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A Well-Kept United Methodist Church Secret

Photo by Steve Snodgrass | CC BY 2.0

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.”

— ‘WILLIAM E. ALBERTS vs. DONALD T. DEVINE  & OTHERS,’ 395 Mass, 59, Oct. 5, 1984-June 4, 1985, masscases.com/sjc       

The United Methodist Church is the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, with almost 7 million members – and exceeds 12.5 million world-wide.  It boasts prominent political leaders among its membership: Ulysses S. Grant, 18thPresident; William McKinley, 25thPresident; 43rdPresident George W. Bush and his Vice President Dick Cheney; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions; Sen. Elizabeth Warren; as well as a number of Democrat and Republican Senators and Representatives. (“List of   Methodists,” Wikipedia)  And the Church’s Council of Bishops has maintained a tradition of giving a signed copy of The Bible to every U.S. president ever since Bishop Francis Asbury gave a signed copy to President George Washington in 1789. (“UMC bishops offer post-election congratulations, prayers,” www.umcsc.org)  Besides such political power, the prospect of suing a commonly revered Bishop of The Church and his District Superintendent is daunting — especially if your character had been assassinated and you were forced into bankruptcy.

Forty-five years ago, I sued my United Methodist bishop and district superintendent and my former psychiatrist for violating my right of privacy.  A precipitating event was my performing the April 7, 1973 marriage of Bob Jones and Harry Freeman at Boston’s Old West United Methodist Church where they were members and I was minister.  The Conference hierarchy seized on their wedding as a violation of United Methodism’s Book of Discipline, which states that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  (Homosexuality: Full Book of Discipline Statements,” The United Methodist Church) Bob and Harry had been theological students at Boston University School of Theology, where they met.
Two days after the wedding, Bishop Edward G. Carroll and Boston District Superintendent Rev. John E. Barclay visited my former psychiatrist, Dr. Donald T. Devine without my knowledge or permission. They proceeded to share privately (with key ministers and Church boards) and publicly Dr. Devine’s assumed allegation that I was mentally ill.

Bishop Carroll even called a press conference at which he stated, “I told Dr. Alberts that indications pointed to a possible illness, which might be seriously affecting his usefulness as a United Methodist minister.”  Further: “I advised him that in my judgment as chief pastor, based on competent consultation [italics mine], he was not presently in a position to assume pastoral duties anywhere.” (‘STATEMENT BY BISHOP EDWARD G, CARROLL, RESIDENT UNITEDE 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., Pages 109 and 110 of the lawsuit’s RECORD APPENDIX, the official lawsuit document before the Mass. SJC justices)

At the May 24, 1973 meeting of the then Southern New England Conference’s Board of Ministry, which I was allowed to attend, I confronted Bishop Carroll, demanding that he identify the two psychiatrists with whom, he told me, he had consulted.  He refused.

The May 24, 1973 Board of Ministry Minutes, one of many documents my lawyers had obtained in the discovery process, 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 about Alberts’ mental health.” [Carroll told me he had conferred with two psychiatrists, but Dr. Devine was his key authority and the one with whom he and Rev. Barclay personally conferred together.]  When I asked Carroll to name his two psychiatrists, he repeated before the Board of Ministry what he told me in a private meeting: that he would only name them if he were forced to in a court of law.  No members of the Board of Ministry, composed of 30-some ministers and the Bishop’s Cabinet of five District Superintendents, questioned or challenged his and Superintendent Barclay’s violation of my right of privacy.

I was barred from the Board of Ministry’s also revealing afternoon session, whose Minutes state:

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 un-appointable 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.”

Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay also made it a point to meet with my three closest ministerial colleagues (Revs. Dick Harding, Landon Lindsey and Bobby McClain) shortly after their secretive meeting with Dr. Devine.  They actually got these long-time colleagues to pledge themselves to confidentiality first, and then told them what Dr. Devine was to have alleged about me.  And these three closest colleagues kept in confidence what Carroll and Barclay told them — throughout the assassination of my character that culminated in my forced retirement, by a vote of the majority of ministerial delegates at the June 8, 1973 meeting of the Southern New England Conference.

Later, these three close colleagues were able to share their complicity with me.  They then made invaluable contributions to my lawsuit.

