News and Views

Bishop's Message on Clergy Sexual Misconduct

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Content warning: This message contains references to sexual misconduct that may be difficult for some readers. 

 "When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and rescues them from all their troubles. The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit."  -- Psalm 34:17-18 

 Brothers and Sisters in Christ:

 I greet you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Christ, who provides our healing, restoration, and eternal hope.

 There are times as the bishop of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that I enjoy celebrating the fruitful ministries among us. And, there are times when I carry the burden of sharing some of the pain and brokenness in our covenantal community. Today is one of the more painful days. 

 I write today to share news of one of our former ordained Elders, Mark Shaefer, who surrendered his clergy credentials earlier this year after admitting to accusations of clergy sexual misconduct. This reprehensible violation of our sacred trust occurred while he served in Extension Ministry at American University as a campus minister and later as the university chaplain.

 In 2019, I received a formal complaint against Mark Schaefer by a former student of American University, alleging sexual misconduct during the years 2002-2003. I responded to that complaint in accordance with the process laid out in our Book of Discipline and all parties, including the former student complainant, agreed to the terms of a Just Resolution. This resolution set forth several provisions, including requirements that Mr. Schaefer would fully disclose his misconduct to his employers, American University; that he undergo six months of forensic psychological assessment and counseling; and that he be put on probation for three years with the understanding that any additional violations could result in a surrender of ministerial credentials.

 The Book of Discipline describes a Just Resolution as “one that focuses on repairing any harm to people and communities, achieving real accountability by making things right in so far as possible and bringing healing to all the parties.” Both parties agreed to the contents of the Just Resolution agreement, which while not an administrative or judicial proceeding, is acknowledged by the Book of Discipline to be “a final disposition of the related complaint.”  

 In December 2019, American University terminated Mr. Schaefer’s employment as a chaplain. Because he was still a full clergy member of The United Methodist Church, he was subsequently appointed to Cheltenham UMC; and in 2020 to St. Mathews UMC in Bowie, but was placed under probation, with heightened supervision and counseling. The Just Resolution stipulated that if additional charges were brought forward, he could face further disciplinary action, up to and including termination of his clergy orders.

 In 2020, two more formal complaints were filed against Mr. Schaefer by former students at American University, alleging sexual misconduct in 2009 and in 2015. The first of these two complaints resulted in Mr. Schaefer surrendering his clergy credentials. The second of the two was dismissed, given the fact that Mr. Schaefer was no longer a clergy member of the Baltimore-Washington Conference and, consequently, my office no longer maintained any administrative or supervisory authority over him.

In April 2021, the first of the people who brought a complaint against Mr. Schaefer under our Discipline filed a civil lawsuit in Superior Court for the District of Columbia. The complaint names Mr. Schaefer, the Baltimore-Washington Conference, and American University, as defendants. That civil proceeding is in its early stages.

 Before the lawsuit was filed, but after having surrendered his clergy credentials, Mr. Shaefer was hired as a lay employee by Potomac UMC in Maryland, where he holds the title of Director of Christian Education and Communications. Conference policies and practices require that all potential local church employees undergo a vetting process prior to their employment, however, local churches have the authority to make their own hiring decisions, which are not subject to approval by the Conference and are not under Conference supervision.

 These are the facts of the circumstances before us. But more importantly, I want to address the pain, anger, and continued frustration over all that has happened. We do not condone sexual misconduct, sexual harassment, or abuse of any kind. We have systems in place to prevent misconduct, and we lament when those preventative measures are not enough. I apologize on behalf of the Church for the instances when we have not protected others from harm or have caused harm by our actions or inactions.  

 Clergy misconduct is a violation of trust. It also violates the inherent responsibility we as clergy carry for the vulnerable individuals God has placed in our care. There is no excuse for this kind of betrayal. I take all allegations of misconduct seriously and seek, through our administrative and judicial processes, to impose accountability, bring healing and achieve resolution in each circumstance. The Baltimore-Washington Conference requires all clergy to participate in clergy ethics and boundary training and holds our clergy to the sacred trust that ordination and credentialing requires of them. 

 If anyone is suffering from the misconduct of one of our leaders, please know that my door is always open to you. You do not have to bear this burden alone.  

 Additionally, let me remind all clergy and lay leaders that we are all vulnerable to stresses that can affect our spiritual, emotional, and physical well-being, and sabotage our boundaries and best practices. Take care of yourselves. Take Sabbath rest and vacation. Talk to your loved ones and friends. Seek the professional help of a credentialed counselor. Find accountability partners. Reach out to a trusted colleague. There are helpful resources on sexual ethics at the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and also through the FaithTrustInstitute if you are looking for additional help or guidance in this area. 

 Matters such as these are never easy. Amid the pain, let us turn to God and one another with prayers for healing and wholeness as we live and serve together in Jesus’ name. Beloved, let us do all we can to care for one another. 

 Blessings and Peace,
Bishop LaTrelle Miller Easterling
Baltimore-Washington Conference of The United Methodist Church