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Emotions and polity details for the Heath, Safety, and Benefits Committee

On its last day, the committee discussed the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force report and recommendations at length.

Mary Martin Sweet Health (REC-Long Island, far right) takes a stretch break with other members of the Safety, and Benefits Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Louisville, Kentucky — The Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force report was taken up by the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee of the 225th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) on their third and final meeting day. It was a day of contrasts as the committee heard the emotional stories of survivors of sexual abuse and then turned to the detailed discussion of the church’s polity and discerned how best to include the task force’s recommendations in the Book of Order. All those who spoke – commissioners, advisory delegates and resource people alike –  strongly agreed with the intent of providing training, accountability and protection for individuals in the Book of Order. The question was how to do it in a way that was consistent and honored Presbyterian polity.

Young Lee Hertig (TEC-The Pacific) speaks at the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

The business began with Carol Howard Merritt, chair of the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force, introducing the task force’s purpose of strengthening the church’s response to reports of sexual misconduct and to ask “how can we do better?”. She also shared the story of clergy sexual abuse from her own family. Kristopher Schondelmeyer, a member of the task force, also shared his story of sexual abuse by a church leader at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) national event and the long-term trauma that it has left in his life. He added that he was the task force lead on the Book of Order changes and is prepared to respond to polity questions and the responses from the Advisory Committee on the Constitution (ACC).

Committee Moderator David Ammons recommended that the eight individual recommendations in item HSB-05: Survivors of Sexual Misconduct be divided and handled one at a time done to standardize the language. This was easier said than done.

Many of the polity points surfaced in the first recommendation to change the Book of Order so that those enrolled as an inquirer or candidate, while still a member of their church, would be subject to the concern and discipline of the presbytery. With this recommendation, as well as a similar recommendation, the task force considered that the presbytery is more likely to have the resources to carefully handle sexual misconduct charges and that all parties were more likely to have an equal hearing there as well.

Judy Woods from the ACC commended the task force for bringing these issues before the church but recommended disapproval of this item as contrary to the structure of the church and the principle of the congregational covenant of love and trust found in G-1.0102. Tim Cargal, assistant stated clerk for Ministry Preparation and Support, also stated that an inquirer or candidate must be a member of a church and shifting oversight would weaken that requirement.

The commissioners and advisory delegates asked a number of questions of the resource people. In answer to one question, Woods affirmed that presbytery resources are available to assist congregations and that regularly happens. Regarding checks and balances, she confirmed that there are provisions that allow parties to challenge at every step. There were questions about how this committee’s work would intersect with the new Rules of Discipline. It was confirmed that this item did not overlap; this recommendation is in the Form of Government section and not in the Rules of Discipline.

Following this discussion, Recommendation 1 was approved as amended to provide that inquirers and candidates “are subject to the concern and discipline of the presbytery” specifically in matters of sexual misconduct.

Lindsay Jacaruso (TEC-Minnesota Valleys) speaks at the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Next, the committee moved to the three recommendations requiring boundary training regarding sexual misconduct and child sexual abuse prevention. A number of polity issues were raised, including the task force wording and use of terminology not defined in the Book of Order. In addition, Cargal pointed out that the suggested language for ministers of Word and Sacrament was placed as an exit requirement in preparation (G-2.0607e) and not as a requirement as inquirers and candidates are in the process (G-2.0603). The task force agreed and the committee took his advice and changed the location of the proposed wording to the process section. The wording was approved for ministers of Word and Sacrament, commissioned ruling elders, and a new recommendation, number 9, was added to require the boundary training for ruling elders. If the amendments to the Book of Order are approved, each of these officers will be required to take boundary training that “includes the topic of sexual misconduct, and child sexual abuse prevention training with recertification at least every 36 months.”

The committee also looked at the unique situation of certified Christian educators. As Martha Miller, the manager of Ministry Education and Support in the Office of the General Assembly, and Emily Chudy, co-moderator of the GA Special Committee to Study the Reformed Perspective of Christian Education in the 21st Century, explained, certified Christian educators do not have a simple council relationship like the other positions.

Among other things, the church for which they work need not be in the same presbytery as they are enrolled as a certified Christian educator. In addition to the same wording for the necessary training, it was also added that “Presbytery shall report a certificate of completion to the national certifying body for these two trainings.” As Chudy admitted, these proposed standards are consistent with where they want to go with certified Christian educators, but she realizes that in the end it will not be fully realized.

A lot of discussion and discernment went into getting the committee to this point, but they found themselves 15 minutes from the scheduled adjournment. With some advice from Matthew Schramm, the committee assistant, they quickly approved Recommendation 7 which was related to the creation of resources with no constitutional implications and disapproved Recommendation 8 because it had been taken up by the Rules of Discipline Committee. Recommendation 5 had been withdrawn before the committee began for the same reason. And Recommendation 6 was disapproved earlier as the committee agreed with the ACC that disciplinary proceedings of church members for sexual misconduct should remain with the session and not be automatically referred to the presbytery.

Finally, HSB-09 was answered with the action on HSB-05.

Following the conclusion of business today, Schondelmeyer shared his thoughts in a statement to the Outlook:

“It has been a privilege to serve on the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force. As a survivor of clergy sexual abuse in the PC(USA) which occurred in my youth, my disclosure and journey towards accountability and change have not always been received well. My promise to my children is to raise them in a church that is truly a safe and sacred space. Today the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee voted to send several of the Survivors of Sexual Misconduct Task Force’s recommendations to the plenary that will do just that.”

Philip Williams (TEC-Mississippi) speaks at the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee. Photo by Gregg Brekke for Presbyterian Outlook.

Having run about 15 minutes past the time for adjournment, most of the committee members thought they were done and the moderator started thanking them for their service. That was cut short by Lindsay Jacaruso, commissioner from Minnesota Valleys Presbytery, who moved a reconsideration of HSB-06. She explained that in discussions she’d had there was concern that by specifying a minimum length for family leave – in this case, eight weeks – that specificity could ultimately raise concerns on the floor of plenary and the inclusion of family leave in the terms of call would once again be defeated. The motion to reconsider succeeded by a vote of 24-14, and after a bit of debate, most of the committee agreed with her to remove the specific length of time. As was pointed out, in plenary the action could be amended to add the time back in and that would be an indication of the strength of the recommendation in the wider body.

And with that, the business items of the Health, Safety, and Benefits Committee were completed. The committee members who could stay gathered for a brief time of worship including communion. The completed report of the committee will be presented to the plenary in a bit over a week.