Most people fall from grace. I was pushed– for being a whistleblower. This story is about my “fall,” getting back up, and pushing back—with a lawsuit, that took 13 years. It is also about today: how religious institutions keep silent their own potential whistleblowers.
On April 7, 1973, forty years ago, I performed the marriage of Bob Jones and Harry Freeman at Boston’s Old West United Methodist Church. I had been the minister of Old West Church for eight years. Bob and Harry had met at Boston University School of Theology, where they were seminary students, and later became active members of Old West Church. Their marriage violated United Methodism’s long held doctrinal belief that homosexuality is an immoral lifestyle. In 1964, the Southern New England Conference of The United Methodist Church had reopened Old West Church with the charge, “It was to be judged not by the number of members or service attendance, but by its services to humanity.” (Old West Church Study/1965, page 9) The Conference was to get far more than it bargained for.
A number of Old West Church programs passed the hierarchical muster of the Bishop and his Cabinet of five District Superintendents, whose job was to oversee the work of the ministers in their districts and advance (or derail) their careers in the Conference and the denomination. One such Conference-envisioned program at Old West Church was the development of a pastoral counseling and referral service for Methodists and any other persons. As I had a Ph.D. in Psychology and Pastoral Counseling from Boston University, the resident bishop, James K. Mathews, appointed me, in 1965, as Old West Church’s co-minister, with the responsibility for developing programs designed to fulfill its mission of “services to humanity,” and establishing the counseling service as a priority.
Other “services to humanity” at Old West Church’s included embracing the arts. The Hub Theatre Center, a professional theater company directed by playwright/actress Rosann M. Weeks, had lost its space, and found a new home at Old West Church, performing plays that portrayed people as determiners rather than victims of life.
A jazz coalition was formed, with the Church hosting performances of many local jazz musicians and other artists. The jazz coalition was the brainchild of Mark Harvey, another seminary student at Boston University School of Theology. Mark had chosen Old West Church as the place to do his required field work– because of its openness and innovative approaches to ministry. A jazz musician, the Rev. Dr. Mark Harvey is now marking an anniversary of his own: as musical director of The Aardvark Jazz Orchestra, which this year is celebrating its 40th season, as one of the longest continuously operating large jazz ensembles in the world,. The orchestra’s CD, Evocations, was named by The New York City Jazz Record as one of the Best of 2012. (“Jazz community honors Mark Harvey at Ryles,” By Mark Shanahan and Meredith Goldstein, The Boston Globe, Jan. 30, 2013)
Old West Church’s “services to humanity” led to the creation of a clinically supervised volunteer tutoring program for West End/Beacon Hill public school children with learning difficulties. Old West Church initiated an all-night drop-in center for street people. This outreach included efforts to help persons struggling with alcoholism, with many interventions taking place literally on the steps of the church. We found out what it was like to really become aware of and respond to the “humanity” in our midst.
Seminary students in their field education placements—again, mostly from Boston University School of Theology– provided critical assistance with the programs at Old West Church. Over the eight years I served as minister at the church, I worked closely with and supervised about thirty-five of these seminary students. This practical training of ministers was another vital—and welcomed– program at Old West Church.
Ominously, some of Old West Church’s “services to humanity” were judged to have ventured beyond the pale: for example, when Old West Church joined its neighbor, Fr. Gerald Bucke and St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, along with a coalition of community groups, and residents in extensive efforts– included protests covered by the media– to obtain affordable housing on the 10.4 remaining acres of the-urban renewal-devastated West End of Boston; all this, as a wealthy real estate developer with City Hall-connections, connived to grab and privatize the little that was left.
My involvement in “services to humanity” was determined by humanity, and not by the Conference hierarchy. With my United Methodist minister colleague, Frank McGuire, I did considerable street work when thousands of so-called “hippies” showed up on The Boston Common in 1968. We intervened in numerous crisis situations that sprang up between these mostly young people and the Boston police and Beacon Hill residents. Old West participated with other churches, self-help, legal, police, medical and social service organizations in responding to the presence of the young people. Police tactics included using violence against many long-haired and bearded youths. I personally intervened on various occasions, one such time when police swooped down on a large group and began clubbing them across the head with wooden batons.
The “hippies” complained constantly about police violence, false arrests, and the denial of their rights while in custody. And they reported threats of more extensive violence coming from so-called “straight” outsiders. Their abusive treatment and fears led me to dress as a “hippie” to experience first-hand what they were reporting—an action a group of us street workers decided to employ. I sat on the Boston Common with two young men, and along with them was subjected to provocative police behavior, roughed up and then arrested. After that, we were denied our right to a telephone call and to a lawyer. The arrest and denial of our rights were covered in a front-page Boston Globe news story. Following, I wrote two articles– one of them on our being arrested– both published in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. The first was, “Boston: City of Renewal or Repression?” (July 28, 1968), and the other, “The Lessons of Boston’s Hippie Invasion” (Dec. 8, 1968). The pieces focused on the attitudes and “services to humanity” called for in dealing with such a large influx of young people. The Globe sent a promotional postcard, announcing each article, to all of the ministers in the Conference. Some of them found the arrest of a minister contrary to clerical convention and hard to digest.
