Saturday, August 06, 2005

Please, someone make sure the Gerald Patrick Thomas affair is visited during the assembly

The folloing story is from the Lutheran and is the most positive way the Thomas story could be handled. It, of course, does not get into the issue that the ELCA is considering endorsing a view of sinless deviant sexuality:

"How is troubling information about ministry candidates handled?

The settlements and verdict in a Texas lawsuit brought against several ELCA entities may have raised more questions than it answered. Specifically, how is troubling information about ministry candidates shared among parties involved in training, examining and approving them? (See page 58.)

The case left leaders of one party, the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod, feeling "disappointed" and "betrayed" by Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio.

The civil suit stems from the actions of Gerald Patrick Thomas, a former ELC A pastor. In 2003 Thomas was convicted of possession of child pornography and 11 counts of sexual abuse of minors. he is serving five years in federal prison to be followed by a 397-year state sentence.

Thomas met the boys through volunteering at a community center in Marshall, Texas, where he was pastor of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church from 1997 until he was removed from the roster in 2001 (www.thelutheran. org/0206/pagel8b.html).

Fourteen plaintiffs sued several ELCA entities and officials for ignoring Thomas' questionable behavior during his internship at St. John Lutheran Church, Wilson, Texas-behavior they say marked him as a danger to children. seeking $300 million in damages, they held that church officials ignored confidential memos detailing how Thomas had given tequila to youth in Wilson and allowed them access to homosexual pornographic videos.

Prior to the civil trial in April, several defendants settled with the plaintiffs: Good Shepherd ($750,000); the ELCA church wide organization ($8 million); the Michigan candidacy committee that approved Thomas for ordination ($1.2 million); and Trinity Seminary ($22 million).

Nine of the 14 plaintiffs continued their suit against the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod; its former bishop, Mark Herbener; and his assistant, Earl Eliason. On April 22, the jury awarded $36.8 million to the plaintiffs, assigning liability for the abuse at 35 percent for Eliason, 23 percent for Thomas, 20 percent for Herbener, 20 percent for Trinity, and 2 percent for the candidacy committee. The ELCA wasn't assigned a percentage of liability. The percentage allocation confused defendants and their lawyers since Trinity had already settled and was no longer involved in the case.

The ELCA churchwide organization settled to avoid the uncertainty of a jury trial, said John Brooks, ELCA spokesman. The ELCA admitted no wrongdoing, he added, because it's not directly involved with approval decisions about individual ministry candidates. "Churchwide had plenty of defense," he said. "We might have been successful, but appeals could have dragged on for years. And we care about victims. This would have made it worse for them."

The total of settlements and the jury award appeal's to be about $69 million, but this isn't correct, said Phillip Harris, ELCA general counsel. Some of the $36.8 million awarded by the jury will be paid from settlements reached before the trial. Harris said the final accounting will come through a complex system of credits as the attorneys work out the terms of the allocation and the judge enters the judgment, which could take several weeks.

The parties in the suit told The Lutheran that insurance will fully cover the monetary awards. Kevin Kanouse, bishop of the Northern Texas-North Louisiana Synod, said that he directed the synod's insurance companies in February to settle with the plaintiffs, whom he said were prepared to settle for between $6 million and $8 million. But the companies chose to go to trial seeking a better outcome.

In news reports, Edward Hohn, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said the ELCA had acceded to a series of noneconomic agreements, such as to conduct a review of all rostered ministers and to create a nationwide reporting system for sexual abuse allegations. But his firm retracted the statement after Brooks challenged it.

Disappointed synod

On April 23, the day after the verdict, Kanouse apologized to the victims and their families during the synod assembly. "I'm terribly grieved. This should have never happened," he told The Lutheran. "I still don't think the synod was ultimately at fault."

Kanouse and Mark Herbener, who was bishop when Thomas served in the synod, expressed disappointment with Trinity for withholding information about Thomas' behavior during his internship at Wilson. Police investigated the incident at the time though no charges were filed.

"I clearly believe the seminary should have known," Kanouse said, referring to a confidential two-page memo Thomas' internship supervisor, Melvin Swoyer, sent to Trinity with his final internship report in 1996. The report "was glowing" with praise for Thomas' ministry, said Kanouse and others interviewed.

But Swoyer's memo, which was sent to Allan Sager, Trinity's contextual education director, described Thomas' actions at Wilson and indicated that the video in question was homosexual pornography. Sager's contract with Trinity was terminated in 2003.

