A Cross-Cultural Church Trial Appeal
Not having any of the trial records, I can’t determine if there were any violations of process that vitiate the verdicts of the trial court, appellate court, or Council.
I have the uncomfortable feeling that no one on an appeals committee of the jurisdiction nor on the Judicial Council has ever been involved as an advocate for a respondent in a church trial. That observation relates to all such groups I’ve observed over the years and not just to those involved in this case. (Update: There was one, Rev. Larry Pickens who was Rev. Greg Dell’s advocate. Rev. Pickens left the Council to be the UMC ecumenical agency leader.)
There are four things that bother me about this case from Rocky Mountain Annual Conference.
One, there is no sensitivity to allowing the complainant to be a prosecutor.
Two, there is no concern for how a pastor without appointment can survive economically without some kind of income producing work.
Three, there is no clear indication that the cultural differences were seriously considered in bringing the charges in the first place.
Four, there is no legitimate reason for allowing as part of the appeal material ruled inadmissable by the trial court presider.
Let me begin with the last. In my experience with appeals, no one on the appellate bodies bothered with the evidence. All they apparently read was the trial transcript and made their judgments based strictly on that. Practically speaking, appellate members had no time to do much more than that. Their meetings are too brief. Copying the whole body of evidence and pretrial documents is a massive undertaking just to make one copy let alone a copy for each appellate group’s membership. And if there was no objection by the respondent to the bishop’s ruling about the material that was not to be used, the appellate committee and the Council had no authority to look at it. Its use was purely prejudicial.
Regarding the third concern, except for the one sentence about cultural differences, there is no sign of awareness of what may have been involved. What was the “Tongan way to deal with the abuse?” Was it effective even if different from common practice? Did anyone instruct the respondent or any other pastors in his district about standard procedure pastors are to follow in such cases? Was any harm done because he used his own way? Did anyone bother to compare his way to use of similar means occasionally or previously used by professionals in that field? Wasn’t it incumbent on the prosecution to show that his way caused harm and was not just culturally different? Surely such matters would have been reflected in the analysis by the Council had those elements been part of the trial.
Regarding the second concern, respondent pastors, having few resources because of losing income after suspension that has run out, revert to former vocations to get money for food and lodging. One of my clients had been a pharmacist before becoming a pastor and he worked at a box store pharmacy during the time leading up to his trial. In this case, the respondent was a pastor of another denomination and provided needed skill there during the pretrial circumstances. I presume the other denomination was aware of what he faced within the United Methodist Church and they still permitted him to serve them. He did not violate his agreement not to do ministry within the United Methodist Church. He needed the money. Using this against the respondent shows no empathy for the dire straits our system puts on pastors facing church trial.
Regarding the first concern, being on the counsel for the church’s prosecution team, the complainant was given an unfair advantage. To my knowledge that would not have been allowed in civil court proceedings. The prosecution represents the church and not the complainant in our legal system. He had every right to be a witness. But the prosecution has to be objective in its presentation of the facts against the respondent. The complainant is not an unbiased officer of the court. By giving him that role, the court and appellate bodies allowed bias to taint the whole proceedings.
I’ve had the honor and the horror of having to study trial transcripts and help prepare appeals in at least a half dozen cases over the years. The processes used by the officers of the church showed this same pattern, upon accusation everything done by the respondent was twisted into some kind of charge against him and the church felt free to do anything it pleased to get a conviction, especially allowing cabinet members special privileges in the trials.
This quadrennium’s Council group has been very good at handling most legal questions brought to it. It has handled a number of personnel cases with great care, Bishop Bledsoe’s and cases from Baltimore Washington being good examples of careful analysis and good judgment. But with few exceptions, reviewing trials is not one of the Council’s better skills.
I look forward to the day when respondents who survive the trial process and their advocates are elected to the Council.
Finally, not seeing the transcripts and documents related to this case makes my judgment hypothetical. And, of course, it is moot what I think because the case has been addressed by the proper bodies. But maybe someone will heed my observations so that harm is minimized in future cases.