Magazine article The Christian Century

Dollars and Clergy Misconduct

Magazine article The Christian Century

Dollars and Clergy Misconduct

Article excerpt

WHILE PRESIDENT Clinton may hold on to his job despite the Lewinsky affair, religious institutions are becoming increasingly exacting about such personal transgressions. Richard Killmer, for example, was a powerbroker in the national offices of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). But as he rose through the ranks of the national staff he harbored a dark secret--he was an adulterer. As Killmer was about to rise yet one more rank, two women flied charges against him with the church. A disciplinary committee in New Brunswick, New Jersey, speedily investigated. Killmer pleaded guilty to one count of sexual misconduct and was suspended from the ministry for a minimum of one year.

Experts say the Killmer case is an example of how seriously churches have begun to deal with all forms of sexual misconduct, from affairs between consenting adults to pedophilia. Some leaders say churches are simply practicing their teachings, but others concede that it is more a matter of money and note that in the past such cases would have been dealt with quietly and far from the public eye. But a flurry of lawsuits beginning in the mid-1980s has forced organized religion to recognize that sexual misconduct by clergy can have dire financial consequences. In July the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas was ordered to pay $110 million for negligence in dealing with a priest who allegedly abused 11 children. "We are very concerned about increasing litigation in the church," said Thomas McAnally, a spokesman for the United Methodist Church. "Cases like the one in Dallas scare the bejesus out of church leaders."

Most major religious denominations in America have formed committees with full-time staff charged with educating clergy about sexual misconduct--a broadly defined category that can include harassment, improper relationships between married clergy and members of their flock, rape and sexual abuse of children. Denominations also have become more organized about acting against clergy in potential cases of abuse. The days when a sexual predator or adulterer was slapped on the hand and sent elsewhere to preach are fading, religious leaders maintain. "In the past, bishops would just pass them on and it would happen again," said Gray Temple, an Episcopal rector in Atlanta. "These days, the church is dealing more directly with infidelity, but for all the wrong reasons. We are all vulnerable to lawsuits."

Stephanie Hixon, an official with the United Methodist Church's General Commission on the Status and Role of Women, said the new action is due in part to a new understanding "of the grievous nature of these cases both by the church and society at large. …

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