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On the way to GA: Building #MeToo accountability into PC(USA) policy

In 2016, during a plenary session of the General Assembly in Portland, Oregon, the then stated clerk of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), Gradye Parsons, publicly apologized to Kris Schondelmeyer for sexual abuse that Schondelmeyer suffered at a national church event in 2000, when Schondelmeyer was 17 years old.

Parsons said Schondelmeyer had fought “an uphill battle to find the justice and healing he needs from his own church.”

Parsons also said  “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.”

In light of that commitment, here’s one thing Schondelmeyer is asking the 2018 General Assembly to pay close attention to: a recommendation from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns (ACWC) that would remove from the Rules of Discipline a five-year time limit for people to file disciplinary charges in the PC(USA) system for “instances of gross negligence enabling the sexual abuse of another person.”

That time limit is unrealistic, Schondelmeyer said, because often it takes longer for victims of sexual assault to be willing or able to make formal accusations or to have their concerns be taken seriously — as the recent wave of #MeToo and #ChurchToo cases nationally have brought to light.

“If it takes grown women 15 years to come forward, it makes complete sense for somebody who was a minor at the time – that they don’t come forward until years later,” he said.

The 2016 assembly did pass a protection policy for children, youth and vulnerable adults. However, despite the new policy and the public apology in 2016, Schondelmeyer, who is now a Presbyterian minister serving a congregation in Pennsylvania, continues to have concerns regarding PC(USA) policies involving sexual abuse, and the denomination’s handling of his case.

One of the points Schondelmeyer makes is this: His case is not an illustration simply that the PC(USA) needs a better system for ensuring that background checks are done for staff or volunteers who work with children and youth.

In his case, the man who chaperoned the youth event in which he participated had previously been imprisoned on federal child pornography charges — and leaders in Missouri Union Presbytery knew that, the record shows. But they sent the man, Jack Wayne Rogers, as a chaperone anyway.

“My parents never would have sent me to that conference if they knew he was a child pornographer,” Schondelmeyer said.

In 2004 (four years after the Presbyterian youth conference Schondelmeyer attended), Rogers pled guilty in a Missouri court to first-degree assault and practicing medicine without a license — for cutting off a person’s penis and other male genitalia in a motel room in an apparent amateur attempt at gender reassignment surgery, a procedure that, according to the court record, led to severe bleeding and the near-death of the person on which it was performed.

Rogers also was convicted of federal charges of possessing and distributing child pornography – investigators found more than 850 sexually explicit images of prepubescent children – and of distributing obscene materials, and is now serving a 30-year sentence in federal prison. Among the images investigators found were photos of children chained and bound by ropes.

Here’s one of the policy issues Schondelmeyer wants the 2018 assembly to carefully consider: a proposed constitutional change that ACWC first asked the PC(USA) to make in 2016..

ACWC brought a recommendation to the 2016 General Assembly proposing an amendment to the PC(USA) constitution that the five-year time limit for filing disciplinary cases be replaced in “instances of gross negligence enabling the sexual abuse of another person.”

In those cases, the amendment proposed, a person could file a disciplinary charge within 10 years of when the person making the accusation turned 18, or within five years of the date the person making the accusation discovers or reasonably should have discovered that gross negligence enabled the sexual abuse to occur” – whichever of those two dates is later.

The Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC) raised questions about that proposal – stating that it “concurs with the intent” but had concern about what it termed “issues of ambiguity and fundamental fairness.”

The ACC recommended that the 2016 assembly refer the recommendation back to the Office of the General Assembly to work on the wording, and to report the matter back to the assembly in 2018.

The 2016 assembly did that — and the ACC now is recommending that the 2018 General Assembly refer the matter to the Rules of Discipline Task Force, which is due to report back in 2020. Any constitutional change the Rules of Discipline Task Force might propose then would have to go to the presbyteries for a vote, which means no change would take effect until 2021 at the earliest.

Schondelmeyer disagrees with the idea of sending the matter to the Rules of Discipline Task Force, contending that’s too long to wait for change on such an important issue.

“This is the biggest gap in our polity that exists” in sexual abuse cases, he said.

Because of the five-year time limit on filing charges, often “effectively there is no way to hold executives accountable” if they fail to protect children from abuse, he said in an interview with the Outlook. “There is no way to hold institutional leaders accountable when they ignore or intentionally conceal known situations,” either involving alleged sexual abuse of children or sexual misconduct involving ordained church leaders.

“It’s one thing to say ‘We’re sorry it’s happened in our church and it’s a problem.’ It’s another thing to tell the truth about specific cases of sexual abuse. That’s been the whole case in the Catholic Church. That’s a harder thing to do, because … then it opens them up to potential civil liability. That’s why they won’t do it.”

The ACC says in its comment that if the 2018 assembly doesn’t want to send the matter to the Rules of Discipline Task Force, it could recommend a constitutional change to say (with the changes in bold):

For instances of sexual abuse of another person, the five-year time limit shall not apply. There is also no time limit for charging that a person who knew or reasonably should have known of the reasonable risk of sexual abuse of another as defined in D-10.0401c (1) or (2) failed to take reasonable steps to minimize the risk. Both Charges charges may be brought regardless of the date on which an offense is alleged to have occurred.

