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Top court: Deleting investigative group 'unconstitutional'

Top court: Deleting investigative group 'unconstitutional'

Eliminating the committee on investigation for clergy members in an annual conference from the denomination’s law book in 2012 was unconstitutional, the top court of The United Methodist Church ruled last week.

This means Bishop Ken Carter will provide a slate of nominees to make up an investigative committee for the Florida Conference in time for consideration at Annual Conference 2015, set for June 10-13 in Daytona Beach. Rev. David Dodge, assistant to the bishop, said Thursday he is researching the requirements for the committee, which investigates complaints against clergy only in cases when a trial is being considered. Dodge said complaints about clergy often are resolved in other ways.

The bishop will consult with the appropriate boards before putting forth his nomination list, Dodge added.

During its April 15-18 meeting, the Judicial Council also ordered the full restoration — including back pay — of the salary of an African bishop whose income was reduced by the board of the denomination’s finance agency. The General Council on Finance and Administration board ordered the reduction after receiving what it believed to be inadequate responses to an audit inquiry.

In its decision regarding East Africa Area Bishop Daniel Wandabula, which included two different dissenting opinions, the council said the General Council on Finance and Administration had no power to reduce an active bishop’s salary. “A salary is a bishop’s basic financial entitlement, which cannot be curtailed save by judicial or administrative fair process,” the decision said.

Laity concerns

The ruling on the role of the committee on investigation also related to a question raised by the North Georgia Conference after action by the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top legislative body, removed references to the clergy committee on investigation, which included peers and lay members.

Two North Georgia Conference representatives, Joe Whittemore and Rev. Ed Tomlinson, spoke during an April 15 oral hearing on the matter, emphasizing the importance of legislation adopted by the 2004 and 2008 General Conferences that made the laity voting members of such committees.

“Laity are impacted and have significant concerns when charges are brought against clergy,” Whittemore said, noting that lay members want to make sure clergy are not falsely accused or that the process is handled correctly if valid issues are raised. “Laity are stakeholders in seeing that these matters are handled effectively … and with justice.”

Tomlinson called the deletion of Paragraph 2703.2 of the 2008 Book of Discipline, which defined the annual conference committee on investigation, a violation of fair process. “It appears that the absence of an investigative committee before trial is not fair to clergy,” he said.

Because of the changes in 2012, the church counsel — not an investigative committee — makes a determination about whether a case involving a clergy member of a conference should go to trial.

Historically, the North Georgia request pointed out, the investigation process for clergy has required counsel for the church to present fact-finding results to a committee on investigation before taking that step.

The Judicial Council’s decision pointed out that the trial court and committee on investigation “are clearly two distinct bodies, constituted by separate processes and functioning at different times in the complaint through trial process.” To eliminate the committee’s investigative function as a step in the process “is to call into question whether the clergy members have been granted fair process, an unconditional guarantee.”

The court’s ruling restores to the current law book the portions of the 2008 Discipline “that relate to the role of the committee on investigation for clergy members of the annual conference,” effective April 18.

One Judicial Council member, Ruben T. Reyes, filed a concurring opinion in the case, while two other members, Rev. F. Belton Joyner Jr. and N. Oswald Tweh Sr. dissented, saying the action taken by the 2012 General Conference was constitutional. “The question of the wisdom of doing so is a legislative matter and is beyond the purview of the Judicial Council,” the dissent said.

To read more of this story from United Methodist News Service, click here.

– Florida Conference managing editor Susan Green contributed to this report.