The night before my forced retirement, the Conference Board of Ministry held an extensive meeting to decide my fate.  Uninvited, I entered the meeting and challenged the Board members, saying something like, “If you have any balls, you will demand that Bishop Carroll name the two psychiatrists whom he has used to discredit me.”   No doubt my angry interruption helped certain Board members to justify their own accommodation of the unlawful invasion of my privacy.

The acquiescence of Conference ministers to hierarchical authority reveals that you cannot 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.  Their consciences are kept by their superiors – many of whose own consciences are also kept by the prevailing political status quo.  For many ministers, it is not as much about the grace of God, but fear of falling out of the good graces of those who have power over their appointments.

No ministerial colleagues or other Conference clergy members challenged Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay’s flagrant violation of my right of privacy.  The Conference ministers accommodated an obvious crime – at the risk, unbeknown to them, of losing their own, and all United Methodist ministers, right of privacy.  But for the first nine years of my long financial and legal obstacles-filled — lawsuit, The United Methodist Church’s well-kept secret remained safe.   Especially when a superior court judge decided to let the bishop and district superintendent off the hook.

A few days before we were finally going to trial in March of 1983, the attorneys for Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay presented a motion that these two co-defendants be granted summary judgment and dismissed from the lawsuit. The lawyers used the First Amendment’s “separation of church and state” clause to argue that the state had no right to interfere with the ways in which a church conducts its business in the appointment and discharge of its ministers.  Superior Court Justice Elizabeth J. Dolan agreed with them, and not only dismissed Carroll and Barclay from the lawsuit, but also granted their motion for a protective order to suppress all the evidence my lawyers obtained from the United Methodist Church, including Carroll and Barclay’s depositions and all the Conference documents our subpoenas obtained.  The protective order effectively tied our hands in proceeding against Dr. Devine.

Judge Dolan then took eight months before putting her ruling in writing, before which we could appeal her ruling to the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts. She finally did so after I wrote an extensive letter of complaint to the Chief Justice of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, requesting to appear before the Court, and, in the letter, sharing documented evidence – obtained from the discovery process – of Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay inducing Dr. Devine to breech my confidence.

My lead attorney, Rob Doyle advised against such a letter.  “It’s just not done,” he said.  But he respected my decision to write it.  The attorneys for Carroll and Barclay were furious when they heard about the letter– and for good reason.   They wanted to keep the glaring evidence against their clients under legal lock and key.

I am ever grateful to my friend, author and television docudrama producer Tom McCann, who urged me to write that letter to the Supreme Judicial Court, and recommended other helpful legal strategies along the way.   Tom reinforced my commitment to remain dogged when the going was the worst.

I was not allowed to testify before the Supreme Judicial Court, but did attend when the Justices heard my appeal of Judge Dolan’s granting of summary judgment to Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay, which would allow them to hide behind the separation of church and state clause to escape accountability for their criminal behavior.  It was here, before the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, that Carroll and Barclay’s lawyers revealed a well-kept United Methodist Church secret.

At that October 1984 SJC appeal hearing, Attorney Florence Freeman, Rev. Barclay’s counsel, sought to justify Barclay’s invasion of my privacy by citing Paragraphs 331, 354 and 357 in The Book of Discipline (Methodist’s legal Bible) in arguing Barclay’s brief before the SJC: “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 to be appointed and to serve as their superiors in office may direct. . . .”    [Since 1973, this Para. has been slightly changed to read: “They offer themselves without reserve to be appointed and to serve, after consultation, as their appointive authority may determine.”] (The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church, The United Methodist Publishing House, 2004)

Similarly, Attorney 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 the Bishop and Superintendent had broad pastoral, even paternal responsibilities and powers.”  (Defends Carroll and Barclay’s Petition for a Writ of Certiorari, page 5)

Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay’s lawyers even enlisted United Methodist Bishop Joseph H. Yeakel to be their expert witness before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts  — and also before the Norfolk Superior Court and, later, even before the U.S. Supreme Court.  Bishop Yeagel’s affidavit states “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.” (Ibid)

A Supreme Judicial Court justice asked Rev. Barclay’s lawyer, “Miss Freeman, is there any indication of any evidence, I assume, by affidavit, in the record, which shows that your clients published, spoke, advised, communicated this psychiatric information in any context or any forum other than the governing body?”  Attorney Freeman replied, “There is no evidence, your Honor, before this Court. There is the allegation that statements were made to the press.  These are denied.” (Page 2-16 of plaintiff’s Transcript of the tape of the October 4, 1984 hearing before the SJC)

