Presbyterians tighten rules on clergy misconduct Convention approves procedure for investigating clergy conduct

June 12, 1991|By Frank P. L. Somerville | Frank P. L. Somerville,Religion Editor of The Sun

Delegates of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), meeting in Baltimore, voted overwhelmingly yesterday to crack down on sexual misconduct by the clergy, calling such behavior a growing spiritual and legal crisis for the denomination.

Also by a large margin, the delegates voted to abolish a three-year statute of limitations in such cases, noting that "child sexual abuse may not be recognized until the victim of abuse reaches adulthood." Even an adult victim, the delegates were told, may not be willing to come forward to name an abuser for many years.

This revision of the 2.9 million-member denomination's Book of Order is subject to ratification by two-thirds of its 171 regional governing bodies, called presbyteries.

But the detailed procedure setting up specially trained response teams in each Presbyterian congregation to conduct internal investigations and prosecutions needs no further approval to take effect.

The vote to eliminate the three-year statute of limitations in sex-abuse cases was 446 to 78.

The introduction to the Policy and Procedures on Sexual Misconduct -- that the convention delegates, called commissioners, adopted by a vote of 491 to 26 -- said the need for the policy is "painfully apparent" and added:

"The incidence of reported cases is sobering. Some presbyteries have multiple cases pending. Statistical evidence suggests between 10 [percent] and 23 percent of clergy nationwide have engaged in sexualized behavior or sexual contact with parishioners, clients, employees, etc. within a professional relationship.

"The toll of suffering such behavior exacts is staggering. The legal consequences for the denomination are enormous. We are facing a crisis terrible in its proportions and implications."

A survey of about a third of the presbyteries around the country uncovered evidence of about 60 current investigations into sexual misconduct involving people in positions of religious leadership, delegates were advised. Lawsuits have been filed around the country against many denominations, including the Presbyterians.

Under the new policy, the session -- an elected group governing each local Presbyterian congregation -- would sit as a court and try each case. The accused person would have a right to counsel and could present and cross-examine witnesses. If during the proceedings the defendant offers to resign, the session's jurisdiction ends.

Provisions are made for immediate notification of police where -- appropriate and for careful screening of potential church employees, including the clergy. "Stringent hiring practices" are recommended.

"Reports of sexual misconduct should never be taken lightly or disregarded and allowed to circulate without concern for the integrity and reputation of the accuser, the accused and the church," the policy states.

Punishment may include suspension or permanent loss of status as a minister or elder.

In all cases, a personnel committee will place a written report in the accused's permanent file, and while a leave of absence may be recommended, no transfer to another church jurisdiction is permitted while charges are pending.

The convention voted down a proposal to place clergy on immediate leave after a written allegation is filed because of the danger of vindictive, unsubstantiated charges.

The response teams of no fewer than five people, who are expected to deal with every sex-abuse accusation against the clergy or other church employees within 30 days, must "include a trained psychological counselor, a trained legal professional and a trained insurance professional."

If the victim is a woman, a majority of the team members would be women, and ethnic and language factors also are to be considered in appointing the members.

Team members would serve for a period of no less than three years "to ensure a professional level of experience, skill and continuity." Professional training of team members is required under the policy.

The response teams are specifically barred from acting as legal counsel for any party involved in a case or determining guilt or innocence.

The team may refer the victim to an agency for professional psychological counseling that sets fees based on the ability to pay, or the congregation may decide it has an obligation to pay the bill.

"Although the church is not legally obligated to pay for the victim's counseling," the adopted policy says, "it should be considered a pastoral obligation."

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