The protracted investigation of church complaints against The United Methodist Church’s first Latina bishop appears headed to trial.
The trial “appears” to proceed because an alternative remains available, a negotiated settlement known as “just resolution” still can be pursued by all parties.
Whether a trial or a “just resolution” will be better for Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño and the church poses a sharp dilemma. As it stands after an unprecedented 14-month suspension, a church trial with all its strain probably affords the better solution for the sake of both transparency and accountability. That’s because “just resolution” often functions as a non-disclosure agreement, hiding truth about complaints because of the UMC’s confidential practices that could help the church correct injustice and improve its administration.
Since Carcaño was suspended March 9, 2022, only those deep inside the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops — a regional body within the UMC — and an investigating committee have known the specific complaints against her. Unlike a civil or criminal trial where evidence must be presented to support charges, allegations of misconduct within the church are kept confidential, supposedly out of concern for the reputation of the accused. In reality, the UMC’s confidentiality practice preserves the institutional church far more than it protects the accused and the complainants.
“After nearly half a century of commendable ministry, Carcaño’s reputation has been shredded by her unprecedented suspension.”
After nearly half a century of commendable ministry, Carcaño’s reputation has been shredded by her unprecedented suspension. Rumors about the complaints, about her administration and about her personal behavior have run rampant throughout the entire UMC.
The UMC’s confidential process, as used by the Western Jurisdiction, must bear the blame for besmirching Carcaño. It’s no secret among knowledgeable United Methodist leadership that political motives often play a strong role in bringing complaints. Much like issues brought before staff-parish relations committees — the personnel committees of local congregations — complaints against clergy and sometimes laity can be brought for the pettiest of personal reasons.
Sadly, both ordained and lay leadership have endured unjust church complaints simply because someone doesn’t like the way they go about their ministries. Even sadder, those with responsibility to assess complaints often shirk their duty to have the parties involved deal directly with the conflict.
Silence doesn’t heal either unfounded complaints or the consequences of willful harm. The #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements uncovering rampant sexual oppression bear out this truth, along with the recent verdict in E. Jean Carroll’s civil suit against Donald Trump for sexual assault.
The UMC’s biggest personnel failing stems from its inability to deal frankly with conflict. Given the secrecy that has hidden proceedings thus far, only a church jury of faithful United Methodists weighing publicly presented facts may be able to evaluate Carcaño’s past performance. After all, she is one of the public leaders of the worldwide United Methodist Church and has dealt, as the saying goes, “with kings and presidents.” If she is at fault in her episcopal administration, the church and the public deserve to know the truth.
“If she is at fault in her episcopal administration, the church and the public deserve to know the truth.”
Furthermore, the UMC has been harmed because Carcaño has been subjected to such a lengthy suspension clouded by the aforementioned rumors. Carcaño’s case, in fact, marks a historical development.
The last time a United Methodist bishop was brought to public investigation was in 1981, when Bishop Mel Wheatley faced a UMC complaint because of his views of LGBTQ inclusion. A Council of Bishops committee openly investigated the complaint and concluded there was insufficient evidence to bring Bishop Wheatley to trial for heresy and disobedience to United Methodist law. His advocacy for LGBTQ inclusion continued until his death in 2009 at age 93.
If only the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops could have dealt as openly with complaints against Carcaño, saving her and the entire UMC a year of purgatory. The jurisdiction long has been known for its boundary-pushing actions such as electing two LGBTQ bishops over the church’s ban on ordaining LGBTQ clergy, yet Western leaders resisted breaking the rules to give Carcaño a fair hearing long before now.
Thus, cause exists to seek accountability not only from Carcaño but from the entire Western Jurisdiction. One way to accomplish such accountability would be for the Council of Bishops to take up Carcaño’s case, which Paragraph 413 of the United Methodist Book of Discipline empowers it to do.
The UMC’s “high court,” the Judicial Council has confirmed the constitutionality of Paragraph 413 in Judicial Council Decision 1484. However, even before the high court’s ruling, the Council of Bishops, led by its president Bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York, set up a task force to explore the ramifications of Paragraph 413 rather than accept the authority the church law gives it.
Back in the first century of what’s now called the Common Era, the poet Juvenal became famous for his “Satires,” a series of 16 poems critiquing Roman society and culture. One of Juvenal’s observations has come down through the ages, “Quis custodient ipsos custodes.” Roughly translated into English, it means: “Who guards the guardians?” Contemporary parlance has rendered the saying anew: “Who watches the watchers?”
Requests to monitor the process from the UMC’s two accountability agencies, the General Commission on Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race, apparently have gone unanswered publicly, apparently a tacit refusal to allow light into a dark process. It’s no surprise to observers that the Western Jurisdiction’s announcement of a church trial for Carcaño occurred immediately after JCD 1484 affirmed the Council of Bishops’ constitutional power to assume adjudication of complaints against their peers.
Whether she is found to have committed the charges laid against her or is permitted to finish her episcopal ministry until retirement, Carcaño has become an unfortunate example of all that is wrong with the institutional governance of The United Methodist Church. As the bishop’s personal travail plays out, will the church at large learn the stark lessons afforded by the secretive mismanagement of L’affaire Carcaño?
Cynthia B. Astle is a veteran journalist who has covered the worldwide United Methodist Church at all levels for more than 30 years. She serves as editor of United Methodist Insight, an online journal she founded in 2011.
What has happened to suspended UMC Latina bishop? | Opinion by Cynthia Astle