she could finish what she had set out to do — to keep vulnerable people safe from the man who had exploited and abused her?

Whatever the reason, the world is a safer place because Anonymous Girl is here. A few weeks ago, she was stunned to learn that her abuser would lead the same service project again. Even worse, she learned that several churches had already signed up. Did she feel angry and betrayed? You bet. And did she fight back? Yes, she did. She began by emailing the UMC’s General Commission on the Status and Role of Women. The previous head of the GCSRW had helped Anonymous Girl with her original complaint, but she had never met the new leader. So she had to summon up the courage to tell her story one more time.

After a week, she hadn’t heard back, but she didn’t give up. She sent a stronger letter. This time, the GCSRW reached out to Anonymous Girl’s bishop. The bishop was also slow to respond — and again, Anonymous Girl didn’t give up. She sent the bishop an articulate, respectful email to let him know that at the end of June, she would send a letter to every youth minister in the Conference. She would attach not only the evidence of her own abuse, but the letter the bishop had sent to her, sharing the fact her abuser was no longer a UMC minister.

Finally, the bishop broke his official silence. He sent a letter to every UMC pastor whose church had signed up for the service project. He told them that the leader of the project “admitted to having an inappropriate relationship with a young person” who participated in the project. While I don’t like the language — the bishop should have said, “he admitted to sexually abusing a young person” — I like the results. After the bishop sent his letter, Anonymous Girl’s abuser withdrew his offer to lead the service project. By insisting on justice, and speaking up with courage and resolve, Anonymous Girl has made all the youth in her Conference safer.

Anonymous Girl has discovered another truth: her abuser may not have cared about the project after all. You see, he didn’t just step away from the project. He cancelled it altogether. He seems to have seen this service project only as a way to get access to vulnerable youth. If he cared about the project, she writes, “he would have stepped down and allowed it to continue without him. He could have helped someone else take the leadership role.” But she also knows: whatever the value of the project to the youth and the community, it carried too high a cost. She rejoices that the project was cancelled “not because I want to see the project fail, but… because I know the man who hurt me will not be given the option to hurt other youth in the same way.”

This kind of victory is rare. For every triumph of justice against clergy sexual abuse, we hear dozens of tales of abuse, silencing, and victim-blaming. With near-daily bad news, it’s easy to lose hope. But then this amazing thing happens. Against all odds, a solitary victim, still struggling with the trauma of abuse, speaks with so much power and clarity that the whole church hears. A bishop finds his voice. A predator loses access to victims. A whole group of young people will not be this man’s victims.

And every survivor who hears this news stands up a little taller. Anonymous Girl’s victory is a victory for all of us.

Why the Church Needs Trials

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.

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