To bolster his contention that the denomination needs to look carefully its policies regarding sexual abuse and misconduct, Schondelmeyer cites recent examples of #MeToo allegations in the PC(USA). Among them:

  • A former volunteer at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon, Pennsylvania, Nicholas Lies, was charged in 2017 with five counts of sexual assault after allegedly engaging in sexual conduct with a 15-year-old girl at least 14 times.
  • A pastor with Beth-El Farmworker Ministry, Walter F. Chuquimia,was arrested in 2017 for sexual battery of a 17-year-old girl – battery that allegedly occurred over six years, according to the charges brought against him. Chuquimia was ordained by Grand Canyon presbytery in 1996, served congregations and new church developments in Pennsylvania and Minnesota, and was removed from ordained ministry by Peace River Presbytery in March 2018, according to the denomination’s online ministerial directory.
  • In 2017, two men filed lawsuits in Chicago alleging they had suppressed memories of being sexually abused by a Presbyterian pastor in the 1980s. The alleged perpetrator, Douglas Mason, is dead. Previously, in 2015, seven men had filed lawsuits alleging Mason had abused them, naming the Presbytery of Chicago in the suits. Previous allegations against Mason had led to a confidential settlement, which was followed by the sale of the presbytery’s campground in Michigan to pay off $7.9 million in debt, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In Schondelmeyer’s case, thechronology and details of what’s happened are complex. Also PC(USA) officials may not agree with Schondelmeyer’s interpretation of some of what happened, nor he of theirs.

But Schondelmeyer and others are raising significant questions about the adequacy of PC(USA) policies to protect the victims of sexual abuse — and to prevent future cases of abuse.

A handful of recommendations regarding #MeToo issues are pending before the 2018 General Assembly, including one from ACWC asking the denomination to “confess its failure to listen to the long-silenced voices of victims of clergy sexual misconduct.” to collect statistics on the number of allegations, and to form a task force of sexual abuse victims and advocates for victims to conduct a comprehensive examination of PC(USA) policy, judicial process and rules of discipline regarding sexual misconduct.

While he is unhappy about the denomination’s handling of his case, Schondelmeyer says his goal is not to inflict shame or expense on the PC(USA), but to change policies in order to protect children and to ensure that victims of sexual abuse in the church have proper recourse to hold those responsible accountable. That would include not only actual abusers, he contends, but those in the church who knew or should have known there was danger, and who failed to take appropriate action.

Here’s some of what the record of Schondelmeyer’s case shows.

The PC(USA) convened a three-person investigative panel to look into his case — a panel convened as one of the conditions of a settlement reached in the civil case Schondelmeyer filed against the denomination in 2014 in Missouri.

He brought the case in that state because, when he was a high school student, Schondelmeyer attended a Presbyterian church in Missouri, and was sent by Missouri Union Presbytery to attend the Connection 2000 Youth Conference in Maryland – one of four teenagers the presbytery sent to the conference along with chaperone Jack Wayne Rogers, then a lay minister in the presbytery.

A one-page summary (Summary report from Investigative Panel in Kris Schondelmeyer case) of findings from that panel’s work describes what the panel determined had happened.  Church communications officers from the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly confirmed that the document is from the panel and that Parsons, who retired in 2016, provided it to Schondelmeyer. That document does not state who wrote the summary. Schondelmeyer said he’s never been given a more extensive report of the panel’s findings, although he’s repeatedly asked to see that if one exists.

The written response from the communications officers states: “Thesettlement agreement required the panel’s ‘findings or recommendations’ be sent to the General Assembly. Consistent with the settlement agreement, recommendations were provided to the General Assembly. Those recommendations were incorporated into the child/youth and vulnerable adult protection policy.”

The one-page summary describes the contours of Schondelmeyer’s case – and makes clear that presbytery officials did know of Rogers’ previous conviction for child pornography, and that “there are witnesses who claimed they tried to warn Presbytery officials about the dangers Rogers posed,” before he was sent as to chaperone the teenagers.

The summary states that in April 1996, Jack Wayne Rogers “requested that the session of his church endorse him to the Committee on Commissioned Lay Pastors. In that process Rogers submitted a Statement of Intent or Call and a Personal Explanation, Apology, and Request. The latter document was apparently to explain his arrest, conviction, and imprisonment in 1992 for receiving child pornography. The session of Rogers’ congregation approved his request to endorse him to the Committee on Commissioned Lay Pastors. The presbytery’s CLP Committee approved his application and Rogers was hired by a Missouri congregation to fulfill its pastoral needs on a temporary basis. According to records reviewed by the panel, one condition of his service was that he was to continue to be supervised by a local minister.”

 

The document states that “the presbytery, even though there are witnesses who claimed they tried to warn Presbytery officials about the dangers Rogers posed, selected Rogers as a chaperone for a teen delegation to attend Connections 2000, organized by the Office of Youth Ministry of the General Assembly Council (now known as the Presbyterian Mission Agency).”