Trinity didn't pass the confidential memo to the candidacy committee in Michigan, which in early 1997 was considering Thomas' fitness for ministry. Trinity approved his candidacy, but in its recommendation to the committee wrote that his "growing edge is setting boundaries," which can refer to sexual or dozens of other issues, such as overextension or blurring the lines between personal and pastoral roles.

In March 2001, Thomas was in a call process that would have moved him to the Indiana-Kentucky Synod. During an exit interview April 17, Kanouse asked Thomas about the Wilson incident because James Stuck, bishop of the Indiana-Kentucky Synod, had recently contacted him. Kanouse said Sager had warned Stuck about Thomas' behavior.

Kanouse said Thomas admitted giving alcohol to minors but falsely characterized the video, assuring him the police had thoroughly investigated.

"I told my associate that we should downplay Sager's comments," Kanouse said. "[Thomas] had done outstanding ministry in Marshall, [where] there was no sense that there were problems." But 17 days later, on May 4, Thomas was arrested.

"What I didn't know was that [in April 1997], Trinity was contacted by Carol Stumme, who had banned [Thomas] from her church," Kanouse said. Stumme, now retired, served St. John Lutheran Church, Columbus, Ohio, where Thomas had volunteered while a seminarian.

Stumme told The Lutheran she never saw behavior that was clearly wrong or illegal but was nervous about the kind of physical contact, such as wrestling, Thomas repeatedly sought with teens. She also said she was troubled that he singled out certain vulnerable youth for special attention.

In April 1997, Stumme and Brad Binau, Trinity's director for clinical ministry, confronted Thomas about this behavior. On three occasions, Binau sent memos about this and a subsequent conversation with Thomas to James Childs, academic dean, and Dennis Anderson, Trinity's president, who is now retired. Childs told The Lutheran he was aware of Binau's memos and conversations with Thomas but didn't receive the report on the Wilson incident.

Conflicting reports

In his testimony, Sager said he contacted the Northern Texas-Northern Louisiana Synod about Thomas in January or February 1997 and spoke with Eliason, Herbener's assistant.

Herbener told The Lutheran that Sager's statement "is a bald-faced lie. [Thomas] was a candidate for a Michigan synod. There was no reason to tell us [in Texas] that a Michigan synod candidate had a problem. So why would he contact us? he wouldn't have, and he didn't."

Herbener later sought Thomas for his synod because of his solid internship in Wilson. Herbener said he first learned of Thomas' behavior in Wilson only in April 1997. Eliason told Herbener about the incident after learning of it in a conversation with Thomas' internship supervisor.

Even then, Herbener said he and Eliason didn't know the video was homosexual pornography. Herbener added, "We had no indication what the videotapes were, maybe an R movie. Our questions were: 'Were the authorities contacted?' They were and had investigated and made no charges. And: 'Was the seminary told?' They were. They examined the case and passed him. We trusted the process."

This was part of testimony in the suit. But Eliason wasn't credible to the jury, Herbener said, because of his three convictions for public lewdness. The convictions (the final one in 2001) came to light only after Eliason's retirement from the synod staff in 2000. Herbener, who referred to Eliason as a sex addict in recovery, said the two earlier convictions were unknown even to Eliason's wife until 2001.

Review procedures

The Texas case has moved church officials to study procedures for examining and approving ministry candidates. "We are in a partnership that makes us all vulnerable," said Mark Ramseth, president of Trinity, referring to the complex process that includes seminaries, synods, the churchwide structure, candidacy committees and internship supervisors.

"Any system isn't always going to serve the way we want. A system meant to be faithful failed," he said. "Redemption, in part, can occur by having conversations with each other in a manner that is trusting and extends our understanding of God's grace."

Ramseth said Trinity's faculty will engage in conversations "where we will look each other in the face, asking how we identify and address issues of misconduct that are real and present."

Specifically, Ramseth said he has told candidacy committees: "You are going to know [from us] everything you need to know in this process. If there is an incident on internship that impairs the possibility of ministry, that is something that ought to be conveyed to the candidacy committee.

"Looking back there are things that we wish we might have done. One of those things ... is to convey to the candidacy committee the concern raised out of Wilson, Texas."

Miller is editor of The Lutheran.

Copyright Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Jun 2004
Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved

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