BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) — Two United Methodist bishops must testify in a lawsuit filed by a one-time church member who claimed he was sexually abused, the Alabama Supreme Court ruled Friday, turning away the church leaders’ efforts to stay out of the case.
The all-Republican court, in a 7-2 decision, rejected attempts by the current bishop for north Alabama, Debra Wallace-Padgett, and her predecessor, Will Willimon, to avoid sworn testimony.
Both Wallace-Padgett and Willimon, who now teaches at Duke University, claimed they didn’t know anything personally about the complaints of a male who claimed he was sexually abused as a minor by a United Methodist youth pastor. Wallace-Padgett also argued it would be “unduly burdensome” for her to provide documents.
The justices rejected their arguments, saying neither was protected by a rule that shields high-ranking corporate or government officials from testifying about cases in which they have no direct knowledge.
The decision came as courts nationwide grapple with lawsuits and legal questions raised by complaints of sexual abuse within multiple religious denominations.
Gregory Zarzaur, an attorney representing the person who filed suit, said churches need to do more to protect their most vulnerable members.
“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,” he said in a statement.
Terry McElheny, an attorney for the bishops, said they likely would move forward with scheduling times to testify.
“I’m disappointed in the result and I wish they had ruled differently, but that’s why we have courts,” McElheny said.
Identified in court records only as “J.N.,” Zarzaur’s client filed suit in state court in 2015 alleging he was sexually abused as a minor by Charles Terrell, who was identified as a one-time youth minister at First United Methodist Church of Sylacauga, according to the Supreme Court decision.
The suit named Terrell and his wife, the church, regional church officials and others as defendants, records show, but not the United Methodist conference which governs north Alabama or the bishops. Wallace-Padgett took over as bishop from Willimon in 2012 around the time of the alleged abuse, McElheny said.
Terrell has denied the abuse allegations, and church organizations have denied being responsible for anything that might have happened.
The lawsuit requested an unspecified amount of money to compensate “J.N.” and to punish the defendants.