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New Web site expands audience for misconduct issues

By Linda Bloom*
Oct. 26, 2009 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The Rev. Darryl Stephens

An updated sexual ethics Web site for The United Methodist Church will offer resources for those accused of sexual misconduct in addition to information for victims and church leaders.

The new site, at www.umsexualethics.org, will debut Nov. 2.

The accused and those who may be confused about what constitutes inappropriate behavior are “a new intended audience” for the site, explained the Rev. Darryl Stephens, an executive with the United Methodist Commission on the Status and Role of Women in Chicago.

Resources will detail the rights of accused clergy and laity under United Methodist Church law and offer information on how to get assistance.

“Although most of our work is with victims and church officials adjudicating complaints, the commission also wants to ensure just and fair processes for all parties,” added M. Garlinda Burton, top executive.

Stephens said the commission hasn’t heard much from those who are questioning whether their own behavior may be crossing the line into misconduct. “One of the factors may be that we simply haven’t invited them to call,” he said. “If we can begin to create an institutional environment where people can talk about these issues, we’ll be healthier for that.”

Betrayal of trust

The Web site is a ministry of the United Methodist Inter-agency Sexual Ethics Task Force, which is convened by the commission. Task force members represent eight different church bodies, including the Council of Bishops, as well as annual conferences.

The denomination considers sexual misconduct to be “a betrayal of sacred trust” and defines it as “unwanted sexual or gender-directed behaviors by either a lay or clergy person within a ministerial relationship.” Such behaviors can range from child abuse and rape to sexual harassment to stalking to the use of pornography.

Through the new Web site, the task force is continuing to reach out to victims of such conduct and to educate and train conference leaders and local churches on the issue.

The point was to reorganize the site in a more user-friendly way, both streamlining and deepening the online resources. “Each of those audiences has a menu tab with a number of pages under each,” Stephens said.

Conference leaders can find information on their roles and responsibilities, how to use conference response teams, how to address the issue of registered sex offenders “and how a church can be a place of hospitality as well a place of sanctuary and protection for vulnerable people.”

‘Do No Harm’ training

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An emerging concern, Stephens said, is the
re-integration of registered sex offenders into society.

“Congregations don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he added. “There are guidelines and ways to write covenants of behavior and provide appropriate limitations for registered sex offenders as they participate in worship and in the congregation.”

The Web site will serve as a portal for conveying the latest news and research, provide a network for trainers from around the annual conferences “so they can share best practices and collaborate,” and support response teams and churches involved in the denomination’s Safe Sanctuaries program.

“The goal is to work toward justice and healing,” Stephens said. “That hasn’t changed.”

The sexual ethics task force has just announced it will sponsor a second “Do No Harm” training event, scheduled for Jan. 26-29, 2011, in Houston, to help the church prevent and respond to abuse, misconduct and harassment of a sexual nature. The first training occurred in 2006.

During the event, lay and clergy conference representatives, including those leading response and Safe Sanctuaries teams, will discuss emerging issues related to sexual misconduct and explore how to work more effectively together for the health and well-being of congregations.

*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in New York.

News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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