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Court backs clergy dismissal over affair


4:00 P.M. EST April 27, 2010 | MORRISTOWN, N.J. (UMNS)

Members of the 
Judicial Council issued new decisions after meeting April 21-24 in 
Morristown, N.J. A UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.
Members of the Judicial Council issued new decisions after meeting April 21-24 in Morristown, N.J. A UMNS file photo by Neill Caldwell.
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The United Methodist Judicial Council upheld the dismissal of a South Carolina clergyman accused of having an affair with a married woman.

But members of the denomination’s top court raised questions about the handling of DNA evidence and frequent use of off-the-record conferences at the minister’s trial.

At the conclusion of its April 21-24 meeting, the Judicial Council affirmed the verdict against Jimmy J. Montgomery, a married clergyman who served as a chaplain for 19 years at United Methodist-related Claflin University. He was accused by the South Carolina Annual (regional) Conference of having an ongoing affair.

Two Judicial Council members, Susan Henry-Crowe and F. Belton Joyner Jr., recused themselves from the case. The Rev. Joe May, first clergy alternate, participated in the decision.

In a lengthy dissenting opinion, council member Jon R. Gray found “egregious errors of church law” that he believes “vitiate,” or impair, both the verdict and punishment.

Montgomery—found guilty of sexual misconduct in a June 2009 church trial presided over by retired Bishop Joseph Pennel— appealed that decision, first to the Southeastern Jurisdiction Committee on Appeals and then to the Judicial Council.

The council found that some of the alleged grounds for appeal were not heard or ruled upon by the trial court or committee on appeals. “Therefore, these alleged errors are not properly before the Judicial Council for a ruling,” the decision said.

Basis of case

During an oral hearing, the Rev. Jerry Eckert, a retired pastor from the Wisconsin Conference serving as Montgomery’s counsel, argued that the South Carolina Conference’s entire case rested on the woman in question telling the truth.

Eckert claimed the charges were based on opinion. He also said the alleged DNA evidence “was flawed and incomplete,” and the committee on appeals failed to examine evidence pertinent to the case. Institutional racism also could have factored into the decision, he added. Montgomery is African American.

 “The record shows no credible evidence that the affair occurred,” he declared.

The Rev. Diane Moseley, counsel for the South Carolina Conference on the case, disputed Eckert’s assertions. “Jimmy Montgomery received a fair trial,” she told the Judicial Council. “Reading through the trial transcripts, you can’t come away with any other conclusion.”

Moseley said Montgomery had not raised objections to the committee on appeals regarding the racial composition of the trial court. African Americans constitute 14 percent of the elders in the conference and 33 percent of the trial court was African American, she added.

She agreed that Montgomery has a long history of laudable service in the conference. “It is not a stretch to suggest his innocence was presumed as long as possible,” she said. But “more than enough” of the trial court members believed the testimony against Montgomery and that was enough to convict him.

Handling of DNA evidence

During the hearing, Gray raised concerns about the how the DNA evidence was handled.

Moseley conceded that “much was made of the fact that the collection of the evidence was not in the parameters that the lab would have preferred,” but argued the trial court had enough credible evidence to sustain its verdict even if the DNA evidence were set aside.

In his dissent, Gray noted that the use of scientific DNA evidence in church trials was not addressed by church law. “However, whenever a party chooses to offer scientific evidence, the receipt of such evidence must be consistent with the principles of fair process,” he wrote.

Gray also told Moseley he was disturbed by “an unusual and large number of off-the-record conversations” noted in the trial transcript—a concern that formed the basis of his dissent.

He pointed out that “a significant number” of the objections raised in the brief on behalf of Montgomery could not be found in the trial transcript and it was impossible to determine whether those particular objections had been part of the unrecorded court discussions.

“The very fact that a disturbing number of off-the-record conferences were held is persuasive evidence that church law was violated and with it, the rights of the accused,” Gray wrote.

In a concurring opinion, Judicial Council member Beth Capen agreed with the majority’s decision to affirm the verdict, but also expressed “deep concern” about the off-the-record discussions at trial.

“I urge trial courts to be certain that a full and accurate transcript of the proceedings are made by the court reporter and that all sidebars that involve the presiding officer be recorded and transcribed for the record,” Capen wrote.
The full text of the decisions from the Judicial Council’s April meeting will be posted online at http://archives.umc.org/interior_judicial.asp?mid=263.

*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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