News that President Trump is backing accused sexual predator Roy Moore is surprising, considering the numerous sexual abuse charges that have been made against Trump over the years. One would have thought that Trump might have avoided getting involved with Moore. Of course, this could be Trump’s way of defending himself by saying that the charges of the courageous women are not trustworthy and that, even if what they say against Moore is true, it’s more important to support Republicans for the Senate than to bother about politicians’ sexual morality.
While it’s sad that Roy Moore’s abusive history will not dissuade thousands of Alabamians from voting for him and even defending him as an exemplary Christian, I am proud that because of the structures and policies in force in my church, Roy Moore can never, ever be a United Methodist pastor.
When I wrote Calling and Character: Clergy Ethics, I warned that anytime the church overlooks or lies about sexual misconduct by clergy, the church betrays its Lord and Savior. Then I became bishop and was assigned to the North Alabama Conference. Because of the policies and procedures set in place by my predecessor, the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church knew how to deal with allegations of clergy misconduct.
Sexual contact, relationships, or conversation of clergy with their parishioners is never, ever appropriate. All pastors are in an unequal power relationship with the people in their congregations, particularly when (as is often the case in pastoral care) the parishioner is vulnerable because of age, gender, or life circumstances.
Whenever sexual abuse by any of our clergy in North Alabama was reported or even rumored, the District Superintendent, without having to ask for authorization or permission, immediately initiated a step-by-step process of investigation. The conference provided those who reported abuse a woman with a PhD in clinical psychology to be the victim’s advocate. She immediately began working with the victim to listen to their story and then to help draw up a formal complaint if they desired to do so. Formal complaint or not, the District Superintendents and I investigated every case, offering to meet with the victims if they wished, talking to everyone who had relevant information and attempting to move toward a timely resolution of the charges.
In those rare cases when a rumor was unfounded, the clergyperson being investigated was always grateful for our investigation and public exoneration. If a complaint was deemed to have merit, the D.S.s and I drew up a formal complaint against the clergy person and the process that’s prescribed in the Book of Discipline began. I was impressed with the care, the speed, and the almost routine nature of the process.
In the eight years I was bishop, some twenty ordained clergy were removed or disciplined through this process. None were removed for having been charged with behavior as egregious as that of Moore. While it’s sad to see someone removed from the ministry because of some moral infraction, it’s a sign of progress that there is a just, efficient system in place and that the church demonstrates its determination for our congregations to be safe places for our people. It’s sad that the U.S. Senate presently has no process in place to deal with those who are accused of sexual misconduct like Roy Moore.
In a congregation near Huntsville, I asked a woman what had attracted her to the United Methodist Church.
“You!” she replied.
“Me?” I said in surprise.
“Well, not you, but bishops in general. I have vowed that I will never again be a victim of an out of control, completely unaccountable-to-anybody-but-the-laity, abusive pastor. I always want to be in a church where clergy are watched.”
As someone in the ministry of clergy oversight, I smiled in approval.
In her excellent book on clergy ethics, Trust, Barbara Blodgett says that there is little data to suggest that programs of required sexual misconduct training help to identify future abusers or to deter abuse in an organization. The most effective deterrent to sexual abuse, says Blodgett, is established structures of support for victims and swift, public, discipline for perpetrators. I’m proud to testify that our church, at least in intention and in the Book of Discipline’s prescribed process, encourages victims to clergy misconduct to speak up, supports them in that process, gives accused clergy the support and the opportunity to defend themselves, and then, if need be, removes them from ministry.
While it’s doubtful that we have ended sexual misconduct and abuse by clergy, at least we have a few decades of determined efforts to do so. And I think it’s noteworthy, in our nation’s present moment, that Charlie Rose, Al Franken, Roy Moore, and Donald Trump could never, ever be pastors in the United Methodist Church.