Schondelmeyer was one of the teenagers attending the conference. “Years after the conference, Rev. Schondelmeyer alleged that he went into Rogers’ hotel room during the conference for pastoral counseling,” the summary states. “During the counseling Rogers inappropriately touched Rev. Schondelmeyer, who pushed Rogers off him and escaped the room.”

An early version of the summary states that “based upon their investigation, the panel believes that Rev. Schondelmeyer was inappropriately touched by Rogers. The panel generated several recommendations based upon their investigation and they are submitted to the General Assembly for consideration.”

In an interview, Schondelmeyer said he disputed some portions of the early version of that report — asking, for example, that the language of “inappropriately touched” be changed to “sexually abused.” The revised version of the document states that “Rogers sexual assaulted touched [sic]” Schondelmeyer, and the denomination’s communications officers stated that Parsons made those wording changes.

In an interview, Schondelmeyer said that after the abuse happened, he pushed the incident out of his mind for a decade — “there was a lot going on in my family.” It only resurfaced five years after the death of his father, when he began having nightmares.

Schondelmeyer said that’s significant, because his relationship with his father was not good. His parents had separated; he saw his father only sporadically and their relationship was difficult. During the Youth Connection event, Schondelmeyer said, the teenagers were asked one evening to think of prayer as being like a letter to God. He remembers that one young woman read her prayer out loud, beginning it “Dear Dad” — addressing God as a father.

Schondelmeyer said he felt confused by that. He already had begun considering a call to ministry, but wasn’t sure he could pray in that way — and he had questions about what that might mean about his relationship with God. Schondelmeyer said that’s why he went to talk to Rogers that night — he wanted to talk about prayer, faith and his sense of being called to ministry.

Schondelmeyer said Rogers responded, “God puts people in our lives to show us the love we’re missing” — and then began to touch the teenager sexually and force himself on top of the boy.

Kris Schondelmeyer and his wife Abby

For years, Schondelmeyer said, he pushed away the memory. When it resurfaced, he searched for Rogers on the internet and found the news coverage of the man’s crimes and conviction. Part of his reaction was to think immediately, “How can I make sure he never gets out of jail?”

In 2013, Schondelmeyer and his wife drove to Maryland, he said, to file a formal complaint with the police against Rogers.

He then filed a civil suit in Missouri.

In a response to that lawsuit, the PC(USA) filed a response stating, in part, that the PC(USA) “specifically Denies that Defendant Jack Wayne Rogers was ever under the direct supervision or control” of the PC(USA). The response states that the denomination “admits that it sponsored the Connection 2000 Youth Conference, but denies the allegation that it was legally responsible for the safety of all participants.”

Schondelmeyer and the denomination settled that lawsuit in 2014 for $35,000 and an agreement that the PC(USA) take certain steps — including creating a Task Force for Safe and Sacred Space and commissioning an independent investigation to “seek to discover what circumstances at the local, regional or national levels of the denomination contributed to the decision to permit Jack W. Rogers to serve as a chaperone for the event. … The investigation will be conducted by individuals who are neither officers nor staff members” of the PC(USA).

Schondelmeyer remains frustrated with that investigation and how his case was handled. As part of that, he hopes to make an argument to The Way Forward committee at the 2018 General Assembly that lawyers working for the denomination should not have roles as vice presidents of the PC(USA), A Corporation, the corporate entity for the Presbyterian Mission Agency and the Office of the General Assembly, and that the A Corporation needs to improve its handling of sexual abuse cases.

The communications officers released this written statement:

“What happened to Kris should never have happened. We pray for his continued healing and strength of spirit.

Then Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons apologized to Kris from the platform at the 2016 General Assembly. At that same assembly, a child/youth/vulnerable adult protection policy was approved to keep national church events safe for everyone. Background checks are now required for all national events involving children or youth. The Book of Order was also amended to require that all councils of the church adopt child protection policies.”

There still are questions being presented to the 2018 assembly, however, of whether the changes approved by the 2016 assembly go far enough.In 2017, a synod permanent judicial commission ruled that behavior which a presbytery permanent judicial commission had found in violation of the presbytery’s sexual misconduct policy was not considered a violation of the Rules of Discipline because it didn’t explicitly say that the behavior violated Scriptures or the PC(USA) constitution.

In response, the Presbytery of North Alabama has presented to the 2018 assembly an overture trying to amend the denomination’s constitution to explicitly state that “an act or omission prohibited by the council of authority’s duly adopted sexual misconduct policy and/or child and youth protection policy 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 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.”

After all that has happened, Schondelmeyer continues to speak out, but is questioning whether he can remain a PC(USA) minister.  He’ll be watching to see what the 2018 assembly does about #MeToo and #ChurchToo matters.

“I’m Presbyterian through and through,” Schondelmeyer said. “All I want to do is make this church safe and sacred space for children.”

And he says: “Our church has to tell the truth about this stuff. There has to be accountability. Forgiveness should not mean the absence of accountability. … Not to tell the truth about these things means we won’t change our policy. … A victim of sexual abuse should not have to fight this hard.”

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