The 2018 General Assembly is being asked to consider the implications of #MeToo in the church — including a recommendation from the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns that the denomination’s stated clerk issue a confession on behalf of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for its failure to listen to the victims of pastoral sexual misconduct.
That recommendation also asks for some effort to be made to quantify the number of sexual misconduct charges presented at all levels of the church, including in congregations.
And it calls for the creation of a task force composed of victims of sexual assault and advocates of victims, which would conduct a comprehensive examination of PC(USA) policy, judicial process and rules of discipline regarding sexual misconduct.
Also (perhaps surprisingly) coming to the assembly is this question: whether a violation of a council’s sexual misconduct policy should be seen as contrary to Scripture and the denomination’s constitution, and thus subject to the Rules of Discipline.
An overture from the Presbytery of North Alabama seeks to amend the PC(USA) constitution to state explicitly that that’s the case — and cites as its reason for doing so a recent synod permanent judicial commission ruling which, the rationale for the overture states, “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 Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns also has submitted a recommendation for a proposed constitutional amendment to change the standard for finding someone guilty of a disciplinary charge in a church proceeding from what it currently is – proven “beyond a reasonable doubt” – to a standard of “clear and convincing evidence.”
The rationale for that recommendation states:
“There have been disciplinary cases involving ministers of Word and Sacrament who were accused of ‘sexual abuse of another person’ in which the investigating committee found the witnesses credible (believable, trustworthy) and reliable (accurate), and were persuaded there was evidence sufficient to justify filing a charge of ‘sexual abuse of another person.’ However, because of the high burden of D-11.0403a., committees declined to file the charge because they were not convinced they could prove the charge ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ at trial. Investigating committees in those situations are keenly aware of the cost to the governing body, i.e., a presbytery, should the case go to trial before a permanent judicial commission. Rather than working to obtain justice, the effort stops.”
Two other #MeToo measures coming to the 2018 assembly deal with policies regarding former ministers who renounced the jurisdiction of the PC(USA) when facing charges. That stems in part from questions raised by the case of Jeffrey D. Peterson-Davis, a former minister who renounced the denomination’s jurisdiction in 2012 while facing judicial proceedings in a church court in the Presbytery of Western Reserve in Ohio. Four men who attended churches in Georgia and California where Peterson-Davis previously had worked had filed complaints in the church system accusing him of sexual abuse.
The denomination has wrestled since then with what policy changes it should make in response — including sending two constitutional amendments to the presbyteries on that issue following the 2016 assembly, both of which passed and for which there are now new overtures seeking amendments. A vote by an assembly to approve a constitutional amendment still would need ratification from a majority of the presbyteries in order to take effect.
Along with the specifics of particular recommendations, the assembly also is being asked to consider a somewhat subtler issue: not just what’s the right policy, but how long can the Presbyterian Church afford to take to figure that out?
An example: In 2016, the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns asked the General Assembly to approve a proposed constitutional amendment to give people more time to file charges related to sexual abuse in the church system.
The idea is – as the #MeToo movement has clearly demonstrated – 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.
The recommendation to the 2016 General Assembly was to change the rules so that:
“For instances of gross negligence enabling the sexual abuse of another person, charges may be filed within ten years of the date the person making the accusation attains the age of eighteen, 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 later occurs.”
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.
And now the Advisory Committee on the Constitution is asking the 2018 General Assembly to refer that same issue to the Rules of Discipline Task Force — meaning no change would be proposed until at least 2020, and then any possible constitutional change would have to go to the presbyteries for their vote, which would take another year.
That would mean five years would have elapsed before the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns first asked the PC(USA) to extend the time limit in filing charges. The Advisory Committee on the Constitution does suggest that, if the 2018 assembly chooses not to send the matter to the Rules of Discipline Task Force, that it could propose this constitutional change (with the language to be added 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.”
An enduring concern
How pervasive a problem #MeToo is in the Presbyterian Church is difficult to pin down. There have unquestionably been serious, damaging cases of pastoral sexual misconduct in the denomination — for example, as acknowledged at Vienna Presbyterian Church in northern Virginia where a public apology was made in 2011 and a Washington Post story chronicled the abuse of possibly a dozen teenage girls by a former youth director.
Female ministers in the PC(USA) report they have often been subject to unwanted touch, propositions and comments.
A 2016 report from PC(USA) Research Services on Gender and Leadership in the PC(USA) found that eight out of 10 female minsters in the denomination said they had experienced discrimination, harassment or prejudicial comments because of their gender.
