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United Methodist Layman Disputes Bishop Sprague's Claim of Confidentiality Against Charges

August 31, 2000
John E. Juergensmeyer, Attorney
Office: (847) 695-9800
Fax: (847) 695-9818
e-mail: bishopcharge@yahoo.com
web:  http://ucmpage.org/news/spague_charges.html


John E. Juergensmeyer, an Elgin, Illinois, United Methodist Church member, responded to Bishop C. Joseph Sprague's claims that the complaints filed against Sprague for violating United Methodist Church doctrine should be kept "confidential." In a statement made to the news media and widely publicized, Bishop Sprague stated that "...this is a confidential process, and regardless of how the supposed complainant chooses to handle it, I will abide by the dictated procedures."

Juergensmeyer made the following response:

"Once again Bishop Sprague seems incapable of a careful reading of the United Methodist Discipline. There is no requirement of confidentiality in the Discipline regarding charges against a Bishop for violating 'the sacred trust of (his) ordination.' The Discipline states simply that the Bishop's 'continuation in the Episcopal office shall be subject to review,' with 'its purpose (the) reconciliation and restoration of the Bishop and the strengthening of the church.'" (Discipline, 413.)

"This process, and the detailed procedure in the Discipline regarding investigation of a Bishop at 2626 (2), has absolutely no requirement whatsoever of confidentiality," Juergensmeyer added. "In fact, the only references to confidentiality in the entire Discipline regarding complaints against any clergy members are, first, 358(1)(b), dealing with the supervisory response of the Bishop and District Superintendent with a pastor in regard to a complaint against ordained local clergy where it is stated: 'The supervisory response should be carried out by the Bishop and District Superintendent in a confidential and timely manner....' (Emphasis supplied.) Second, at 2627(3)(e), regarding clergy trial procedures, the Discipline states:

'e) The trial court shall at the conclusion of the proceedings send all trial documents to the secretary of the annual conference, who shall keep them in custody. Such documents are to be held in a confidential file and shall not be released for other than appeal or new trial purposes without a signed release from both the clergyperson charged and the presiding officer of the trial court that tried the case....' (Emphasis supplied.)

"Neither of these provisions is related to the provisions of the Discipline regarding a complaint against a Bishop for violating his trust.

"Furthermore, General Counsel Mary K. Logan, in her analysis 'Confidentiality' as Appendix 21 of the General Council on Finance and Administration 'Administrative and Judicial Procedures Handbook' (4th Edition, 1999), discusses these two Discipline passages in some detail. She concludes that the references have the purpose of protecting the privacy interest of the clergyperson and the person bringing the complaint, and maintaining the integrity of the church's disciplinary process without jeopardizing the outcome. She goes on to say:

'The purpose is not, however, to require absolute silence. There are other paragraphs in the Discipline that reflect the importance of a balance between respecting the privacy interest of the parties and disclosure of information to protect the interest of the church (as a whole or one or more of its entities or representatives) or the safety or well-being of the members of the local church.'" (Emphasis supplied.)

"General Counsel Logan concludes that the important role is 'to balance the privacy interest of the parties with a need for disclosure and to decide whether and to what extent the need for disclosure outweighs the privacy interest.' The General Counsel's summary is that the confidentiality requirement;

'....does not override the importance of disclosure when...the local congregation or others have a legitimate need to know about the complaint. When disclosure is deemed important in order to protect the interest of the church or the safety and well-being of the members of the local church, then enough information should be disclosed to meet these interests....'"

Juergensmeyer concluded: "Here, of course, an accusation against a Bishop for doctrinal disobedience is certainly a matter about which our congregations "have a legitimate need to know" and which the local churches and their members should be aware for their own protection from potential harm. Furthermore, in the case of each of my four complaints, Bishop Sprague has chosen to commit the acts of which I have complained with what appears to be a deliberate attempt to achieve maximum public relations exposure. He has taken these acts, obviously, with the conscious intention of being on television, on radio, and in the press. He has committed the acts which are the basis of the first charge (criminal arrest for interfering with the business of the United Methodist General Conference in Cleveland in May, 2000), on the podium in full view of the entire General Conference, and the other actions have likewise been done with maximum public and political impact. This is not an isolated private act by a clergyperson of which the existence is denied or disputed. It is a pattern of high profile public acts taken for maximum mass media exposure by a high church official, against the publicly stated formal positions of the United Methodist Church as a denomination. It is certainly in the best interest of the Church that these matters be fully and freely discussed as a violation of the Disciplines, and there be no hint of a 'cover-up' of criticism merely because of the office of the offender."

Juergensmeyer added: "If all of this is somehow considered divisive of the Church, the division has been initiated by Bishop Sprague. It is he who has embarked on a media campaign to attempt to change the Discipline and thereby divide the church. The majority of the denomination, as expressed in General Conference in Cleveland in May of this year, remains intact for our historic faith and doctrine. It is Sprague and a few supporters who are attempting to 'rend the temple fabric,' even after the General Conference has spoken." Obviously, he would like to suppress criticism or full and fair debate of his misconduct.

"It is even more dangerous to the Church," said Juergensmeyer, "that clergypersons who have expressed concerns about the Bishop's conduct have been met with responses that they themselves could be charged with 'interfering with the ministry' of the Bishop as a pastor. (The Northern Illinois Conference United Methodist Reporter article on Juergensmeyer's complaints on July 28, 2000, states that when Rev. Carson "Dan" Lauffer filed charges against Sprague in December, 1998, regarding advocacy of Marcus Borg's books denying the divinity of Jesus Christ, Lauffer was warned that he could be brought up on charges for 'behavior which undermines the ministry of a pastor,' and Lauffer then retired.) If in fact this is taking place, it is most reprehensible, and does enormous discredit to the administrative structure of the church. If we cannot openly criticize actions openly taken, then we are attempting to suppress genuine full debate and free expression of not only speech and opinion, but matters of the conscience and faith of devout Christians."

"In short, if the Bishop is saying that I should not publicly criticize him for his public actions in violation of the Discipline, I could hardly disagree with him more. This is truly a situation where if I do not speak, the very stones might cry out. I will not hesitate to speak publicly and vigorously in my criticism of the Bishop and his actions. I cannot comprehend why other Bishops and secure clergy have not taken more aggressive stances in opposition to these very open and public violations of the Discipline and our historic United Methodist Faith," Juergensmeyer concluded. "However," he added, "I will certainly respect any request for confidentiality by any participant in negotiations of the Judicial process. I certainly agree that those procedures should permit free and open discussion among the participants. But if anyone suggests that it is not in the best interest of the United Methodist Church that the substance of my complaints be fully aired, I will consider that person attempting to harm the church by hiding the exposure of doctrinal error. There has been, in my opinion of over a half century of watching my United Methodist Church in action, far too much reluctance to express ourselves vigorously on matters of faith and doctrine. This is at the very heart of my complaints and charges, and I will not bend one iota in the expression of these matters.

"In John Wesley's words, these matters 'strike at the root of Christianity.' As United Methodists, we are not Bahais, or Humanists, or Unitarian-Universalists. We profess that Jesus Christ is the only and perfect Son of God our Creator, and we in contrast are God's sinful, selfish, and rebellious creatures. To the extent Bishop Sprague advocates Professor Borg's position that God is simply a creation of human's imagination, however well-meaning, this is not historic Christianity. It is inconsistent with our faith and doctrine in the United Methodist Book of Discipline."

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