The stated aim of Old West Church to provide “services to humanity” included responding not just to the needs and rights of human beings locally—but also in the wider world. Old West Church’s deep involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement produced considerable theological grumbling, especially among certain Conference ministers, though a few were supportive. Located down the street from the JFK Federal Building, in Boston’s Government Center, the Church became a medical, legal and information center for several thousand non-violent anti-war protesters sitting-in at the JFK Building.
Another personal anti-war involvement included a sing-in at the Cambridge draft board office, being arrested with two Catholic priests, a Quaker and others, and, with the priests, jailed for eight days in the Billerica House of Correction. I kept a Jail Diary that was published daily in The Boston Globe. An emotionally detached Bishop Mathews informed me afterwards that certain people wrote letters to him complaining about the few words of profanity that appeared in the Diary. It was then that I realized more fully that profanity is not a four-letter word, but a lack of caring that curses anyone’s individuality and worth.
One other reaction to my anti-war involvement is noteworthy here. Robert W. Giger, chairperson of the Quincy and Braintree Cluster of United Methodist Churches, accused me of belonging to a group that bombed buildings. Giger worked for the Internal Revenue Service; he had been in a room next to where a bomb exploded, and had barely escaped injury. Giger wanted the Cluster churches to refuse to pay their appointments to the Conference to protest the Conference providing financial support to Old West Church. In the discovery process related to my lawsuit later on, my attorneys obtained a letter from Giger to Bishop Edward Carroll, stating that he wanted to meet personally with Carroll to discuss a serious issue regarding me.
The reactions to Old West Church’s “services to humanity” degenerated further. In 1971, the church housed around 100 stranded members of the Venceremos Brigade who were on their way to Cuba to cut sugarcane. This act of hospitality– on a rain-swept night– led the Cuban Exile Committee of Massachusetts to picket the Church, the picketing prominently covered by the local television and print media. As a consequence, the Insurance Company of North America proceeded to cancel the church’s insurance. At a meeting I attended, the regional director for the INA asserted that a church’s “normal activities” consisted of “Sunday services and choir rehearsal during the week; and all these other activities have nothing to do with the church.” Explaining the cancellation, the insurance agent for Old West Church said, “The Company is afraid a Bircher might throw a Molotov cocktail at your church. They are afraid of a riot or arson by people who disagree with your activities of social concern.”
My response was to write an article, published in the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine, called “How Insurance Companies Oppress Churches.” (Dec. 13, 1970) The article evidently led other insurance companies to refuse to insure the church. Nor did it help, when I said in a television interview, “Evidently we have to love war and hate young people to get insurance coverage.” An agent of yet another company, considering whether to insure us, reportedly heard me make that statement and refused to recommend coverage for Old West Church.
As one can see, my writings played an important role in my articulating and promoting Old West Church’s “services to humanity.” But it was when I joined in applying “the services to humanity” to the Southern New England Conference itself, that a “spiritual fit” hit the fan.
Rev. William “Bobby” McClain, a close black ministerial colleague and pastor of Boston’s Union United Methodist Church, and I co-authored two articles on racial issues in the Conference, both published by the Boston Sunday Globe Magazine. The articles did not endear us to the Bishop and five District Superintendents, nor to certain other Conference ministers and lay members. The first article was called, “Missionaries in Black” (Oct. 18, 1770), and the second, “The White Churches Are Dying” (July 9, 1972). The title of the second article was an affront in itself.
In “Missionaries in Black,” we argued on behalf of the Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR), an organized affinity group in the Conference, who had requested that the Conference apportion $500,000 a year for three years to support black self-empowerment programs. Our article was inspired by James Forman’s dramatic, 1969, interruption of services at Riverside Church in New York City, where he demanded $500,000 million in reparations, “claim[ing] that white religious institutions were complicit in the system that exploited black people.” This action proceeded from a “’Black Manifesto’ created by the National Black Economic Development Conference, in which Forman participated.” (“Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Forman at Riverside Church,” rodadmin, religionsofharlem.org, Apr. 28, 2011)
Our article stated that the Church of All Nations in Boston should not erect a new building, and that the million dollars designated for building it should be used instead for black self-empowerment programs and for other relevant ministries already functioning in local United Methodist Churches. This suggestion did not set well especially with our Boston District Superintendent, Rev. John Barclay, who has been minister of the Church of All Nations for twenty years, before being appointed Superintendent by Bishop Mathews.
My worst offense, in pursuing “services to humanity,” was not only performing the marriage of Bob Jones and Harry Freeman. (I had performed the marriage of two women at Old West Church in 1971, with the knowledge and approval of the Church’s Pastor Parish Relations Committee.) My other unpardonable sin was the role I played as a whistleblower in an attempt to confront racism in the Conference.