Jeanne Choy Tate, co-moderator of the Advocacy Committee for Women’s Concerns, said of this year’s assembly: “If they don’t take it seriously now, they’re never going to take it seriously,” following a year in which #MeToo and #ChurchToo cases have week after week made national headlines — among them, the firing of Southern Baptist leader Paige Patterson, for his treatment of women who reported allegations of rape and sexual assault.
Tate has lived through the aftermath of one of the PC(USA)’s worst sexual abuse cases: sexual abuse that took place at Cameron Housein San Francisco, where former Presbyterian minister Dick Wichman was accused of abusingboys over 30 years. Facing charges, Wichman renounced the PC(USA)’s jurisdiction. One of the victims of that abuse was Tate’s husband.
How big a problem is sexual abuse in the PC(USA)? “What really scares me is that we don’t have any idea,” Tate said. She will be speaking at General Assembly in support of a proposal to set up a task force to look comprehensively at denominational policy and judicial process involving sexual misconduct cases.
The 2016 General Assembly passed a comprehensive policy to protect children, youth and vulnerable adults, and did so while issuing a public apology to Kris Schondelmeyer, a PC(USA) minister who was sexually abused at a national Presbyterian youth conference when he was 17.
But Schondelmeyer, who serves a church in Pennsylvania, since has written about his enduring disappointment with PC(USA) policy and the handling of his case.
“It’s extremely painful for victims to discover that church rules, as they currently stand, serve to protect those who protect abusers,” Schondelmeyer wrotein 2017 at Ecclesio.com. “When combined with the roadblocks and cover-ups that a victim experiences after coming forward, the pain of speaking out can be a worse betrayal of spiritual trust than the actual abuse itself. This has certainly been my experience.”
The Presbytery of North Alabama is sending an overture asking for a constitutional change to make it explicit that a violation of a council’s sexual misconduct policy or child and youth protection policy “shall be considered contrary to the Scriptures or Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” and subject to disciplinary rules.
In its comment, the Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval, stating that “Scriptures and the Constitution do not condone sexual misconduct or the abuse and endangerment of children and youth,” and the assembly might consider admonishing councils and judicial commissions to remember that.
But the presbytery is bringing the overture, said Christie Ashton, a minister and North Alabama’s stated clerk, because a synod permanent judicial commission did overturn a finding of sexual harassment by the presbytery permanent judicial commission, in a case that a female minister brought after she and a male colleague both attended a PC(USA) ministry leadership event.
The synod judicial commission ruled that the presbytery’s judicial commission found the accused had violated the presbytery’s sexual misconduct policy — but that the case did not meet the test of a disciplinary offense because the Rules of Discipline define an offense as “any act or omission by a member or a person in ordered ministry of the church that is contrary to the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)” (D-2.0203b). In fulfillment of this requirement, charges in disciplinary cases must be specific, and must be tied directly to one or more passages of Scripture or provisions of the Constitution.”
Ashton said that many were surprised when she reported back the ruling from the Synod of Living Waters Permanent Judicial Commission. “It’s hard to understand, because it doesn’t make sense” that violating the presbytery’s sexual misconduct policy would not qualify as a disciplinary offense, Ashton said.
Yet “it’s technically valid. That’s where we realized this was this loophole. … You don’t find the holes until you fall into them.”
Ashton said that when presbytery representatives read the synod commission’s ruling, “we realized the same applies to child protection policies,” approved by the 2016 General Assembly. “We felt that was such an egregious oversight that it needs to be corrected.”
Consequently, 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 Advisory Committee on the Constitution recommends disapproval — or, alternately, referring the matter to the Rules of Discipline Task Force.
Whatever changes that task force might propose would take years to approve and implement, Ashton said. “It seems to us this is such a glaring loophole it needs to be closed immediately” – victims of sexual misconduct and harassment should not have to wait that long, she contends.
Ashton said the details of this judicial case are complicated, but she was troubled that the synod judicial commission did not remand the case back for further consideration, but simply reversed the presbytery commission’s ruling.
As a woman in ministry, “I felt betrayed,” she said. “The vast majority of the time, it’s women who are victims. I felt like my church had said they weren’t going to protect me, that they would not have my back if something like that were to happen to me.”
She feels it’s important for the General Assembly to set the policy on this issue through a constitutional change that would apply to the whole denomination — not relying on councils across the church to write their own policies, because “we’re not equipped to deal with that.”
Ashton asked: “Why don’t we take a stand firmly on this as a denomination? It’s because when we do, we’re liable. And nobody wants to be liable for this stuff. … And when nobody’s liable, nobody is accountable.”