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Decision No. 1105

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October 24 2008
In Re: Review of a decision of law by Bishop Marcus Matthews of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference concerning the mandatory appointment of a clergy member after a trial court decision declaring the clergy member not guilty of the alleged offenses

Digest of Case

A respondent who is acquitted after a church trial is entitled to restoration of all previous status, rights and privileges to which the respondent was entitled prior to the commencement of the complaint process.

Statement of Facts

During the 2008 clergy session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference, the presiding bishop received a request for a decision of law stated in relevant part as follows:

. . . I request Bishop Matthews issue a decision on a question of law as to whether the Book of Discipline allows for the Annual Conference to not have appointed Reverend Darby following the “not guilty” decision by the church trial court.
The bishop’s decision of law has been reported to the Judicial Council. In his decision, the presiding bishop provided additional facts that will be referenced to the extent necessary for our review. Written complaints were received in February 2007 accusing an elder in full connection of child sex abuse of three children in a church preschool. After an unsuccessful attempt to achieve just resolution, the conference committee on investigation referred charges and a church trial was held on November 15‑16, 2007. At the conclusion of the church trial, the jury acquitted the respondent on all charges. The record supplied suggests, but does not clearly delineate, the respondent’s status or dates of suspension from pastoral duties once the complaint process began. The bishop’s decision of law determined that although the respondent was acquitted of all charges and remained in good standing, he was nevertheless denied an appointment at the 2008 session of the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference because he was unable to supply child abuse clearance verifications from the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare. The bishop’s ruling further determined that although the respondent remains a member in good standing, ¶ 337.1 permits the bishop to deny an appointment because the respondent has failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility set forth in ¶ 334.2. According to the record supplied by the Conference Secretary, the 2008 Annual Conference voted to place the respondent on suspension pursuant to ¶ 362.1c effective February 1, 2007 and pursuant to ¶ 2704.2c effective May 12, 2007. These paragraphs relate to complaint proceedings and are inapplicable to the respondent owing to the fact that he has been acquitted of charges. The bishop’s decision of law provides the additional facts that under the authority granted in ¶ 604 of the 2004 Discipline, the Eastern Pennsylvania Annual Conference had previously adopted a policy applicable to all pastors serving local churches which require such persons to “submit to their clergy record current mandated child abuse clearances.” The policy in relevant part requires that every pastor serving a local church to submit into their clergy record current mandated child abuse clearances and further requires every pastor serving a local church to take the Basic Sexual Ethics seminar or show verification that they have taken a similar workshop. The Annual Conference had as its purpose the desire to make reasonable efforts in good faith to protect vulnerable children and to vouch for the good character and sound behavior of its pastoral leaders. The record supplied additionally suggests that the 2003 resolution was later expanded to include all workers with youth and children including volunteers.

JURISDICTION

The Judicial Council has jurisdiction pursuant to ¶2609 of the 2004 Book of Discipline.

ANALYSIS AND RATIONALE

Under the provisions of ¶ 334.2, there are professional responsibilities that elders are expected to fulfill and that represent a fundamental part of their accountability and a primary basis for their continued eligibility for annual appointment. Paragraph 334.2 enumerates in sub-paragraphs a-e the specific criteria that represent the minimum requirements of their accountability and primary basis for their continued eligibility for annual appointment. Paragraph 334.3 provides that if an elder fails to meet the professional responsibilities set forth in ¶ 334.2, the provisions of ¶ 362.4c may be invoked. As relates to the respondent, the complaints brought against him have been resolved in his favor through the judgment of acquittal entered by the church trial court.
Paragraph 337.1 of the 2004 Book of Discipline states the following: ¶ 337. General Provisions—1. All elders in full connection who are in good standing in an annual conference shall be continued under appointment by the bishop unless they are granted a sabbatical leave, an incapacity leave (¶ 358), family leave, a leave of absence, retirement, or have failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility (¶ 334.2). . .[emphasis added.]
The bishop’s decision cites ¶ 337.1 as the basis for denial of an appointment, but also determines that the conference member is an elder in good standing. A clergyperson who remained in good standing in an Annual Conference is required to be continued under appointment. A clergyperson in good standing cannot be terminated without administrative or judicial action having occurred and all fair process afforded. See Decisions 1074 and 920. The record clearly establishes that the respondent was acquitted of all charges at the conclusion of the church trial. An acquittal acts as a total vindication of an accused, whereby, the accused is relieved of all badges and indicia of the charges. The respondent is entitled to be restored to all previous status, rights and privileges to which the respondent was entitled prior to commencement of the complaint process. An Annual Conference for its own government may adopt rules and regulations not in conflict with the Discipline of the United Methodist Church. However, no Annual Conference may adopt any rule or policy that is in conflict with the Discipline. Once admitted as a clergy member in full connection, the member may only be deprived an appointment after fair process as prescribed in the Discipline. So long as the clergy member otherwise remains in good standing, he is entitled to an appointment and to full restoration of all of his previous status, rights and privileges to which he was entitled and would have been entitled had the charges never been brought.

Decision

A respondent who is acquitted after a church trial is entitled to restoration of all of previous status, rights and privileges to which the respondent was entitled prior to the commencement of the complaint process.

CONCURRING OPINION

We agree with our colleagues in the restoration of the clergy person’s status, rights, salary and benefits as required by the Discipline. Our unease necessitates writing a concurring opinion because the trial court did not have full access to testimony in reaching their finding of not guilty. Appointing him without a clear, expunged record compromises his ministry, his appointability, and his relationship in the Annual Conference.

Susan Henry-Crowe Angela Brown Katherine Austin Mahle October 25, 2008

DISSENTING OPINION

Paragraph 337.1 indicates that an elder in full connection who is in good standing shall be continued in an appointment unless that elder is granted a sabbatical leave, an incapacity leave, family leave, retirement, or has failed to meet the requirements for continued eligibility. I agree that a respondent who is acquitted after a church trial is restored to good standing, but I believe that an annual conference can establish requirements for professional responsibilities other than those delineated in ¶334.2 and thus create additional conditions for continued eligibility. Paragraph 33, Article II, Section VI, Division Two of the Constitution gives the annual conference the right to vote on all matters relating to the conference relations of its clergy members. This provision allows an annual conference to vote on additional standards for eligibility for any given status, while recognizing what Decision 823 states: “Clearly, however, in exercising its rights, an Annual Conference cannot take action which negates General Conference legislation.” A concurring opinion to Decision 823 advises: “Because standards related to ordination and conference membership are distinctively connectional, Annual Conferences must exercise great caution in establishing requirements beyond those cited in the Discipline.” Such caution appears to have been exercised when the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference approved in 2003 a policy that “Every pastor serving a local church by July 1, 2004 (anyone serving a local congregation including retired pastors, lay supply pastors and direct hire pastors) shall submit into their clergy record current mandated child abuse clearance and must take the Basic Sexual Ethics seminar or show verification that they have taken a similar workshop.” This policy simply holds those active in service to a requirement comparable to that made of those seeking admission into active ministry: candidates (¶ 311.3d), licensed pastors (¶ 315.5a), probationary members (¶ 324.12) clergy from other denominations (¶ 346.2), and transfers from other Methodist denominations (¶ 347.2). Far from being foreign to disciplinary provisions, the policy affirms and extends those provisions. I believe the Eastern Pennsylvania Conference can hold all pastors serving local churches “to submit to their clergy record current mandated child abuse clearance” as a condition for continued eligibility.

F. Belton Joyner, Jr. October 25, 2008

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