In 1971,the Conference’s Black Methodists for Church Renewal (BMCR) accused the all-white Cabinet (i.e., the Bishop and his five District Superintendents) of discrimination in the appointment of a white, instead of a black, minister to Boston’s Church of All Nations . The charge was actually leveled against Superintendent John Barclay, who manipulated the appointment process by ignoring the available black candidates, and recommended to Bishop Mathews the appointment of a white minister. The BMCR not only alleged “the possibility of discrimination against black pastors in the Southern New England Conference,” their motion called for the Conference to ask United Methodism’s General Commission on Religion and Race to conduct an investigation and to report its findings and any recommendations “as soon as possible to a special session of this Conference.”
I played a key part in BMCR’s whistle-blowing , in accepting the request that I lead a Conference-wide group of ministers and lay persons, who then joined with BMCR in getting a majority of Conference delegates to pass the motion for the investigation. I also taped the emotionally charged Annual Conference session at which the motion was passed, and provided a transcript to the Special Committee conducting the investigation.
The investigation threatened the appointive power of the Bishop and his Cabinet, the career of Superintendent Barclay and the liberal reputation of the white-controlled Southern New England Conference. I believe these threats led the white-dominated Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference of The United Methodist Church to appoint, in 1972, a newly elected bishop, who was black, Rev. Edward G. Carroll, to replace outgoing Rev. Mathews as resident bishop of the Boston Area.
What better way to whitewash an investigation of alleged racial discrimination than with a black leader—one who was elected by predominately white Jurisdictional Conference delegates, precisely because they knew he would “dance to the white man’s tune.” White-controlled structures often select for leadership roles black persons willing to avail themselves in the service of the institution. These are white-selected black leaders. Such visibly placed black leaders give white-dominated structures the appearance of being progressive, so that they can continue doing business as usual.
Bishop Carroll did not disappoint. His priority was not the investigation of alleged racism by the Cabinet. As the presiding officer of the Conference, he did not call a special session of the Conference, “as soon as possible,” voted by the delegates, to hear the findings and any recommendations of the General Commission on Religion and Race’s Special Committee. Instead, in the May, 1973 issue of The Methodist Churchman (official newspaper for New England Methodists), Carroll devoted his whole lengthy front-page Bishop’s Column to the issue of homosexuality, stating, “I write about this issue because it is now foremost in the life of the Boston Area [episcopal center for most of New England Methodism], due to the recent event at Old West Church, Boston, involving the Rev. Dr. William E. Alberts.” Suddenly– by my performing the marriage of two men who loved each other, and chose to publicly celebrate that love before their god and the people with whom they shared their lives—homosexuality became the greatest threat to New England United Methodism.
Two months after I performed Bob and Harry’s wedding, the Southern New England Conference held its annual meeting. In front of some 600 ministerial and lay delegates, Bishop Carroll presented eight “reasons” why he and his Cabinet of District Superintendents (Revs. Barclay, Lemuel K. Lord, James R. Uhlinger, C. Dale White, and E. McKinnon White) had decided I was “unappointable.” The chair of the Conference Board of Ministry, then moved that I be forcibly retired. In terms of due process, not only was I unaware of the eight “reasons” listed against my re-appointment to Old West Church, or anywhere else, but the term “reasons” had been purposely selected over the word “charges” to prevent my minister colleagues from presenting a motion that I be given a church trial, which United Methodism’s Book of Discipline would have granted if charges had been brought against me. Rev. Wilbur C. Ziegler, a colleague who had previously served with me as senior minister at Old West Church, moved that the “reasons” be called “charges” so that I could receive a church trial. Bishop Carroll ruled his motion out of order, reminding the delegates that he has presented “reasons” why I was “unappointable,” and not charges.
The eight “reasons” were enough to do any clergy person in. The following four, which were not true, attacked my strengths as a pastoral counselor, a writer, and a facilitator of interpersonal relationships. In rote fashion, Bishop Carroll listed them:
One, Dr. Alberts’ public disclosure of confidences received while exercising his priestly function. . . Three, Dr. Alberts’ apparent inability to refrain from giving notoriety in the media to matters, which in my judgment, involve personal, sensitive relationships. . . Seven, my perception, based upon conversations with parishioners of the Old West Church that Dr. Alberts has lost the confidence of a substantial portion of his parish. Eight, Dr. Alberts’ apparent inability to work with those who disagree with his point of view. Three of the eight “reasons” were true: Two, Dr. Alberts’ apparent unwillingness to offer himself without reservation to be appointed and to serve as his superiors in office may direct. . .Four, Dr. Alberts’ voluntary estrangement from his wife. . . Six, Dr. Alberts’ solemnization of an alleged marriage between two males contrary to my expressed desire that this ceremony not be characterized as a marriage.
The other “reason?” “Fifth, Dr. Alberts need for a leave of absence for an extended period due to exhaustion.” Old West Church’s Official Board had granted me a “well deserved,” five-months, leave of absence, with the stipulation, negotiated with Superintendent Barclay, that I be reappointed as its minister at the next annual session of the Conference.