Attorney Griffin, who presented a joint brief before the Court for Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay, also responded, “Your Honor, there is no evidence that the clerical defendants made statements to the press revealing this information.  This is simply not in the record..  . . . It is clear from some of his [plaintiff’s] testimony that he was not present at the time of the alleged statements.” {Page 2-17, Transcript, Ibid)

Pages 109 and 110 of the lawsuit’s RECORD APPENDIX, the official lawsuit document before the SJC  justices, contains a copy of the formal two-page statement Bishop Carroll released to the media at a May 7, 1973 press conference he himself called – part of which was cited above.

Also, page 77 of the lawsuit’s RECORD APPENDIX contains the following statement I made when I was deposed: “I have a tape of the May 7, 1973 press conference at which the statements were made and I recognize the voice of Edward Carroll.”

After hearing the defendants’ arguments and seeing the evidence, the Massachusetts Supreme Court justices ruled that “the religious clauses of the First Amendment do not preclude the imposition of liability on Carroll and Barclay nor bars the courts of this Commonwealth from inquiring into the church’s proceedings that resulted in Alberts’s failure to gain reappointment as minister of Boston’s Old West Church.  The justices then ruled:

“Because Carroll and Barclay have not established by uncontroverted affidavits and other supporting materials that Alberts cannot prove his claims, we reverse the grant of summary judgment in favor of Carrol and Barclay and the judgments entered pursuant thereto, vacate the protective order entered below, and remand this case to the Superior Court for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”

(‘WILLIAMN E. ALBERTS vs. DONALD T. DEVINE 7 OTHERS,’Ibid)

But Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay and their lawyers were not through.  After requesting and receiving a settlement proposal from my lawyers, these two defendants’ lawyers ignored the proposal and appealed the Massachusetts SJC’s ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, using the same arguments they had presented to the Massachusetts Court.  They even got the National Council of Churches (NCC) to join United Methodism’s General Council on Finance and Administration in filing a joint brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay.  The NCC, with its 30 million members, wrote in its joint brief that my lawsuit threatened the very existence of freedom of religion itself in this country.

The NCC’s Office of Religious Liberty represented the NCC in the filing of the joint brief.  The director of the Office of Religious Liberty was Rev. Dean Kelly, a United Methodist minister.  I initiated a telephone conversation with him, during which he informed me, upon being asked, that his Office was composed of 30 members, and that 12 were in attendance at the meeting at which the consensus was reached to join Methodism’s General Council on Finance and Administration in filing the brief on behalf of Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay.

In December of 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay’s appeal.  Having exhausted their legal maneuvers, they could no longer hide behind their hierarchical halo.  And Dr. Devine could no longer hope to ride out of the lawsuit on their religious coattails.

Not only did “Alberts vs. Devine & Others” stand,the lawsuit became a landmark case. It  was used by the Massachusetts SJC to create a new case law protecting physician/patient confidentiality.  The new case law: not only is a physician held liable for violating a patient’s confidence, but anyone who induces a physician to breech a confidence.  The “Others,” of course, are Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay. The importance of the precedent-setting new class law in protecting physician/patient confidentiality is readily seen in googling Alberts v. Devine & Others.

My two “superiors in office” and the Bishop’s full Cabinet of District Superintendents, with the accommodation of a majority of ministers in the Conference lowerarchy, were willing to sacrifice all United Methodist ministers right of privacy — and by precedent other clergy as well – to absolve these “superiors” of a crime they committed – at a Conference, in broad daylight, in what, in United Methodism, is now called “holy conferencing.”

Thank goodness for the civil law that gave me my ‘day” (13 years) in Court.  Fortunately, the civil court forced my “superiors in office” from their hierarchical hiding place and required them to stand as equals with me before the law.

Sadly, the Christian denomination I served for 24 years was determined to deny me my constitutional right of due process.  The Conference session at which I was forcibly retired in June of 1973 was jaw-dropping.

