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United Methodist clergyman accused of sexual misconduct, says UMNS report

A copy of the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline rests on a table during an oral hearing on May 22, 2018, in Evanston, Illinois. Photo by Kathleen Barry/UMNS

(RNS) — A formal church complaint accusing a United Methodist clergyman of sexual misconduct has drawn the United Methodist Church into the #MeToo movement.

Four women have filed a formal complaint against the Rev. Donald “Bud” Heckman — an elder in the denomination’s West Ohio Conference who is well known in interfaith circles — of sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, according to a United Methodist News Service report published Thursday (Oct. 17).

The women include Heckman’s ex-wife, Laura Heckman.

The West Ohio Conference did not identify the church charges against Heckman, according to UMNS. However, it confirmed to the denomination’s news outlet that the elder has been suspended from ministry and faces “the strong likelihood” of a church trial, which tentatively has been scheduled for Dec. 2-4.

Heckman is co-founder of the Interfaith Funders Group.

His interfaith work has included positions at the Tri-Faith Initiative, Religions for Peace USA and United Methodists’ General Board of Global Ministries. He also has served as past president of the board of governors for the Religion Communicators Council and as a member of the Interreligious Cooperation Task Force of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships under former President Barack Obama.

Rev. Bud Heckman. File photo

The four women who filed the church complaint shared their stories with UMNS.

Among them was a woman who asked UMNS for anonymity, who said she dated Heckman in 2011. Heckman was married at the time, though the woman said he had told her he was divorced, according to UMNS.

The woman broke up with him when she learned he was seeing another woman and filed a police report against him in New York City when she said he continued to email, call and visit her apartment daily against her wishes and threatened to prevent her from staying in the United States, where she was employed on a work visa.

Heckman was arrested and pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, which is not a criminal offense in New York, UMNS reported. 

Laura Heckman brought documentation of the arrest to the West Ohio Conference but did not file a formal complaint at the time because, she told UMNS, she feared for her safety and the safety of her children.

When she heard other women’s stories, Laura Heckman told UMNS, “It shifted from being much less about Bud and much more about the church.”

Another person named in the complaint was Megan Anderson — a reporter for The Interfaith Observer, which fell under the foundation Heckman worked for at the time — who alleged that Heckman groped her during the 2015 Parliament of World Religions and then sent her sexually explicit text messages.

“I’m Catholic, which is part of the reason why I want The United Methodist Church to be so accountable in this moment. I watched my own church cover up years and years of sexual abuse,” Anderson told UMNS.

The United Methodist Church is the third largest Christian denomination in the U.S. It follows the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, both of which have been rocked in recent years by reports of sexual abuse by clergy.

Also at the 2015 Parliament of World Religions, Emily Farthing — who had met Heckman the year before as a young adult scholar at the North American Interfaith Network Conference — alleged Heckman entered her hotel room and sat on her bed in his underwear, according to UMNS. He also reportedly sent her explicit text messages, described to her on the phone how he wanted to have sex with her and told others the two had dated.

In total, 15 women have come forward with allegations against Heckman, according to UMNS, though not all of the women were willing to be part of the formal complaint. The four women who filed the church complaint against Heckman did so last November, and a committee found enough evidence to charge the elder this summer with sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse, according to UMNS.

Heckman could lose his clergy credentials if found guilty in a church trial. He did not respond Thursday to requests from Religion News Service for comment.

(Editor’s note: Bud Heckman briefly consulted on fundraising with the Religion News Foundation, RNS’ parent organization, in 2017 and 2018.) 

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