What was exhausting was the hierarchical hypocrisy. Bishop Carroll actually concluded the eight “reasons” with, “By listing the forgoing, I do not intend to imply any wrongdoing on Dr. Alberts’ part.” I had been pushed from grace, into a church law-infested swamp by those holding a hierarchically stacked deck.
The Conference delegates actually approved a motion to hire an attorney for this session, to legally guide and guard the process by which I was forcibly retired. To my knowledge, this was the first time in the history of the Conference that legal counsel was employed in such a way for an Annual Conference session. I was forcibly retired by the vote of a majority of the Conference’s ministerial delegates. The lawyer earned his fee.
Little time was given to– and no action taken against– Superintendent Barclay, even though, the next day, the General Commission on Religion and Race’s Special Committee presented its investigation of the Cabinet’s alleged racism with:
. . . so often in our investigation is Rev. Barclay quoted by others as rejecting black candidates and favoring white candidates, we must conclude that Rev. Barclay probably had no real commitment to appoint a black minister to Morgan Memorial [the Church of All Nations]. Out of sometimes conflicting testimony and the impression left with many black members of the Conference, there emerges an image of Rev. Barclay’s dealings with black members of the Conference regarding this appointment with something less than openness and candor.
Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay had actually violated the most serious of the “reasons” used to bring about my forced retirement. They engaged in the “public disclosure” of my “confidences,” after having illegally obtained them from my former psychiatrist.
The discovery process of my lawsuit revealed that, two days after I performed Bob and Harry’s wedding at Old West Church, Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay met with my former psychiatrist, Dr. Donald T. Devine, without my knowledge or permission. Barclay, who learned that Devine had been my therapist, arranged the meeting.
Dr. Devine had been most helpful over several years, not only providing wise counsel in crisis situations, but also critiquing certain of my articles in advance of publication. He also wrote a letter of reference for me, and even referring a patient to me for pastoral counseling. But I terminated with him when he continued to advise me to reconcile with my first wife, even after I had clearly stated my intention to get a divorce. Dr. Devine even suggested that I confide in Bishop Carroll about my separation from my first wife, urging me with the words, “He is your Bishop,” which revealed his ignorance of, or disregard for, the explosive political situation in the Conference that I had shared with him. My termination with him evidently led him to feel rejected, which was also communicated in an angry letter from him that followed.
Dr. Devine, himself, had problems with my performing a gay marriage. When he was deposed, my lawyer, Robert J. Doyle asked, “Did it bother you . . . in any way . . . that Dr. Alberts had performed what was described as a marriage between two homosexuals?” Dr. Devine replied, “This was some time after dismissing me as a therapist. Yes, it’s illegal and invalid and unconstitutional. But,” he continued, “it was a greater concern to me that this was a sick action on his part and the flamboyancy of it was damaging to him.”
Dr. Devine opened the door to Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay, and breached my confidence. According to Carroll’s deposition testimony, he told them that I was “paranoid self-destructive,” which Devine later denied saying.
The following month, Bishop Carroll called a press conference, and released the following to the media: ‘STATEMENT BY BISHOP EDWARD G. CARROLL, RESIDENT UNITED METHODIST BISHOP IN NEW ENGLAND at a PRESS CONFERENCE, MONDAY, MAY 7, 1973, 11:00 A.M. RE: OLD WEST CHURCH, BOSTON; AND THE REV. DR. WILLIAM E. ALBERTS, Ph.D.” Carroll began his statement with:
It is a painful experience for me to comment in this way on a private matter which inadvertently has become a public question in the media. . . I told Dr. Alberts that indications pointed to a possible illness which might be seriously affecting his usefulness as a United Methodist minister. I advised him that in my judgment as chief pastor, based upon competent consultation (italics added), he was not presently in a position to assume pastoral responsibilities anywhere. (pages 109 and 110 of the lawsuit’s RECORD APPENDIX, the official lawsuit document before the Massachusetts Supreme Court Justices)
There was more regarding “the public disclosure of” my “confidences.” Two weeks after Bishop Carroll’s press conference, the Conference’s Board of Ministry, which evaluates ministers’ qualifications, met to consider my fate– as the annual Conference session, when ministerial appointments would be made, was only a month away. I was allowed to be present at the morning session, and took the occasion in front of the Board members, to ask Carroll to identify the “competent consultation” he had used to declare that I was “not presently in a position to assume pastoral responsibilities anywhere. “ He refused.
No member of the Board of Minister supported my request, nor questioned the legal or ethical propriety of Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay possessing and circulating Dr. Devine’s alleged psychiatric disclosures about me. Nor did any Board member express concern over Carroll’s discrediting of me with such defaming public and private assertions of mental illness. The discovery process, conducted by my lawyers, yielded much here. The Board of Ministry’s Minutes of that May 24, 1973 session state, “In a prolonged discussion Alberts challenged the Bishop as to where he’s ‘coming from’ in his damaging allegations, and to name the two ‘mystery psychiatrists’ with whom he has consulted on Alberts’ mental health..” (Bishop Carroll has said he had consulted with two psychiatrists, but Dr. Devine was his key authority, and the one with whom he and Rev. Barclay personally conferred together)
I was barred from the afternoon session of the Board of Ministry, whose Minutes include the following:
When the Board reconvened at 2 PM Bishop Carroll made a full statement of reasons why he and the Cabinet felt that Mr. Alberts was unappointable to a church. Some [four] areas he cited were: . . . (4) psychiatric evaluations from a doctor who has treated Alberts for long duration and concludes that he is ill, and needs extensive care. The Bishop concluded his remarks with acknowledging that whatever the Board would do, or not do, it remains an ‘episcopal problem.’
