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    The Upper New York Conference of The United Methodist Church


    news article

    CVA Report Jan. 2022

    January 19, 2022 / By UNY CVA Committee

    Background

    At last year’s Annual Conference, members of the Child Victims Act (CVA) Committee - comprised of leaders from the Board of Trustees, the Council on Finance and Administration, the Board of Pensions and Health Benefits, and the Cabinet - reported to Conference members on the status of lawsuits filed against the Conference and several of its local churches under the Child Victims Act. In the eight months since that report, much has changed, and the Committee would like to update conference members on where things stand.

    The Child Victims Act, signed into law in August 2019, opened a window for retroactive filing of civil cases in state court by victims of childhood sexual abuse against entities and organizations like schools, churches, and annual conferences. The deadline to file state court cases under this law expired last August.

    When the committee reported to the Conference on June, 12, 2021, state court cases had been filed against the Conference. The final total now stands at 63 state court cases, 46 of which were filed against local churches and the conference for sponsoring Boy Scouts of America scouting troops.

    Approach

    The legal jeopardy facing our Annual Conference is unique across the Connection. The 63 lawsuits filed against the Conference and its churches place Conference assets and the mission they support at significant risk. Indeed, for us this could be described as an existential crisis. Consequently, we have identified the authority and responsibility to defend the Conference with the Conference Board of Trustees, specifically in para. 2512.4 of the United Methodist Church Book of Discipline which states:

    “[t]he board may intervene and take all necessary legal steps to safeguard and protect the interests and rights of the annual conference anywhere and in all matters relating to property and rights to property whether arising by gift, device, or otherwise, or were held in trust or established for the benefit of the annual conference or its membership.”

    The board continues to exercise its leadership in cooperation and consultation with the other conference administrative and financial teams represented on the CVA Committee. The CVA Committee has met monthly to share information and strategize.

    The legal approach adopted by the Conference Board of Trustees and the CVA Committee has been, whenever possible, to settle with plaintiffs out of court rather than attempt to defend the Conference before a state court judge or jury. Out of court settlements are typically more conciliatory and cost efficient than protracted litigation. We find this approach more consistent with the mission of the conference.

    BSA Settlement

    As was shared in the recent report to the Conference, the Conference has reached its first settlement agreement addressing the 46 claims related to Boy Scout of America cases. As stated in the recent report,

    Pending court approval of a settlement agreement in the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) bankruptcy case, United Methodists have agreed to contribute $30 million to a $3 billion Survivor Trust Fund that will receive contributions from the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), insurance companies and charter organizations… 

    The fund will be used to compensate persons alleged to have experienced abuse while in Scouting. The BSA filed for bankruptcy as it faces more than 80,000 claims for alleged child sexual abuse over the last 80 years. United Methodist congregations sponsor more than 6,000 Boy Scout troops and Cub packs.

    Upper New York’s contribution toward the BSA Survivor Trust Fund will be $1,274,588, a figure based on the number of proofs of claim filed with the bankruptcy court associated with conference entities and churches. Though this is a significant sum, it is a fraction of the cost which would have been incurred if the Conference and defendant churches had been required to defend all of these state court cases, pay for attorneys’ fees, and ultimately settle these matters as a part of the state court proceedings. The Conference Board of Trustees thanks the hundreds of local church leaders across the Conference who met last December, in the middle of Advent, to cast a ballot in the BSA bankruptcy proceeding. This action provided the denomination’s UM Ad Hoc Committee with added leverage to negotiate a favorable settlement.

    Payment on the settlement will not be immediate. The entire BSA bankruptcy settlement plan must be confirmed by the bankruptcy court judge to take effect. Court hearings on the plan will begin the end of February and are expected to take several weeks. It is possible the plan could be amended or even fail to be confirmed. At this time, no decision has been made as to whether any local church would be asked to contribute to the settlement or, if a contribution were expected, at what level this contribution might be. See the subsection “Governance and Financial Implications” below for further discussion.

    In addition to the financial contribution, the BSA bankruptcy settlement also commits our conference to review and update our safe sanctuaries policies as necessary and take other public actions signifying our ongoing commitment to justice and healing for survivors, actions which align with our mission and values as followers of Jesus Christ.

    The United Methodist Church and the Boy Scouts of America are developing a new sponsorship agreement to govern future relationships between local churches and scout troops. This is new framework is expected to be available early this spring. Until this is established, congregations should maintain existing agreements and refrain from re-chartering or new chartering agreements.

    Non-BSA State Court Cases

    In addition to the BSA-related state court cases, 17 other non-BSA state court cases have been filed against the Conference and its churches under the provisions of the Child Victims Act. These cases are at various stages of litigation and will involve significant additional legal and settlement costs to resolve. As was shared at last year’s annual conference, resolving these lawsuits presents a host of unique and daunting challenges:

    1. First, the time elapsed between when the abuse described occurred and today represents an enormous gap. After so much time, many who might have been able to shed light on the allegations are deceased. Written records, such as personnel files, cabinet minutes, and other documents, are also rare. Record retention policies in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s simply did not envision maintaining records for decades, let alone generations. Without witnesses and documentary evidence, it is incredibly difficult to gain a clear picture of what occurred in the past.
    2. Second, applicable Conference and church insurance policies are lacking. In many cases, we have not been able to identify the insurance carrier or broker used by the conference or church at the time of the described abuse. Even in those few cases where we can identify a carrier or broker, the insurance coverage provided did not cover the abuse described, leaving the conference and churches named in these lawsuits uninsured for legal costs or settlements.
    3. Third, these cases place us in the midst of an awful moral and ethical dilemma. On the one hand, as people of faith, we find the conduct described in these complaints repugnant. Our deepest desire is to protect the vulnerable, secure justice for the abused, and be channels of healing for the wounded. The abuse of children, youth, and vulnerable adults in any form is indefensible and abhorrent. As followers of Jesus, we stand resolutely against such abuse and wholeheartedly with survivors. At the same time, we have a sacred calling to be faithful stewards of the resources entrusted to the Church by God for ministry. We seek a just resolution for these complaints, balancing the plaintiffs’ claim for justice with the conference’s claim to maintain its resources for current and future ministry.

    Governance and Financial Implications

    As stated in the Book of Discipline, the authority and responsibility to negotiate settlements on behalf of the conference lies with the Board of Trustees. To carry out this duty the Board will direct the conference treasurer to pay attorneys’ fees, third-party mediators’ fees, and settlement agreements with deserving victims as they come due. At a future date, it will be the responsibility of the Conference Council on Finance and Administration to recommend to the annual conference how these costs will be finally allocated. This recommendation could include tapping funds administered by the Conference Board of Trustees, the operating reserve overseen by the Council on Finance and Administration, the supplemental pension and health funds overseen by the Conference Board of Pensions and Health Benefits (excluding vested pension funds held by Wespath), net proceeds from the sale of conference properties, and/or apportionments to local churches.

    Concluding Statements

    The CVA Committee will continue to keep members of the Conference informed of developments moving forward. If you have questions, please contact Bill Gottschalk-Fielding (billg-f@unyumc.org), coordinator of the Conference’s CVA response. As this work continues, let us continue to pray for the survivors of child sexual abuse and for the wisdom and courage to be guardians and advocates for the most vulnerable among us. For to such as these belong the Kingdom of God.


    With more than 134,000 members, the Upper New York Annual (Regional) Conference of The United Methodist Church comprises 865 local churches and 85 new faith communities in 12 districts, covering 48,000 square miles in 49 of the 62 counties in New York state. Our mission is to “live the Gospel of Jesus Christ and to be God’s love with our neighbors in all places."