A prominent Latina bishop in the United Methodist Church is facing a church trial this week on multiple charges of harassment, fiscal malfeasance and a general charge of disobedience.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, a leader of the California-Nevada Conference or region of the United Methodist Church, was suspended from her church leadership role more than 18 months ago after the complaints were brought against her.
The United Methodist Church has never before put a bishop on trial, nor imposed such a long suspension on a member of its clergy. Typically, clergy may be suspended for up to 60 days, according to the church’s rule book.
The trial of the first Latina bishop in the denomination is also raising questions about whether the church is unfairly singling out Hispanics, a minority within the mostly white church.
“All Hispanic Latinos look for her as a leader of our church,” said the Rev. Lyssette Perez, president of a group of Hispanic United Methodists called Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic/Latino Americans or MARCHA. “It’s like attacking one of ours.”
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MARCHA representatives objected to the bishop’s suspension, which the group pointed out was unusually long and in fact served as a kind of punishment before any of the allegations against her were heard. Its representatives are monitoring the trial for fairness.
The denomination, the second largest Protestant group in the U.S., has about 1,000 ordained Hispanic clergy, of whom 901 serve churches. They constitute some 1.8% of the total clergy appointed by the United Methodist Church in the U.S. The denomination has about 245 predominantly Hispanic congregations.
Carcaño, 69, was elected bishop in 2004 after serving as a pastor for more than two decades. She quickly earned a reputation as a vocal advocate for comprehensive immigration reform and became the spokesperson on immigration for the denomination’s Council of Bishops. Carcaño, whose father came to the United States as an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, is a Texas native.
The four charges against her, presented by retired Bishop Alfred Gwinn, the trial’s presiding officer, are: disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church; relationships and/or behavior that undermine the ministry of another pastor; harassment including but not limited to racial and or sexual harassment; and fiscal malfeasance.
On Tuesday, she pleaded not guilty to all four. Thirteen ordained United Methodist deacons and elders, and two alternates, were chosen to serve on jury.
The charges were kept confidential until they were announced Tuesday at the trial’s opening session in offices used by the church’s pension agency in Glenview, Illinois, a Chicago suburb. Bishops had agreed to a change in venue from the Western Jurisdiction of the denomination, where Carcaño served, to the North Central Jurisdiction.
Two leaders of the California-Nevada Conference alleged that Carcaño encouraged the hiring of her daughter, Sofia, as an administrative assistant and then provided her housing free of charge at a San Francisco parsonage. The bishop then allegedly directed that that parsonage be renovated using a conference fund not designated for that purpose and without going through formal channels. When church officials questioned her actions, she is alleged to have retaliated against them.
Church officials said they tried to resolve the issues internally but ultimately felt they had no recourse but to file a complaint against Carcaño.
“We exhausted every option at the annual conference level to resolve this and we saw evidence of inappropriate use of funds, ” said Kristin Stoneking, chair of the Council on Finance and Administration for the conference. “We saw evidence that inequitable compensation practices were taking place. We had concerns about lines of supervision and the renovation of a local church parsonage without authorization from the local church to do that.”
Another complaint alleges the bishop interfered with the authority of the California-Nevada Conference board of trustees on what to do with the valuable property of Trinity United Methodist Church in Berkeley, California.
The trial is expected to conclude Friday.