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United Methodist clergywomen ask church to reopen sexual misconduct case against elder

(RNS) — More than five dozen young United Methodist clergywomen are circulating an open letter claiming there was no justice in the denomination’s “just resolution” process for the four women who accused the Rev. Donald “Bud” Heckman of sexual misconduct.

And while that resolution ended the judicial process against Heckman, it could be reopened, according to the letter by the United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective.

That’s because, the letter reads, “In continuing to deny the harm he caused, Heckman has violated the resolution.”


RELATED: United Methodist #MeToo complaint against Bud Heckman settled


In its first 24 hours, the letter has received more than 500 signatures from United Methodists across the connection, the Rev. Kate Mackereth Fulton said Thursday (Jan. 23).

“I think all United Methodist clergy people, but particularly those of us who are young clergywomen, have been following this story because it’s a very familiar narrative to us,” said Mackereth Fulton, speaking on behalf of the United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective members who wrote the letter.

“Every year, in some part of our connection, some annual conference, some (clergy member) — usually a clergyman — is quietly retired because of something inappropriate that they have done, and it has become increasingly frustrating to us to see that survivors and their stories are not part of this process.”

The Rev. Donald "Bud" Heckman. File photo

In November 2018, four women filed a formal complaint against Heckman — an elder in the United Methodist Church’s West Ohio Annual Conference who is well known in interfaith circles — accusing him of sexual harassment and misconduct.

Earlier this month, Heckman “retired under complaint,” avoiding a church trial by signing a supervisory statement of understanding with West Ohio leaders and attorneys for himself and for the church.

United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective members say in their open letter they are “outraged” by the resolution.

“This resolution sends a painful and clear message to other victims of abuse: they will not be heard, seen, or believed in the West Ohio Conference, or The United Methodist Church,” according to the letter.

“It sends a message to people who abuse their power that the West Ohio Conference will aid in helping to minimize, silence, justify, and excuse their abuses. It sends a devaluing message far beyond the borders of West Ohio and to victims of abuse in the entire connection.”

The statement of understanding signed by Heckman said he was "not faithful to the ministerial covenant in the following ways: 'immorality including but not limited to not being celibate in singleness and faithful in heterosexual marriage; harassment; and sexual misconduct.'"

It also said Heckman will acknowledge “any harm this has caused others.”

But in an account written in the third person that he emailed to Religion News Service afterward, Heckman disputed the allegations against him, as well as the details he had agreed to in his understanding with the West Ohio Annual Conference.  

"Rev. Heckman acknowledged to the church not being 'celibate in singleness,' which is considered a violation of the United Methodist covenant in ministry. He agreed to acknowledge as much publicly and accepted a just resolution to the judicial process," Heckman's account read.

"He did not agree to harassing or harming any of the four women."

At the time, Kevin Nelson, one of the women’s advocates, pointed out to United Methodist News Service that Heckman’s denials “seem to be a violation” of the acknowledgment of harm in the understanding he reached with the conference.

“The question is: What is the conference’s follow-through going to be?” said Nelson, a United Methodist home missioner and law student.

At least two of the four women named in the complaint hope the West Ohio Annual Conference will follow through by reopening the case and giving them the chance to share their stories.

"I think the call to reopen a case is a great idea and, I think, a necessary idea given how the case was handled," Megan Anderson said.

Anderson first shared her story with United Methodist News Service in October.

She met Heckman at the Parliament of World Religions in 2015 when she worked at The Interfaith Observer and the elder was on its advisory board. He invited her to see the upscale hotel where he was staying during the conference — a visit that ended when he tried to put his hand down her pants, she said.

She doesn't want her story to be swept under the rug, she said.

A Catholic, she doesn't want the United Methodist Church to make the same mistakes the Catholic Church has, only recently uncovering decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests across the United States, she added.

Laura Heckman, Heckman’s ex-wife, said that throughout the resolution process, there was conversation about “avoiding a trial on our behalf, which, quite frankly, felt like gaslighting because we never asked them to” avoid a trial. What the women had requested from the church was a platform so they could be heard and that the elder lose his clergy credentials, she said.

Her complaint was "straightforward," she said: Heckman had not been faithful to her during their marriage.

"I'm not afraid to tell the story. Is it easy? No, of course not, but I'm in this because I believe that it's important," she said.

She described the United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective's open letter as "a gift."

Reading Heckman's denials in the press, Mackereth Fulton said, “It became apparent that we needed to do something as United Methodist clergy people to say this is not acceptable or appropriate.”

United Methodist Young Clergywomen Collective members also object in the letter that the four women and their advocates were not involved in the resolution process with Heckman and West Ohio leaders.

And the letter writers object that Heckman was allowed to keep his clergy credentials, according to the pastor. That’s “damaging to every other person who holds clergy credentials in the United Methodist Church,” she said.

Collective members have asked that the complaint be reopened against Heckman — something Mackereth Fulton said rarely happens — and that his clergy credentials be revoked. They also have asked that the four women who came forward with allegations against the elder be allowed to share experiences with the people involved in the resolution and that their letter be included in the official report of the Board of Ordained Ministry to the West Ohio Annual Conference.

The collective, whose members are under the age of 40, is collecting signatures on the letter through Feb. 10, when members plan to post the letter on their website and send it to West Ohio leaders.

Heckman did not immediately return a request for comment made by RNS.

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