Bishop Carroll, presiding officer of Methodism’s then Southern New England Conference, presented to the over 600 ministerial and lay delegates in attendance  eight “reasons” why he and his Cabinet of five District Superintendents (Revs. Barclay, Lemuel K. Lord, James R. Uhlinger, C. Dale White and E. McKinnon White) had decided I was “un-appointable.”  Regarding the denial of any due process, I was not even aware of the “reasons” until Carroll presented them in rote fashion to the Conference delegates:

One, Dr. Alberts’ public disclosure of confidences received while exercising his priestly function;

Two, Dr. Alberts’ apparent unwillingness to offer himself without reservation to be appointed and to serve as his superiors in office may direct;

Three, Dr. Alberts’ apparent inability to refrain from giving notoriety in the media to matters, which in my judgment, involve personal, sensitive relationships;

Four, Dr. Alberts’ voluntary estrangement from his wife;

Five, Dr. Alberts’ need of a leave of absence for an extended period due to exhaustion;

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; 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.

Bishop Carroll then concluded: “By listing the foregoing, I do not intend to imply any wrongdoing on Dr. Alberts’ part.” [italics added).  You can’t make this stuff up.  This is one of the points at which the lawyer, hired by the Conference, is believed to have earned his fee.

Bishop Carroll’s behavior was just as devious when Rev. Wilbur Ziegler, a ministerial colleague, presented a motion that I be granted a church trial.  Carroll ruled Ziegler’s motion out of order, saying that no charges, which are required for a church trial, had been brought against me, that he had presented “reasons,” not charges, for my being “un-appointable.”  Ziegler moved that the Bishop’s own eight “reasons” be called charges so that I could receive a church trial.  Carroll ruled Ziegler’s motion out of order, reminding the delegates that he has presented “reasons” why I was “un-appointable,” not charges.  Here is another point at which the Conference’s lawyer’s legal fingerprint was seen.

Ironically, in 1984 Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay’s attorneys argued before the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, and again in 1985 before the U.S. Supreme Court, that I did not seek redress through the judicial process of The United Methodist Church.  The last thing Carroll and Barclay would have wanted was a church trial.

Had the Conference ministers voted to give me a church trial, the hypocrisy surrounding Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay’s accusing me of the “public disclosure of confidences received while exercising” my “priestly function” would have been exposed.  That is exactly what my lawsuit was about:  these two “superiors in office” “publicly disclosing” my confidence, gained illegallyin the “exercise of” their “priestly function.”

In a church trial, the evidence my lawyers obtained in the discovery process would have included an exchange of letters between Bishop Carroll and Dr. Devine, written shortly after I called a press conference at which I announced my intent to sue them for violating my right of privacy.  In his August 8, 1973 letter to Carroll, Devine began, “As you doubtless know, Bill Alberts has appeared in the press and on television announcing his intention of sueing [sic] us.  Devine then asked Carroll to erase the tape of their meeting, as “Bill and his lawyers could make much use of it if it were subpoened [sic] into court.”  In his August 17, 1973 reply, Carroll wrote, “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 was accused of violating only one confidence, and in a trial that accusation would have easily been proven to be false.  I provided pastoral counseling for hundreds of persons during my eight years at Old West Church, and testimonies would have been easily obtained affirming my effectiveness as a counselor, including my maintaining the confidentiality of patients.

One such testimony would have come from Dr. Devine himself.  In 1966, Dr. Devine wrote a letter of recommendation for me when I applied for membership in the American Association of Pastoral Counselors. He stated:

I know several clergy who have referred counselees to Dr. Alberts and of their favorable impression of his confidence.  He also has seen the wife of one of my patients and was most helpful to her.  He shows excellent insights and technical and professional competence.

I have no hesitancy in endorsing Dr. Alberts’ application to your Association.

The attempt to brand me as unethical is seen in the defendants and their lawyers deliberate generalizing in charging me with the “public disclosure of confidences.”

Faced with the threat of a lawsuit for violating my right of privacy, Bishop Carroll and Superintendent Barclay and their lawyers came up with their eight “reasons” for getting rid of me.  The eight “reasons” served related purposes: they allowed Carroll and Barclay to distance themselves from legal  accountability of having induced Dr. Devine to breech my confidence; and, at the same time, Devine’s alleged psychiatric evaluation legitimized  the eight “reasons” for my being “un-appointable.”  After a person is branded mentally ill, any kind of uncharacteristic behavior is made more believable, even to one’s closest colleagues.  And however that person justifiably reacts to blatant lies, malice and injustice can be dismissed as evidence of his illness – a vicious Catch 22 of blaming the victim, made even more insidious by being masked as “caring” for me.

