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Bishop acquitted in first United Methodist trial of its kind in a century

United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, foreground, attends her church trial on Sept. 19 in Glenview, Illinois. Beside her are her two counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell and Judge Jon Gray. Paul Jeffrey/UM News
Carcaño, the first Latina bishop in the denomination, faced four charges of violating church law

A United Methodist Church court acquitted a California bishop Friday of all charges in the first trial of one of the church’s bishops in nearly a century.

Bishop Minerva Carcaño, the first Latina bishop in the denomination and a prominent voice on behalf of immigrants, faced four charges of violating church law. They were for alleged harassment, fiscal malfeasance, disobedience to the order and discipline of the UMC and the undermining of another pastor’s ministry.

The jury of 13 clergy members reached its unanimous verdict after about four and a half-hours of deliberation Thursday evening. It was announced Friday morning.

Carcaño said she will resume her position as head of the church's California-Nevada Conference on Tuesday.

“There is a need for healing,” she said after the verdict. “Everyone has been hurt. The complainants have been hurt. I’ve been deeply hurt and harmed. The area we serve together has been broken and divided and hurt as well. We have much work to do.”

She said she would ask other bishops to join in encouraging dialogue in the conference.

The case “is truly not just about me,” she said, adding that it reflected “resistance to our system of appointment making,” in which United Methodist bishops assign clergy to their ministry positions.

Carcaño's term continues through August 2024 when she reaches the scheduled retirement age of 70. Losing a year and a half to suspension “added to the pain,” she said. “I’m feeling the loss of that time. But want to return and try to do whatever I can.”

Among other particulars, the prosecution alleged Carcaño retaliated against clergy and staff who challenged her decisions and that she took actions or allowed them to be taken while sidestepping committees and other staff that should have been consulted about decisions.

The prosecution also said she benefited from her use of a San Francisco parsonage, which was renovated through a church-development fund, as a second residence. Witnesses also raised concerns about the appearance of nepotism because her daughter lived for a time rent-free in the parsonage and worked as an administrative assistant for a district superintendent.

Carcaño had pleaded not guilty to all charges.

Witnesses at the three-day trial voiced sharply contrasting views of her leadership, with some calling her prophetic and “tender and caring,” others retaliatory and “cuttingly fierce” – or both at different times.

She was suspended with pay and benefits in March 2022 from her leadership of the California-Nevada Conference since 2016.

Carcaño's counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, rebutted charges one by one in closing arguments.

“Matters that should have been resolved at home took on a life of their own,” Campbell said Thursday.

The jury wasn't deciding who was at “fault” but “whether chargeable offenses were committed,” Campbell said.

He added: “If we allow these thin accusations to yield a conviction of Bishop Carcaño, even if only a single charge, one of the great champions for justice in the United Methodist Church will be diminished.”

But the Rev. Janet Forbes – who as church counsel functioned as prosecutor – urged jurors to focus on the charges.

“A leader can demonstrate faithful, empathetic, courageous and prophetic leadership and do harm in other ways,” she said. She characterized the bishop’s actions as “a violation of sacred trust.”

In more than two hours of testimony on her own behalf Thursday, Carcaño spoke in measured tones as she was questioned about each of the charges and denied them one by one.

Witnesses on behalf of the bishop said she wasn't using the parsonage as a second residence but rather as more affordable lodging than a hotel in an expensive city during times when the West Sacramento-based bishop was ministering in San Francisco. Campbell cited a legal opinion from the conference chancellor saying that the local church could decide whom it offered hospitality in its parsonage.

The chancellor also said Carcaño's daughter's employment wasn't nepotism because she didn't report to her mother.

Some of the most personal testimony centered on an allegation that Carcaño retaliated against a pastor who had received preliminary approvals to lead a new church. After that pastor requested maternity leave that would have overlapped with the start of the church, Carcaño changed her assignment to only quarter-time at the new church, with most of her time spent at a previous assignment.

The pastor, the Rev. Chelsea Constant, testified the experience ran counter to what she learned from the United Methodist Church “that human dignity is sacred to God and must be protected.”

Carcaño testified that, as someone who was in ministry as a young mother, she understood the issue well. She said there were other issues, such as setting a precedent for using church development funds for someone on any kind of leave. She denied asking that Constant take a shorter leave and noted that the pastor eventually went to full-time at the new church. But Carcaño regretted not having dialogue with her earlier.

Carcaño has been in ordained ministry for 47 years and was ordained a bishop in 2004, according to United Methodist News Service.

The proceeding, which took place in a Chicago suburb, was the first known trial of a bishop since 1928, according to the denomination’s historical archive.

That year, Bishop Anton Bast was found guilty of “imprudent and unministerial conduct” and suspended from work as a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, a predecessor to the United Methodist Church.

Jurors watch United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño speak during a 2021 Zoom meeting of a church committee in the California-Nevada Annual Conference, presented on Sept. 20, 2023, the second day of Carcaño's church trial. Paul Jeffrey/UM News
In this photo provided by UM News, United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, center, talks with counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, left, and Judge Jon Gray during her church trial on Sept. 19, 2023, in Glenview, Illinois A United Methodist Church court acquitted Carcaño, Friday, Sept. 22, of all charges in the first trial of one of church’s bishops in nearly a century. Carcaño, the first Latina bishop in the denomination and a prominent voice on behalf of immigrants, faced four charges of violating church law. (Paul Jeffrey/UM News via AP)