“Today’s decision puts church leadership on notice that when children are alleged to have been harmed through the church, church officials will be called upon to answer for what steps they took to investigate allegations of child sex abuse and what they have done and are doing to prevent child sex abuse,” the boy’s attorney Gregory Zarzaur said in a statement.
In 2015, the boy – named J.N. in the court documents – filed a suit in Talladega Circuit Court claiming that while he attended the First United Methodist Church of Sylacauga he was abused by youth pastor Charles Terrell, the 24-page decision said.
J.N. asked the former bishop of the North Alabama Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, William Willimon, and the current bishop, Debra Wallace-Padgett, about their efforts to prevent child sex abuse.
For instance, J.N. wanted to ask Willimon, who is now a professor at Duke Divinity School, how he supervised the leadership at the First United Methodist Church of Sylacauga when he was bishop.
Also, J.N. requested documents from Wallace-Padgett explaining how churches in the conference complied with a child protection policy and her role in preventing child sex abuse.
The bishops asked the Alabama Supreme Court to quash the depositions or grant them protective orders.
They argued the depositions would be “burdensome and unnecessary” because they had no “unique personal knowledge of the facts” in the lawsuit.
The bishops asked the court to adopt the “apex rule,” which was created to shield executives and others with high ranks in an organization from harassing and burdensome depositions.
But Chief Justice Tom Parker declined to do so.
In the 7-2 decision, the Republican-filled bench said the lower court made a reasonable decision when it said the two bishops had information that J.N. sought.
“Specifically, J.N. points to Wallace-Padgett’s participation in a training program that addressed the conference’s mandate that child sexual-abuse-prevention policies be implemented at the local church level. The bishops, on the other hand, relied solely on their bare assertions that they have no unique knowledge of the information J.N. sought or knowledge superior to the district’s representatives whom J.N. has already deposed,” Parker wrote.
The bishops’ attorney Terry McElheny said he was disappointed but respected the decision.
“We will go forward to try to get those depositions scheduled in due course,” he said.
McElheny said he does not believe the decision will set a precedent for sexual abuse allegations in church settings that may be tried in the state in the future. While the geographic conference offers guidelines to churches in its area, many issues involving child neglect and abuse are left to the local United Methodist churches, McElheny said.
Furthermore, J.N. alleged he was abused by a youth director, a lay employee of the local church.
“Had he been a clergy-person, then of course the conference does have some say-so under the United Methodist Book of Discipline about how clergy-persons are regulated,” McElheny said.
Zach Hiner, executive director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), said he hopes the decision brings hope to victims of abuse by clergy and pastors who may be suffering in silence.
In the last few years, attorneys general have opened hotlines and legislatures have changed laws so more allegations of sexual assault can be brought to the civil courts – all signs of a changing culture, Hiner said.
“For a long time, we’ve seen a lot of deference paid to church officials and their claims. And now this is a court saying, ‘Regardless of what you claim, you’re not protected by the law, so come forward and testify.’”