The denomination ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians has decided not to ordain Kirk A. McCormick, a former minister from Florida who renounced jurisdiction in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) after being accused of sexual abuse.
The congregation that McCormick had served for 18 years, Grace Community Church in Boca Raton, left the PC(USA) in June and has joined ECO – a move that’s been in the works for more than a year. After his congregation left, McCormick applied for ordination in ECO, but presented the new denomination with a conundrum, because he had renounced jurisdiction in the PC(USA) in early June, just as a trial against him on the sexual abuse charges was getting underway.
A woman who had been a teenager in the youth group at St. Andrews Presbyterian Church in Newport Beach, Calif., where McCormick served as an associate pastor in the late 1980s, filed charges against him, alleging that he sexually abused her on multiple occasions starting around June 1988, when she was just turning 17, and continuing through 1990.
ECO created a special task force to consider McCormick’s application. In recommending that ECO deny McCormick’s application, the task force stated in its Aug. 30 report that “we have not considered the `merits of the case’ ” – meaning it did not make any determination regarding McCormick’s guilt or innocence on the sexual abuse charges.
Instead, the task force determined that, as a general rule, when disciplinary charges have been brought against someone seeking membership in ECO, “those charges must be resolved in the judiciary or arena in which they were filed, before a pastor or candidate can be considered for ministerial membership in ECO.”
The charges against McCormick did not involve allegations involving “belief or practice” – disagreements about theology or matters of conscience – but instead “alleged personal misconduct,” the report states. The ECO task force said it asked McCormick to explain why he chose renunciation of jurisdiction rather than trying to prove his innocence through a trial.
According to the report, McCormick responded that he did not believe he could receive a fair trial; that he wanted to spare his family and his congregation negative publicity; and that the Presbytery of Tropical Florida had improperly tied the dismissal of Grace church to ECO with the disposition of the judicial case against him, and that “renouncing jurisdiction appeared to be an expedient way he could sever this.”
The task force wrote that it did not find McCormick’s arguments persuasive.
McCormick did not establish, the task force wrote, “that he would not have received a just verdict through the PC(USA)’s overall judicial process. Indeed, his lawyer was convinced that they would win on appeal.”
To approve McCormick’s application, the task force wrote, ECO would have to do one of the following:
“Declare the PC(USA) judicial system to be corrupt, unreliable and illegitimate” for handling these types of cases;
Make a factual determination about the merits of the case, even though ECO had no judicial process through which to consider the case, since McCormick was not a minister under ECO’s jurisdiction;
Decide that “the unresolved charges are irrelevant and of no concern”; or
Repeat the entire investigative process of the Presbytery of Tropical Florida.
Although for McCormick going through a trial and a possible appeal “would have cost time, money and damage to his reputation,” that may be part of the cost of being in ministry, the task force wrote. “In becoming an ordained minister in the PC(USA), one inherently agrees to abide by the denomination’s rules, including its judicial process. Under that process, when a minister finds himself falsely accused of this type of offense, he must be willing to let the process unfold – as long and as messy as it may be – to be exonerated.”
And there were other options available if Grace church wanted to speed its departure to ECO, and not have that process tied to the outcome of McCormick’s judicial case, the task force wrote. The session could have taken the presbytery to court. Or McCormick could have resigned, “freeing the congregation while he remained behind to clear his name and reputation.”
While McCormick’s decision to renounce the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction did end the disciplinary proceedings against him, “it does not resolve the underlying charges” of sexual abuse, the task force wrote. “From the real impact on ministry to insurance liability and coverage issues, these unresolved charges present a problem for any denomination or church, let alone one which has existed for a relatively short period of time.”