The lawsuit’s discovery process also revealed that Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay met with my three closest ministerial colleagues (Rev. Dick Harding, Landon Lindsay and Bobby McClain)) shortly after conferring with Dr. Devine. First they induced my three colleagues to pledge themselves to confidentiality, after that they shared with them what Devine has allegedly disclosed about me. And my closest colleagues kept in confidence what Carroll and Barclay told them—throughout that whole forced retirement witch hunt. Nor did any member of the Cabinet, or of the Conference Board of Ministry, or any other minister raise the issue of the invasion of my privacy by Carroll and Barclay.
Dr. Devine’s alleged psychiatric disclosures about me laid the foundation for the eight “reasons” justifying my being “unappointable.” After a person is branded mentally ill, any kind of uncharacteristic behavior is believable, even to one’s closest colleagues. And if a person is called “paranoid self-destructive” by his Bishop, using as his authority a psychiatrist (whose last name does not even need to be “Devine”), whatever is done to that person can be blamed on that person—a vicious Catch 22 of blaming the victim, made even more insidious by being masked as “caring” for me. The eight “reasons” developed and used to get rid of me– after Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay’s meeting with Dr. Devine – were Carroll and Barclay’s way of trying to distance themselves– and Dr. Devine– from the legal consequences of their having induced him to breach my confidence.
“Public disclosure of confidences.” Not until two weeks after my forced retirement did a United Methodist minister colleague, Rev. Dr. Sam Hedrick, finally inform me that my former psychiatrist, Dr. Devine, was Bishop Carroll’s mystery psychiatrist who provided the “competent consultation” used to justify removing me from the ministry. I responded by calling a press conference, at which I identified Devine as the psychiatric authority, and announced my intention to file a lawsuit against him and Carroll and Rev. Barclay.
The media coverage of the press conference led Dr. Devine to write a letter to Bishop Carroll, that was withheld from my legal team for over six years and after we had subpoenaed all the defendants’ documents during the discovery process. Devine wrote in his letter of Aug. 8, 1973:
Dear Bishop Carroll:
As you doubtless know, Bill Alberts has appeared in the press and on television announcing his intention of sueing [sic] us. . . . In the course of all of this, I think of the Watergate affair and the Nixon tapes as well as my advice to you that you give Bill no specific details that he could distort and refute. Accordingly, I should be greatly relieved if your tape recording of our conference were erased. While I do not feel that it contains breeches [sic] of confidence, Bill and his lawyers could make much out of it if it were subpoenaed [sic] into court . . .
Donald T. Devine, M.D.
Following is Bishop Carroll’s reply of Aug. 17, 1973:
. . . May I assure you that I agree with your feeling about the disposal of the tape. As soon as I return to Boston (Aug. 24th) I will find the tape and erase it. I say find It because I purposely did not label it after you forgave me for recording you without your permission and asked that our talk be kept confidential. I prey (italic added) that God will somehow let Bill know that I am really concerned about him as a person and as a Christian ministers[sic].
Very sincerely yours,
Edward G. Carroll
Nobody spoke up to challenge this blatant violation of my right of privacy and public discrediting. The ministers on the Conference Board of Ministry, my closest colleagues, and certain other delegates, sat, silently, at that June 8, 1973 Annual Conference session, and knowingly allowed Bishop Carroll, and his Cabinet of District Superintendents, to falsely accuse me of the very offense Carroll and Rev. Barclay had committed against me.
One of the painful lessons the United Methodists taught me was that you can’t have a hierarchy without a lowerarchy. Clergy in hierarchical structures are conditioned to obey their Bishop or other religious superior. Their jobs and promotions depend on it. Such hierarchical power has a corrupting influence on the consciences of clergy—and lay persons.
The United Methodist hierarchy’s corrupting influence almost cost United Methodist ministers,– and other clergy by precedent– their right of privacy. Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay’s lawyers argued that the United Methodist Book of Discipline gave them the authority to violate my right of privacy and disclose my confidences. Attorney Florence Freeman, Rev. Barclay’s counsel, cited Paragraphs 331, 354 and 357 in The Book of Discipline in arguing before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) in Barclay’s brief, “From the above, the argument can well be made that upon becoming an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church in full connection with the Southern New England Conference, Alberts authorized the invasion of his ‘privacy’ and waived any psychiatric or medical ‘privileges’ so far as concerned, in particular, his District Superintendent” [pages 9 and 10]. Paragraph 331, for example, states, “. . . They [ministers] offer themselves without reserve (italics added) to be appointed and to serve as their superiors in office may direct.”
