March 8 marked a year since Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, leader of the Sacramento, Calif., Area of the United Methodist Church, was suspended after complaints were brought against her. Her yearlong suspension is unprecedented in United Methodist history.
Observers have been asking for months why Bishop Carcarno’s suspension has gone on so long, apparently in violation of the Book of Discipline’s 60-day limit on suspensions (Paragraph 413a). Furthermore, her case should have been resolved within 120 days of the complaint filing (Paragraph 413b). Given the circumstances of Bishop Carcaño’s case, her suspension resembles the kind of “house arrest” that has detained political leaders such as Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Even more worrisome to United Methodist observers is the fact that she seems to have been ‘disappeared’ from church life.”
Even more worrisome to United Methodist observers is the fact that she seems to have been “disappeared” from church life. Her public contacts through the California-Nevada Annual Conference are now monitored by conference staff. She has been kept as incommunicado as a political prisoner.
The practice of confidentiality in complaints against ordained clergy, including bishops, is intended to protect the accused while efforts at “just resolution” consultations are conducted in hopes of restoring the alleged violator to ministry. Through the years, however, the policy and practice of confidentiality has been employed as a weapon against accused clergy as often as it has protected them from being “tried” in public. In some cases, the UMC’s confidentiality culture serves more to protect the institution than it has aided a process of just resolution.
For example, a complaint brought last fall against the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops by a South Carolina pastor, Timothy McClendon, has been dismissed for “breach of confidentiality.” McClendon alleged the Western bishops violated the Book of Discipline by consecrating an openly gay pastor, Cedric Bridgeforth, as a bishop. There’s no denying that Bishop Bridgeforth, now assigned to the Pacific Northwest Episcopal Area, was consecrated in defiance of United Methodist law. However, McClendon’s complaint wasn’t decided on its merits, but on the “breach of confidentiality” principle from Book of Discipline Paragraph 413. “Breach of confidentiality” was involved because McClendon posted his complaint online and gave other United Methodists the opportunity to sign on to it publicly. His website since has been taken down.
Confidentiality plays a huge role in all complaints against United Methodist clergy, but Bishop Carcaño’s case seems an extreme example.
First, no one except those involved in the investigation knows precisely what violations are alleged against Bishop Carcaño. Knowledgeable sources in the California-Nevada Conference suggest the complaints involve allegations of financial impropriety, administrative malfeasance, even nepotism. Unlike civil and criminal charges that are brought publicly and often decided by a grand jury, the church gets to protect itself from such scrutiny. The only way for United Methodists at large to learn whether the allegations against Bishop Carcaño are valid is to wait for a church trial. Even then, the presiding officer, usually a retired bishop, has the right to close the proceedings to observers.
Second, complaints against United Methodist clergy and bishops have been notorious weapons in the UMC’s ongoing power struggles. Activist pastors, frequently allies of and advocates for LGBTQ inclusion, often can find themselves targets of complaints.
“Complaints against United Methodist clergy and bishops have been notorious weapons in the UMC’s ongoing power struggles.”
Unlike criminal charges in which prosecutors must present clear evidence of wrongdoing, church complaints can be twisted by political motives to fit one of the “chargeable offenses” listed in Book of Discipline Paragraph 2702. These offenses are:
- Immorality, including but not limited to, not being celibate in singleness or not faithful in a heterosexual marriage.
- Practices declared by The United Methodist Church to be “incompatible” with Christian teachings, including but not limited to being a self-avowed practicing homosexual or conducting ceremonies which celebrate homosexual unions or performing same-sex wedding ceremonies.
- Disobedience to the order and discipline of The United Methodist Church.
- Dissemination of doctrines contrary to the established standards of doctrine of The United Methodist Church.
- Relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor.
- Child abuse.
- Sexual abuse.
- Sexual misconduct including the use or possession of pornography.
- Harassment, including, but not limited to racial and/or sexual harassment.
- Racial or gender discrimination.
- Fiscal malfeasance.
In assessing what the allegations against her could be, consider this brief summary of Bishop Carcaño’s 50 years of ministry in The United Methodist Church.
While an advocate for full inclusion of LGBTQ persons in United Methodist life, Bishop Carcaño hasn’t identified herself with the “queer” community and is in a heterosexual marriage. She hasn’t conducted any same-sex wedding ceremonies nor allowed them to be held in a United Methodist church. Nor has she been found guilty of any sexual abuse or sexual misconduct, practices that surely would have come to light before now in her many years of ministry.
Her ministry history also shows it is highly unlikely she has committed a crime, except to trespass against border restrictions in her advocacy for immigration reform. As a longtime member of MARCHA, the caucus of Hispanic United Methodists, she is known for attempting to bring all races, ethnicities and genders to the table of power, so discrimination of that sort also seems unlikely.
Bishop Carcaño has publicly represented The United Methodist Church on numerous occasions. She has taught and preached in UMC annual conferences and at Methodist churches across Latin America and the Caribbean. As chair of the Council of Bishops’ Immigration Task Force, Bishop Carcaño met with U.S. senators and representatives and spoke at public gatherings at the White House and in Geneva, Switzerland. She testified before a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee on immigration concerns. Currently she chairs the board of The California Endowment, a $4 billion health foundation accountable to the state of California.
Given her service history, which apparently refutes most of the “chargeable offenses,” we can speculate only on whether the allegations concern interference with another pastor’s ministry or fiscal malfeasance. Fiscal malfeasance sometimes has been used against bishops of color, particularly in Africa.
“If Bishop Carcaño has committed fiscal malfeasance, where is evidence of her wrongdoing?”
If Bishop Carcaño has committed fiscal malfeasance, where is evidence of her wrongdoing? If she has used the church’s money inappropriately, why hasn’t she been criminally charged? Obviously, she hasn’t used it openly to acquire lavish houses, expensive sports cars or luxurious jewelry as unscrupulous pastors have.
Therefore, the question remains: What has been alleged against Bishop Carcaño? Why has she been “disappeared” from United Methodist life? Are the complaints against her being properly investigated without prejudice in a way that allows her to face her accusers and review the evidence against her? Does she have adequate counsel to defend herself?
Most of all, what has motivated the Western Jurisdiction College of Bishops to impose such a harsh punishment against Bishop Carcaño before her case is investigated and judged? Since the Western College has been dragging its heels on Bishop Carcano’s case, why hasn’t the Council of Bishops taken up her adjudication, as it is empowered to do in Discipline Paragraph 413(d)(iv)? Surely the full Council would want to see justice done for one of its own.
March 8 was not only a sadly significant day for Bishop Minerva Carcaño. March 8 was an equally grievous day for the entire United Methodist Church, for its public reputation as a channel of God’s justice has been besmirched by the treatment of its first Latina bishop.
Unless Bishop Carcaño is brought to a public church trial, we may never know what allegations have been brought against her, whether those allegations are valid, and how much damage those allegations have done to her, her ministry, her family and The United Methodist Church.
Unless Bishop Carcaño’s case becomes more transparent, the UMC’s pernicious culture of secrecy may claim another victim.
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.