United Methodists Confront Sexual Misconduct in the Church

The reality of sexual misconduct and abuse within the church has prompted United Methodists to come together this week to confront the problem and discuss ways to make the church a safe place.

Though the denomination has already taken steps to address the issue, more has to be done to help heal those hurt by the church, said M. Garlinda Burton, the top executive of the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women, according to the denomination's news service.

"I estimate that at least one-third to one-half of the dozens of victim-survivors I've counseled during the past eight years have left the church, either in shame or frustration, because they found no justice or healing," she told hundreds of lay and clergy leaders during the Do No Harm 2011 sexual ethics summit in Houston this week.

"We want people to come in, yet we have a lot of places that it's not safe for them to be."

Just in the past six months, Burton reported receiving 20 complaints of sexual misconduct.

This was the second time leaders from across The United Methodist Church convened to tackle the pervasive problem. The first event was held in 2006.

Both Burton and Darryl W. Stephens, assistant general secretary for advocacy and sexual ethics, underscored the importance of the summit but at the same acknowledged their limitations.

"We cannot eliminate sin from the church, but we can be 'wise as serpents and innocent as doves' as we learn to make the church the most welcoming, just and healing place that it can be," they said in their welcome letter to participants.

The focus of the Jan. 26-29 event was prevention, intervention and resolutions. It was designed to provide opportunities for sharing best practices, discussing emerging issues, and networking across the denomination

Ultimately, United Methodists are hoping to simply make churches safe.

"If the church cannot adequately address sexual misconduct and make people feel safe, we are not being a credible witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. We see this as a pastoral role," Burton said, according to the United Methodist News Service.

It's been three decades since The United Methodist Church began studying trends and developing responses to help women dealing with sexual abuse in churches or by church professionals or ministers.

According to UMNS, half of all laywomen and one-third of laymen witness or are victims of some degree of sexual harassment or misconduct in their congregations. This includes inappropriate comments by a church leader as well as physical assault and stalking.

Along with Methodist lay and clergy leaders, the denomination's ecumenical partners from the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and the World Council of Churches also attended the summit.

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