Attorneys Deborah Griffin and Ripley E. Hastings, counsel for both Bishop Carroll and Rev, Barclay, argued in their joint brief before the SJC, “In voluntarily joining the church as a member in full connection, Reverend Alberts submitted himself to a relationship within the church in which his Bishop and Superintendent had broad pastoral, even paternal responsibilities and powers.” The clerical defendants even got United Methodist Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel to be their expert witness before the Norfolk Superior Court, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Bishop Yeakel’s affidavit stated “that Church law, as expressed in The Book of Discipline and understood and applied by Bishops and other clergymen in the Church, authorized the kind of inquiry made by Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay.” [Defendants Carroll and Barclay’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, page 5]
Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay’s desperate attempt to justify their illegal and immoral behavior was seen in their willingness to set a legal precedent that would jeopardize the right of privacy of all United Methodist—and other—clergy.
This issue helped to energize the support of close colleague, Rev. Landon Lindsey. In a letter to the editor of Zion’s Herald, newspaper of New England Methodists, he went to the heart of the lawsuit, writing, “It continues to amaze me that what I consider . . . to be the main issue in this case is never mentioned. . . .I have been ordained since 1950 and nowhere along the way has this viewpoint of a ‘special relationship’ ever been mentioned or interpreted to me as stating that I gave up such rights upon ordination. . . . My rights are given to me by the State and not the Church.” Lindsay went on, “I would like to think that we owe Dr. William E. Alberts a debt of gratitude for his persistence, despite all kinds of obstacles and legal maneuvering, in making clear in the courts of this country the right of all ordained persons as to their ‘privacy.’ I did not wave any rights in any way upon ordination.” (Mar. 1986)
My closest ministerial colleagues had joined me in the lawsuit, and made an invaluable contribution. In a Letter to the Editor of the United Methodist Reporter, Methodism’s denomination-wide newspaper, Revs. Lindsay and Dick Harding pointed out the trouble-making threat Old West Church’s “services to humanity” posed, writing, “ Both of us have been ministers of the Southern New England Annual Conference for over thirty years, and during those tough and critical years of the sixties it was the ministry of Dr. William Alberts that both challenged and inspired many of us to hang on in Civil Rights and opposition to the Vietnam War. His was both a prophetic voice in those difficult years and his ministry was centered where much of the action was in the city of Boston.” (Dec. 18, 1985)
It really was not about my mental health. Old west Church was a rare Conference church, providing an innovative and prophetic model, whose “services to humanity” became too experimental, inclusive and threatening. It had to be brought under hierarchical control.
I responded to the charge of mental illness by getting two psychiatrists and a psychologist to evaluate me. Then I presented their positive evaluations to the Conference Board of Ministry. But their evaluations did not matter. In fact, one of the District Superintendents reacted negatively, saying, “I believe Bishop Carroll’s sources, not yours.” He told me that I was “sick,” and offered to contribute money toward my getting therapy.
It was not about illness, but about involvements. Dr. Devine himself had written a letter of reference for me when I first considered transferring to the Unitarian Universalist (UU) ministry. In the letter to the UU Board of Ministry, Dr. Devine stated:
For several years [Bill] had an increasing interest in leaving some of the restrictive aspects of Methodism for the more liberal position of the Unitarians. In his therapy, he became more aware of the wholesome motives in this direction, and felt free to initiate steps toward this change in an orderly and objectively way. With regard to the specific qualities you mention in your letter, I comment:
a) Leadership ability—excellent, sound and well directed.
b) Personal integrity—of the highest without any suggestion of sanctimonious or sham standards . .
c) Warmth of personality—sincere and open, without superficial stereotype but with spontaneous and transmissible security . . .
Most of all, it was about whistle-blowing against a white Bishop and his Cabinet in the racially motivated appointment of a white instead of a black minister to Boston’s Church of All Nations. The whistle-blowing led an offended and angry Cabinet of “superiors in office” to assume that their hierarchical halo gave them the authority to violate my right of privacy.
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled otherwise. In June of 1985, the SJC justices issued their strong 24-page landmark ruling that Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay were liable for any damages resulting from their inducing Dr. Devine to breach my confidence, and would have to stand trial. A Superior Court justice had granted Carroll and Barclay Summary Judgment, agreeing with their lawyers’ argument that the defendants invasion of my privacy was protected by the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State. But the SJC reversed the Summary Judgment, and also lifted the Superior Court justice’s protective order that had suppressed all the evidence we obtained . The SJC’s official opinion stated:
A controversy concerning whether a church rule grants religious superiors the Civil right to induce a psychiatrist to violate the duty of silence that he owes to a patient, who happens to be a minister, is not a dispute about religious faith or doctrine nor about church discipline or internal organization. . . Although the freedom to believe ‘is absolute,’ the freedom to act ‘cannot be. Conduct remains subject to regulation for the protection of society. The freedom to act must have appropriate definition to preserve the enforcement of that protection.’ [page 20]
The SJC went even further: it used my lawsuit as a landmark case to create a new case law protecting physician/patient confidentiality, which also holds liable not only the physician, but anyone who induces a physician to breach a confidence. That new case law is called William E. Alberts vs. Donald T. Devine & others, 395, Mass.59 (1985). The “others,” of course, are “Edward G. Carroll and John E. Barclay.”