Not only did Bishop Carroll violate my right of privacy, his third “reason” attacked my First Amendment right of free speech: in my “giving notoriety in the media to matters, which,” in his “judgment, involve personal sensitive relationships.”  Carroll gave no specific examples to justify this “reason.”  He did not need to in such an authoritarianhierarchical setting.  But in a court of law it would have been quite different.

“Notoriety in the media.”  I utilized The Boston Globe especially to dramatize Old West Church’s involvements in social justice issues and the implications of such involvements for United Methodist and other Christian churches.  At a church trial, I would have introduced a strongly worded letter affirming my writings and ministry at Old West Church written by Boston Sunday Globe Magazine editor Robert Levey to Bishop James K. Matthews, shortly before Bishop Carroll succeeded him.

For a discussion of certain of my Boston Globe articles, along with the allegation of discrimination against the Conference hierarchy, in which I played a key role, see Alberts, “Easter Depends on Whistleblowers,” CounterPunch, March 29, 2013; and “The Church of ‘Something Else’ in ‘an Ecclesiastical Desert,’” CounterPunch, Nov. 27, 2015)

The conversations Bishop Carroll supposedly had with Old West Church members disenchanted by my ministry would have been selective.  He would have had difficulty substantiating his accusation in a church trial.  In the face of his assassination of my character, a solid majority of Old West Church’s Council on Ministries passed a motion calling for my reappointment to the Church.  A number of members – and friends of Old West — would have waited in line to challenge his seventh “reason”.

Bishop Carroll’s eighth “reason”:  charging me with the “apparent inability to work with those who disagree with my point of view” is a clear case of projection on his and Rev. Barclay’s part. Here, at a church trial, my lawyers would have refuted Carroll by again citing Dr. Devine’s words.  In a 1961 letter of reference for me when I considered transferring from the United Methodist to the Unitarian Universalist ministry, Devine wrote:

For several years [Bill] had an increasing interest in leaving some of the restrictive aspects of the 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 objective way.  With regard to

+ Leadership ability – excellent, sound and well –directed

+ Personal integrity – of the highest without any suggestion of sanctimonious

or other sham standards . . .

+ Warmth of personality – sincere and open, without superficial stereotype

+ But with spontaneous and transmissible security.

Over the years I have seen some 175 ministers and theological students in psychiatric evaluation and psychotherapy as well as lecturing in two theological schools.  I consider Bill Alberts a well-adjusted person who has overcome some minor conflicts which considerably restricted him.  I regard him as an excellent candidate for the Unitarian Universalist ministry.

One of my worse transgressions remained hidden.  I tampered with the authority of the five District Superintendents, who, along with the presiding bishop, are the Conference ministers’ Book of Discipline-designated “superiors in office.”  Their responsibility was/is to oversee the work of the ministers in their District.  And the presiding bishop (James K. Matthews at the time) relied on the Superintendents’ guidance in his annual appointment of ministers to the churches in their districts.  In this hierarchical arrangement, the District Superintendents played – and continue to play– a key administrative role in promoting – or derailing – a minister’s advancement in the Conference.

My offense was to propose the Conference-wide supervision of beginning pastors – a proposal drawn from my experience in supervising many seminary students and a few beginning pastors.  A proposal that cited the medical and social work professions’ long recognition of the importance of such supervision.  The reasoning guiding the proposal: beginning pastors would feel freer sharing their real concerns and problems, in regular, confidential, supervisory sessions, with a seasoned, clinically-trained, minister, than in infrequent contacts with an administrative superior who helps to determine their next ministerial placement.

The proposal to supervise beginning pastors was well received in certain circles.  Boston University School of Theology’s Field Education Department invited me to present the proposal at its Annual Pastors-Supervisors Conference, held at the School of Theology, and again at an annual meeting of the School of Theology faculty with Bishop Matthews and his Cabinet of District Superintendents.  These presentations led me to write an article entitled, “Let’s SUPERVISE Beginning Pastors,” which was published in the August 24, 1967 issue of Christian Advocate, Methodism’s primary periodical at the time.

