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Judicial Council releases rulings on docket items

By Neill Caldwell*
April 29, 2008 | FORT WORTH, Texas (UMNS)

Working through a regular docket while meeting during 2008 General Conference, the Judicial Council of The United Methodist Church released rulings on four cases that emerged prior to the 10-day legislative assembly.

The church's top judicial authority affirmed two bishops' decisions of law, sustained the church trial conviction of a pastor in the Rocky Mountain Annual (regional) Conference and the revoking of his credentials for ministry, and ruled that annual conference commissions on religion and race do not have the authority to investigate complaints.

The nine-member council meets during General Conference to complete action on items received before the legislative gathering and to respond to requests for decisions that arrive from the floor during plenary sessions.

Cannot investigate

In Memorandum 1093, the council said that Paragraph 642.3(o) of the 2004 Book of Discipline does not grant investigatory authority to annual conference commissions on religion and race. Those bodies are to serve in "a consulting role to the bishop and other appropriate conference leadership," the memorandum states. Furthermore, those responsibilities put forth in the Book of Discipline cannot be changed by action of the annual conference.

The case stemmed from a request for decision from the Tennessee Annual (regional) Conference as to whether its commission on religion and race could act as an investigative body following filing of a complaint against a pastor or layperson, in addition to the conference's regular investigatory process.

"Although Paragraph 2008.6 authorizes the General Commission on Religion and Race to review, investigate and conduct hearings, no such language is present in Paragraph 642.3(o)," the memorandum states. "Paragraph 642 authorizes the conference commission on religion and race to 'follow the general guidelines and structure of the General Commission on Religion and Race as outlined in Paragraphs 2002 and 2008 where applicable' [emphasis added]."

No violation

Decision 1091 is a continuation of Decision 1081, in which the Judicial Council asked the council of finance and administration in the Western North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference to review whether the conference's financial support of the North Carolina Council of Churches and the campus ministry at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro violates Paragraph 612.19 of the Book of Discipline, which stipulates that no conference funds can be used to promote homosexuality. After receiving the conference council of finance and administration report that it had reviewed the funding and it was not in violation of Paragraph 612.19, the council affirmed Western North Carolina Bishop J. Lawrence McCleskey's decision of law.

Paragraph 612.19 of the Discipline says "no annual conference board, agency, committee, commission or council shall give United Methodist funds to any gay caucus or group, or otherwise use such funds to promote the acceptance of homosexuality."

"The conference council on finance and administration is authorized by the Discipline and has the authority to make such determination," the decision states, going on to include a gentle reminder that annual conference expenditures cannot violate Paragraph 612.19.

Agrees with bishop

In Decision 1092, the council affirmed California-Nevada Bishop Beverly Shamana's ruling of law that bishops have no authority to make substantive rulings on judicial or administrative matters that are under the purview of judicial of administrative bodies. The bishop cited the council's Decision 799 in response to a request during a session of annual conference to rule on six questions concerning the judicial and administrative process for a clergy member of the conference.

The council agreed with the bishop's response in citing Decision 799, which says in part that the Discipline and the constitution of the church "have placed the authority to resolve such questions in these bodies. To do otherwise would violate the principle of separation and balance of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches as set forth in the Constitution."

Rejects appeal

The Judicial Council rejected the appeal of the Rev. Wesley Kendall, who was convicted in a church trial. A May 22-24, 2007, trial found Kendall guilty on four counts of sexual harassment, five counts of sexual misconduct and two counts of violating the Order and Discipline of The United Methodist Church. As a penalty, the court terminated his annual conference membership and revoked his ordination credentials. The Western Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals denied his appeal and upheld the conviction. In Decision 1094, the Judicial Council agreed with both courts, saying the weight of evidence was sufficient to uphold the convictions and there were no errors that would invalidate the verdict or the penalty.

In a multiple-part opinion, the council went through each of Kendall's objections and found only two minor errors, neither of which was sufficient to change the outcome.

Early in the process, Kendall was not given copies of the letters sent to the bishop when the complaint was first filed, but they were provided to him less than a month later and before the pastor entered into a statement of resolution, which is outlined in Paragraph 362.1(b) of the Book of Discipline. (Kendall later asked to be released from the statement of resolution, and the judicial process began at that point.) As to a question about reimbursable expenses incurred between Kendall's suspension and his entering into the statement of resolution, the council directed the Rocky Mountain Conference to determine whether or not the expenses were reimbursable, and if so, to disburse the funds to Kendall.

Kendall also charged that the confidentiality of the process was violated when his district superintendent granted an interview to a Cheyenne, Wyo., newspaper. The council ruled that Kendall waived his confidentiality provisions when he entered into the statements of resolution, and that whether or not information concerning the case could be made public was at the discretion of the bishop.

Kendall also protested that his rights were violated when the bishop announced the trial decisions to the annual conference. In response, the council ruled, "Paragraph 2713.4 ... does not prevent the annual conference from releasing a statement which factually states the outcome of any trial or appeal."

In a concurring opinion, some of the specific instances of Kendall's sexual harassment were detailed. "The trial court found that Dr. Kendall engaged with sexual conduct or activity while he was in a ministerial relationship with each of four different women who were either members of First United Methodist Church of Cheyenne, Wyoming, or who were on the staff of the church." The conduct included provocative comments suggesting sexual activity and inappropriate touching, including "full frontal hugs accompanied by 'moans' of a sexual nature," the opinion states.

"We ... believe that the church is entitled to know both the type of conduct which we as a Judicial Council have found sufficient to sustain charges of sexual misconduct and harassment, and so the public will know the seriousness with which we regard such charges when established by clear and convincing evidence," stated the concurring opinion, signed by Keith Boyette, James Holsinger and Mary Daffin.

*Caldwell is editor of the Virginia United Methodist Advocate and covers the Judicial Council for United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Neill Caldwell, e-mail: newsdesk@umcom.org.

Phone calls can be made to the General Conference Newsroom in Fort Worth, Texas, at (817) 698-4405 until May 3. Afterward, call United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tenn., at (615) 742-5470.

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