The SJC’s ruling was issued and published in an Associated Press story the day before the June 1985 annual session of the Southern New England Conference. My close colleagues, Revs. Harding, Lindsey and McClain drafted the statement below, and then found fifty-three Conference ministers who agreed to sign on. It was read to all the delegates in attendance:
We the undersigned ministerial delegates of the Southern New England Annual Conference, belated though it may be, acknowledge our complicity and participation in the unjust and uncaring way our former colleague Dr. William E. Alberts was involuntarily retired at the 1973 Annual Conference Session. We regret the fact that once again the court has taken its action before we as a people of faith have taken ours. Whatever the consequences of the court decision it is our hope that healing will take place for all persons involved and for the community as a whole.
But Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay and their lawyers were not through yet. They appealed the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s ruling to the U. S. Supreme Court. They even enlisted the National Council of Churches (NCC) and Methodism’s General Council on Finance and Administration to file a joint brief to the Supreme Court in support of Carroll and Barclay’s appeal. The NCC, with its 30 million members, wrote in the joint brief that my lawsuit threatened the very existence of freedom of religion itself in America.
In December of 1985, the Supreme Court refused to hear Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay’s appeal. They and their Cabinet were through. They could no longer hide behind their church law. Nor stay above reproach with legal maneuvers to stay above approach.
My lawyers had done their job exceedingly well, against defendants with considerable wealth and prominence, in comparison with a publicly discredited minister who had to go into bankruptcy. Bruce V. Carey, fresh out of law school, took my case. And Robert J. Doyle, an experienced trial lawyer, later joined us—after passing my test, with flying colors, when I asked if he had any qualms about bringing a lawsuit against a bishop.
One unforeseen, and most important value of the lawsuit is that it brought the force of law to bear upon the protection of physician/patient confidentiality. Now, the right of privacy of all citizens in Massachusetts is protected by law, where it was not before. The confidential relationship between physician and patient in this state cannot be violated anymore by anyone hiding behind a clerical collar or corporate power, or by a psychiatrist trying to play “God” with a patient’s life. The widespread use of this case law as a precedent is seen in googling “Alberts v Devine.”
Another value of the lawsuit is that it demonstrates the importance of not giving up on people, even people who are part of a lowerarchy. As Rev. Dick Harding told Conference Bishop George W. Bashiore, “I was quiet in 1973, and I won’t be quiet again. If I had spoken up then, there would have been a different outcome.” There proved to be “a different outcome” in my case because Harding and my other ministerial colleagues chose to “speak up.”
In later years, Rev. Harding refused to stay “quiet” when another United Methodist minister was removed from his church for performing a same sex marriage. This injustice led Harding to create a Conference-wide group of “Reconciling Retired Clergy,” whose mission has been to “speak up” on behalf of the full inclusion of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people into the life of the United Methodist Church. These retired clergy have performed gay marriages, and supported active clergy brought to church trial for conducting same sex unions, or threatened with removal for openly loving their own same sex partner.
The fact that Massachusetts and several other states have legalized same sex marriage is such a commentary on United Methodism, which continues to hold the regressive belief that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” That belief is incompatible with humanity, and in time will give way to the transcending power of human love.
The movement toward marriage equality is ever growing. The College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychology (CPSP) recently issued a “commitment to marriage equality” challenging the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act passed by Congress, and subsequent related state laws that discriminate against persons due to their sexual orientation. A 1000-member, international organization of hospital and other chaplains, with 115 chapters, CPSP’s declaration states that “every human being is entitled to justice and dignity,” and that “every couple, including same sex couples, should enjoy . . . equal justice under the law including the legal protection, benefits and responsibilities of civil marriage.”(“CPSP Public Declaration,” Brian Childs, President; Raymond J. Lawrence, General Secretary, Pastoral Report, Mar. 14, 2013)
A critical value of my case is that it offers a glimpse into how hierarchical organizations– with power over jobs and livelihood– control and corrupt the consciences of clergy and lay persons alike. This hierarchical/lowerarchical dynamic helps to explain why two of the world’s worst war criminals, former president George W. Bush and vice president Dick Chaney, both United Methodists, can commit horrible war crimes against the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, and continue “in good standing” in The United Methodist Church, when they should be tried by the denomination for crimes against humanity. Never mind that United Methodism’s Council of Bishops crafted a safe, carefully worded “Statement of Conscience” in response to the Bush administration’s unnecessary, illegal and falsely based invasion and occupation of Iraq. (See Alberts, Praying for Peace or Preying on Peace, CounterPunch, Apr. 29-31, 2006)
The Bishops’ real “Statement of Conscience” is seen in United Methodism building a monument to one of its two war criminals: “The George W. Bush Presidential Center at Southern Methodist University,” to be dedicated on April 25, 2013. There was moral opposition to the monument by certain United Methodists, but they were no match for a hierarchy that is not committed to “services to humanity,” when it means speaking truth to greater political power and having their denomination’s own place of privilege threatened.
