Presbyterians Ponder Policy When Sexual Abuse Alleged
Proposal Automatically Puts Minister on Leave

By Peter Smith
The Courier-Journal [Louisville KY]
Downloaded July 6, 2003

Presbyterian ministers accused of sexual misconduct with minors would automatically be placed on leave pending investigation of the charges under a proposal to be voted on by church regional governing bodies during the coming year.

But some church officials question the proposal, which the General Assembly of the Louisville-based Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) endorse d in May. They fear ministers could be denied their rights to due process and have their reputations damaged by accusations that turn out to be false.

A majority of the denomination's 173 regional presbyteries must approve the measure for it to become part of the church constitution.

While cases of clergy sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church have drawn wide attention over the past year and a half, cases have come to light in Presbyterian and other Protestant institutions as well.

The president of the Presbyterian-affiliated Montreat College in North Carolina who is also a Methodist minister resigned June 16 amid a police investigation into sexually explicit e-mails sent to a 13-year-old girl, according to Presbyterian News Service. A Presbyterian minister in suburban New York stepped down last year amid allegations of past abuse, while a Chicago minister was accused in a lawsuit.

A denominational commission last year also reported that a Presbyterian missionary to Africa had sexually abused 22 girls and women over several decades, and it cited further reports of abuse of missionary children in African countries. That commission recommended the denomination adopt a zero-tolerance policy that would oust any missionary found guilty of abusing children.

Unlike the Catholic Church, whose bishops last year voted to ban any priest from the ministry for one or more instances of child sexual abuse, Presbyterians do not have such an automatic penalty. Under its constitution, each presbytery decides on punishment in disciplinary cases , ranging from a public rebuke to ouster from the ministry.

But Laurie Griffith, manager of judicial process and social witness for the Presbyterians, said abusive ministers almost always leave the ministry rather than go through a church judicial process. "It almost never gets to trial," she said.

The church's General Assembly, or main legislative body, adopted a nonbinding resolution last year stating that the only appropriate punishment for abuse of children is removal from ministry. It also urged church officers to report abuse to civil authorities and to refuse to enter into any secret agreement that prevents the public from knowing a minister had abused children.

"Folks are very, very concerned about sexual abuse, about being responsive to people bringing allegations," Griffith said.

The Presbyterian Church has about 15,000 ministers serving 2.5 million members, according to denominational statistics. It has 600 paid and vol unteer missionaries in 90 countries.

The proposal heading to presbyteries focuses not on the final penalty for known abusers but only on how to handle a minister facing a pending investigation. It says that when a presbytery receives a written accusation, it must automatically place the minister on leave.

But the denominational Advisory Committee on the Constitution is recommending against that proposal, saying it fails to balance the rights of the accused with those of people bringing allegations.

"False accusations of sexual abuse, particularly if given the appearance of being validated by a governing body by placement of the accused on a leave of absence, can irreparably damage the reputation of the accused," the committee said in a report to the assembly.

The committee suggested an alternative: requiring that a presbytery designate two members of the presbytery's judicial commission to decide whether to recommend a leave of absence after investigating "whether it is probable that the charges have merit and there is a risk of further abuse."

But the assembly voted to e ndorse another recommendation of its Committee on Church Polity, saying that placing a minister on leave is merely a precautionary move, not a disciplinary one. Protection of children "must be assured while process is followed," the committee said in its report.

The Rev. David Harkness of the Presbytery of Hudson River, N.Y., which proposed the revision after going through a stormy disciplinary process last year, noted that accused pastors often have strong supporters in their congregations. If the leave of absence remains optional, such supporters would lobby against it.

"The atmosphere of trauma and denial is so powerful that you simply cannot have a strong enough two-person team to say Pastor A is going to stay and Pastor B is going to go on leave," said Harkness, chairman of the presbytery council.

A popular minister in the presbytery resigned in November 2002 rather than face a church trial on multiple allegations of abusing minors, but not before defending himself in the press, Harkness said. An accused minister who wasn't placed on leave could use the pulpit to defend his or her case, Harkness said.

"All a pastor would do is get in the way and make it impossible to have any kind of ecclesiastical case," he said.

Harkness acknowledged some falsely accused persons may be hurt, but "if we had to make a choice and it had to be imbalanced, then the church is going to come down on the side of the victims."

Griffith said the denomination is also considering revisions to its overall policies on sexual misconduct, involving adults as well as children. She is a member of two committees at work on those changes one following up on the missionary report and another considering general policy changes.

Sue Archibald, president of The Linkup, a Louisville-based advocacy group for victims of sexual abuse by clergy, said the proposed rule recognizes "the seriousness of the offense and the risks that would be involved in allowing a person who's been accused to stay in ministry."

She said a leave of absence should not be considered punitive, comparing it to a case where a police officer is placed on leave pending the investigation of a shooting. "It doesn't necessarily imply guilt but shows that because of the importance of his position , it's best for him to be pulled away from his job while the matter is being investigated."


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