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The 2012 edition of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church.  The book includes church policies and laws, including how to adjudicate church trials.  Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

Photo by Mike DuBose, UMNS

The 2012 edition of the Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church. The book includes church policies and laws, including how to adjudicate church trials.

Church court convicts pastor of sexual misconduct

By Heather Hahn
Jan. 13, 2016 | UMNS

A church court removed a pastor’s credentials in The United Methodist Church late Jan. 12 after he was found guilty of sexual misconduct.

The Rev. Errol Leslie, who formerly served in the Florida Conference and currently served two churches in Connecticut, stood trial Jan. 11-12 in Lakeland, Florida, on accusations he had sexual relations with a laywoman and misused his authority. The woman brought the complaint against Leslie.

Florida Area Bishop Ken Carter Jr. announced the trial in a post on his Facebook page asking for prayer for the proceedings.

The trial comes at a time when multiple pastors have faced complaints for officiating at same-sex unions or being “self-avowed practicing” gay clergy, both chargeable offenses under church law.

Carter specifically noted this case was different. Leslie faced allegations of “heterosexual misconduct,” the bishop said.

Leslie faced charges of immorality, sexual misconduct and disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church, under Paragraph 2702 of the denomination’s Book of Discipline.

The trial court — the equivalent of a church jury — found him guilty on all three counts. Retired Bishop Al Gwinn served as the presiding officer, the equivalent of a judge.

A trial court consists of 13 ordained clergy and two alternates.

By a vote of 9-4, the trial court decided to “terminate conference membership and revoke the Rev. Leslie’s credentials to conference membership.”

The action means he also can no longer serve as a pastor in the New England Conference or other United Methodist conferences. At the time of the trial, he was serving as pastor of Wesley Memorial United Methodist Church in East Hartford, Connecticut, and nearby Vernon United Methodist Church. The Wesley Memorial website identified Leslie as married. 

Because Leslie is ordained in the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas, The United Methodist Church does not have the authority to strip him of ordination in that denomination.

The Rev. Jay Therrell, senior pastor of Cape Coral First United Methodist Church, was the counsel for the church, a role similar to a prosecutor.

“I think justice has been done,” he told United Methodist News Service.

Therrell declined to name the woman who brought the complaint because “we don’t want anyone to ever feel they shouldn’t report something that’s happened.”

The Rev. Scott Campbell, a retired clergy member in the New England Conference who was the counsel for Leslie, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Boston Area Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar, who leads the New England Conference, followed up the announcement of the penalty with a call for prayer.

“We are sorry to lose a colleague, and will continue to pray for him and his family,” Devadhar said. “Our prayers go out to the victim and anyone who has been harmed by these unfortunate events. When a pastor’s actions conflict with The United Methodist Church’s values and practices, there is a process to deal with that, and we must trust in that process.”

He added that he also is praying for the two congregations where Leslie was serving, and that those churches will have the bishop’s utmost support as their leadership changes.

“I am confident, with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that we can reach a place of healing,” the bishop said. 

Carter told United Methodist News Service this was Florida Conference’s first trial in 11 years. “This was done after lots of attempts to arrive at justice,” he said.

The Book of Discipline, the denomination’s law book, says church trials are “to be regarded as an expedient of last resort.”

Carter emphasized that attempts to avoid a trial with a just resolution were to no avail.

“A trial is a right according to our Discipline,” he said on Facebook. “Trials are costly and misunderstood. If a church has a trial, the church is often seen as the inquisitor. If a church avoids a trial, the church is often characterized as suppressing the truth.”

After the trial, he expressed his gratitude to the men and women "who gave sacrificially and prayerfully of their time" in carrying out the trial. He also asked United Methodists to join him in prayer.

"May we do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with you," he said in his prayer. "In the name of Jesus, our judge and our hope. Amen."

News media contact: Heather Hahn at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.