The proposal even made it to the floor of the then Southern New England Conference, whose members voted to refer it to the Conference Board of Ministry for consideration and possible implementation.  At that time I was a member of the Board of Ministry. To my surprise I was not re-appointed to the Board, and the proposal for the supervision of beginning pastors went no further.

The supervising of beginning pastors was a constructive proposal, which would have greatly assisted beginning pastors at a vulnerable time in their ministry.  It could have provided a model for the supervision of beginning pastors in other Conferences of The United Methodist Church. Sadly, the proposal presented a threat to the hierarchical authority of the Conference’s five District Superintendents. The proposal disappeared — and I was soon to follow.

My case reveals the secrecy that surrounds and continues to protect the behavior of a United Methodist Church hierarchy.  It has been 45 years, and Church “superiors” have kept hidden The United Methodist Church’s well-kept secret: that “ministers offer themselves up without reserve to be appointed and to serve as their superiors in office may direct,” and that these “superiors” assume “ broad, even paternal responsibilities and powers” over them, including the right to invade their privacy.

It is a well-kept secret.  In a letter, my close colleagues, Revs. Harding and Lindsey, informed all of the 40-some active Bishops in the United States of this dangerous argument.  Only one of the Bishops responded, and his response was purely academic, raising no alarm over the threat to ministers’ right of privacy.

Some period before the Massachusetts SJC and the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings against Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay, Rev. Lindsey told me that he urged then Boston Area Bishop, Rev. George W. Bashore, to become involved in the lawsuit and provide leadership in seeing that the injustice committed against me be corrected.  Bishop Bashore told Lindsey that he has talked with others in the Conference whose view of what happened was quite different from Lindsey and Rev. Harding’s view.  And in a letter to Lindsey, Bashore stated, “As far as I’m concerned, the case of Bill Alberts is closed.”

The case was not closed.  At the Conference’s June 1985 meeting, just a day after the Massachusetts SJC reversed the summary judgment favoring Bishop Carroll and Rev. Barclay, Revs. Harding, Lindsey and McClain prepared a statement about my forced retirement that 53 ministers signed — forty of the 53 were Conference members in 1973 during my “trial.”  Their statement:

We the undersigned ministerial members of the Southern New England 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.

These ministers forced the lawsuit’s overriding  issue of privacy out into the open.  Thus at the Conference’s June 1986 annual meeting, Bishop Bashore presented a carefully worded statement about the lawsuit to the ministerial delegates during their executive session.  Bashore then, reportedly, proceeded to tell the Conference Secretary, Rev. John E. Post, that he did not want his statement to appear in the Minutes of the Conference’s 1986 Journal and Yearbook.  His statement did not appear.

The unhealthy, criminal abuse of power in my case strongly suggests that The United Methodist Church hierarchy is in great need of scrutiny and transparency.  And my case, though extreme, is hardly unique.  Nor are other Christian denominations free of hierarchical abuses of power.

Thus for its own sake, The United Methodist Church would do well to select an outside, objective committee to study the power relations between bishops, district superintendents and ministers.  Such a study would include interviewing ministers regarding their positive and negative experiences with bishops and superintendents.  Their comments could then be used to formulate questions for interviews with these “superiors in office.”  The findings with recommendations would be shared throughout the Church.  Such a study could create transparency and help to humanize – and strengthen — hierarchical relationships for the benefit of all concerned.

Shortly after filing my lawsuit in March of 1974, I was in a store and came across and bought a small statue of what is described as “an old English barrister with a wig holding a law book,” standing  on a platform over these words: ‘SUE THE BASTARDS.’  That statue provided comfort and inspiration on down days—and there were many of those.  ‘SUE THE BASTARDS’ continues to stand on a ledge in my study, as a now fulfilling reminder of the doggedness that justice often requires.

More articles by:

Rev. William E. Alberts, Ph.D., a former hospital chaplain at Boston Medical Center, is both a Unitarian Universalist and United Methodist minister. His new book, The Counterpunching Minister (who couldn’t be “preyed” away) is now published and available on Amazon.com. The book’s Foreword, Drawing the Line, is written by Counterpunch editor, Jeffrey St. Clair. Alberts is also author of A Hospital Chaplain at the Crossroads of Humanity, which “demonstrates what top-notch pastoral care looks like, feels like, maybe even smells like,” states the review in the Journal of Pastoral Care & Counseling. His e-mail address is wm.alberts@gmail.com.

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