ST. LOUIS – Late in the evening of June 22, the 2018 General Assembly considered a series of measures related to #MeToo and #ChurchToo in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) – voting to send two proposed constitutional amendments regarding filing disciplinary cases to the presbyteries for a vote. To take effect, those amendments would need approval from a majority of the presbyteries.
One proposed amendment would extend the time limits during which people could bring disciplinary actions in certain circumstances. That would apply in cases in which the person alleging the abuse was under 18 at the time of the incident, or without the capacity to consent.
The proposed amendment also states “there is no time limit for charging that a person who knew or reasonably should have known of the reasonable risk of sexual abuse of another” and who “failed to take reasonable steps to minimize the risk.”
The Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns had asked the General Assembly in 2016 to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to give people more time to file charges related to sexual abuse in the church system.
The idea, as the #MeToo movement has repeatedly revealed, is that victims of sexual abuse sometimes take years to get to a point where they are willing or able to make a public accusation. When they’re ready, in cases where “gross negligence enabled the sexual abuse to occur,” the current five-year time limitation for filing a disciplinary charge isn’t enough, the recommendation contends.
One person pushing the assembly to act now was Kris Schondelmeyer, a PC(USA) minister who was sexually abused when he was a teenager by a chaperone at a national Presbyterian youth event. Gradye Parsons, then the PC(USA) stated clerk, publicly apologized to Schondelmeyer on behalf of the church at the 2016 assembly. Schondelmeyer contended that this year’s assembly needed to act now on the policy changes the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns was recommending.
At the request of the Advisory Committee on the Constitution, which said it “concurs with the intent” of the proposal but had concerns about details, the 2016 General Assembly referred the matter to the Office of the General Assembly for more work.
This year, Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommended that the 2018 General Assembly refer that same issue to the Rules of Discipline Task Force — meaning no change would be proposed until at least 2020.
The assembly was not willing to wait.
It voted 455-16, following the lead of its Church Polity and Ordered Ministry Committee, to send a proposed constitutional amendment to the presbyteries for approval.
A second proposed amendment would add language to state that sexual abuse as defined in the Book of Order “shall be considered contrary to the Scriptures or Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and therefore an offense for purposes of these rules.”
The Presbytery of North Alabama brought an overture raising the issue, after a synod permanent judicial commission issued a ruling in 2017 that “effectively indicated that actions in violation of a council’s sexual misconduct policy are not under the jurisdiction of the Rules of Discipline unless those actions are explicitly specified as contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution.”
The presbytery had asked that any violation of a presbytery’s required sexual misconduct policy or child and youth protection policy be considered contrary to Scriptures or the constitution. The assembly’s Church Polity and Ordered Ministry Committee changed that to involve sexual abuse as defined in the Book of Order.
The overture’s rationale states: “The members and congregations of the Presbytery of North Alabama wish to stringently affirm that sexual misconduct is sin. We believe past failure to confront this behavior has led to injustice and discord within the church, and scrutiny and litigation from without. We humbly ask the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to take an unequivocal stand for justice by equating this sin as an implicit violation of scriptural norms and constitutional ordination vows.”
The assembly passed the proposed amendment 416-13.
The assembly also considered two overtures regarding how to deal with former ministers who renounced the denomination’s jurisdiction in the midst of disciplinary proceedings. The assembly approved one proposed amendment, and agreed to refer to the Rules of Discipline Task Force a question of whether a trial could be held in absentia for a former minister who had renounced jurisdiction in the midst of a disciplinary proceeding.