PORTLAND, Ore. – The General Assembly Procedures committee only had time to present one item of business from its report before the 2016 General Assembly adjourned for the evening June 22 – but it was a matter of both deep significance and emotional resonance.
The assembly voted on Item 03-14, a policy created for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to protect children, youth, and vulnerable adults. The committee’s moderator, Mary Lou Cox, introduced the item by sharing with the plenary that the committee voted only after hearing Kris Schondelmeyer, a Presbyterian minister from Ohio, tell his story of how, at age 17, he was sexually abused by a commissioned lay pastor (now known as a commissioned ruling elder) while at a youth conference.
Gradye Parsons, the PC(USA)’s stated clerk, apologized on behalf of the PC(USA) to Schondelmeyer.
Lisa Miller, a ruling elder from National Capitol Presbytery and a member of the committee, came to the microphone to express her deep gratitude to Schondelmeyer for sharing his story. She praised his bravery, saying that when he told his story, “we were broken open as a community, and want to share our love and gratitude with him and on behalf of this body, say how much that meant to us. So thank you again.”
After a unanimous voice vote from the assembly to approve the policy, Cox invited Parsons to speak. A few minutes before, the assembly had cast an historic vote to add the Belhar Confession from South Africa – which focuses on injustice and reconciliation – to the PC(USA)’s Book of Confession.
Parsons said that Schondelmeyer, after he was sexually assaulted, repressed the memory for a time, and “has fought an uphill battle to find the justice and healing he needs from his own church.”
Parsons said, “In the spirit of Belhar, religious institutions must acknowledge when they do harm in the world. As stated clerk, I want to offer Kris Schondelmeyer a public apology, and a commitment that his child, and that my grandchild, will grow up in a church that is safe.”
Olivia Campbell, a young adult advisory delegate from the Presbytery of Donegal, offered a prayer in which she said: “Give us courage to use words like rape and sexual assault in our churches,” to name the damage being done, as part of redemption and repentance.
The Child/Youth/Vulnerable Adult Protection Policy and Procedures which the assembly approved was developed after a Book of Order change which took effect in 2015 required that all church councils adopt and implement a child protection policy. Parsons appointed a Task Force for Safe and Sacred Space to deal with issues around child protection at General Assembly events, which developed the new policy.
The General Assembly Procedures committee will continue with the rest of its report in a later plenary session.