Such glaring immorality: a Christian denomination that punishes same sex couples for loving each other, and builds a monument to an international war criminal who is responsible for the deaths and misery of millions of human being. Crimes against humanity that include the sacrificing of young American lives and our country’s resources on the altar of American imperialism, with its war-mongering pursuit of power and profit.
History will condemn former president Bush and vice president Cheney for their war crimes against Iraq. History will also indict The United Methodist Church– and other accommodating religious groups–for their continuing muzzled moral response. (See, “New ‘Costs of War’ Report: Hundreds of Thousands Dead, Trillions Spent. As the ten year anniversary of Iraq invasion approaches research undermines any claims that war was worth it,” Jon Queally, staff writer, CommonDreams.Org, Mar. 15, 22013)
White-controlled Christian denominations, whether hierarchical or not, are actually part of America’s political-military-corporate-media complex—from which they receive status and privilege and financial support, in exchange for serving as chaplains, certainly not as its prophets, of the status quo. They know their place, and fear their own Good Friday if they really were to blow the whistle on American imperialism
Thus far, the voices of most mainstream Christian leaders are not heard condemning the Obama administration’s criminal drone warfare, with the killing of civilians, extrajudicial assassination of assumed “militants” denied due process, including Americans, and violations of other countries’ national sovereignty. Nor is any concerted moral outrage heard, or demonstrated, from religious leaders in response to President Obama’s continuing war-mongering threats against allegedly nuclear weapon-building Iran, the most recent, “If we can resolve it diplomatically that is a more lasting solution. But if not, I continue to keep all options on the table “ (“Iran Nuclear Weapon to Take Year or More, Obama Says” By Michael D Shear and David E. Sanger, The New York Times, Mar. 15, 2013) A trumped up, Iraq-like weapons of mass destruction threat, in preparation for military aggression against Iran, for the benefit of American imperialism and its war profiteers—under the guise of protecting Israel’s security.
Also, the mostly deafening silence from mainline clergy in response to the Bush and Obama administrations’ global “war on terror,” which is actually a declaration of war against the world itself, i.e., against any resistance anywhere to U.S. hegemony. And the lack of persistent prophetic voices and actions confronting the related and ever widening oppressive gulf between the rich and the poor in America.
There is an important exception to all of the willed silence—and muffled protests—of the chaplains of the status quo. The National Black Church Initiative (NBCI), composed of 34,000 churches representing 15 denominations and 15.7 million black persons has condemned the Obama administration’s drone warfare as “murder and evil,” and declares, “This policy should be condemned by both liberal and conservative and especially those who love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with God.” (“NBCI Condemns Obama Administration’s Drone Policy as Murder and Evil,” BCNN1, Black Christian Internet Newspaper, Feb. 19, 2013) One does not find NBCI’s strong statement against drone warfare mentioned anywhere in the mainstream media. Nor are any of its prophetic clergy trotted out to justify America’s policies.
In my “fall from grace,” I landed on my humanity—with a radicalizing thump. I was fortunate to become minister, for thirteen years, of the non-sectarian, Unitarian Universalist-affiliated Community Church of Boston, where I was expected to perform the very kind of social justice ministry for which I was punished at Old West Church. Later, I was privileged to serve for over eighteen years as a hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center.
I have been honored to perform other gay marriages. One, of two women, on a beautiful spring day, the three of us seated at a picnic table on the lawn of Boston University Medical School. Another, also of two women, the ceremony held in the impressive chapel at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The one partner being the daughter of a United Methodist woman, who was a lay leader of the Southern New England Conference—who sought a minister to perform her daughter’s wedding, and Rev. Harding referred her to me. The third, of two men, whose ceremony will take place this summer. Human love knows no boundaries.
Easter is about refusing to be “quiet.” It is about “speaking up,” and acting, on behalf of the faceless and the voiceless, and the clear-faced voices of protest, and their loved ones, and ourselves. Easter is about whistle-blowing.
Before his crucifixion on a Roman cross, Jesus, the Jewish prophet, was arrested. He faced the Roman oppressor Pilate, and said, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” (John 16: 33-37) To Jesus, the truth was about confronting Pilate and the Roman Empire for its oppression of his Jewish people. The truth was about whistle-blowing: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus said, “ because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . . [and] set at liberty those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4: 18) Easter’s promise of liberation and renewal depends on Good Friday’s whistle-blowing.
This article is dedicated to Private Bradley Manning for “aiding and abetting” the American people.
Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is a diplomate in the College of Pastoral Supervision and Psychotherapy. Both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister, he has written research reports, essays and articles on racism, war, politics, religion and pastoral care. His book, A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, is available on Amazon.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.