The Rev. Bud Heckman, who was facing a church trial that was set to be the first prominent #MeToo case in the United Methodist Church, admitted guilt and agreed to retire, the church said on Thursday.
Heckman was accused by four women, including his ex-wife, an ex-girlfriend, and two young women who said he harassed them at an interfaith conference. On Thursday, the church’s West Ohio conference said in a statement that he had admitted harassment as well as failure to be celibate while single and faithful while married.
“I deeply regret the harm that has been caused to any person due to an act of sexual misconduct by a pastor. There is no excuse,” Bishop Gregory Palmer, who leads the West Ohio conference, said in a statement.
The case has been closely watched by advocates for women within the nation’s third-largest religious denomination. Methodists tend to conduct church trials under wraps, and advocates had questioned how the denomination would handle a sexual harassment case that had gained public attention.
The 12-million member mainline Protestant denomination operates a sophisticated internal judicial system, complete with prosecutors and defense attorneys (all of whom are clergy), judges, juries and trials.
In recent years, Methodist church trials have made the news, when pastors have been put on trial for the crime of officiating a same-sex marriage. Earlier this year, the church voted in a highly controversial new set of rules which could soon drastically increase the frequency of those trials: Starting Jan. 1, the church’s mandatory penalty for officiating on same-sex marriage is a year’s suspension without pay, and a second conviction means a pastor will be defrocked.
But the United Methodist Book of Discipline deals with all sorts of church crimes, not just same-sex marriages and gay relationships.
An ex-girlfriend of Heckman’s, who asked The Washington Post to identify her only by her initials K.R. because she said she remains afraid of him, alleged that he stalked her when she tried to break off their relationship. Over and over, he emailed and sent postcards. He waited outside her apartment. He scrawled chalk messages in front of her building.
Many of the details of K.R.’s account are reflected in the church’s 12-count charging document in Heckman’s case, which a church committee compiled based on affidavits from the four alleged victims and interviews with Heckman and several witnesses.
The charging document says that it should “not be shared with any unauthorized individuals,” and clergy-lawyers for both Heckman and the church refused to provide it to The Post. The Post obtained a copy from another person, on the condition that the newspaper agreed not to publish any direct quotes from the charges.
After K.R. went to the police, Heckman was charged with stalking and harassment. He eventually pleaded guilty in New York in 2012 to a lesser charge; the church says that as part of his guilty plea, he agreed to the facts that K.R. alleged.
Heckman told The Post on Thursday night that he would release a statement on Friday. His church lawyer, the Rev. Robert Costello, declined to comment before the resolution was reached, and said he could not talk right away on Thursday night.
Laura Heckman, who was in the process of divorcing Bud Heckman around the time of his guilty plea, said she grew frightened of her husband as well. He insisted he wouldn’t pay child support for their two children, with alarming vehemence, she said: Once, he implied he would kill the children rather than pay for their care.
She called the church. “I said, ‘Please, please help me. One of your ministers is threatening to kill my children,’ ” Laura Heckman recalled. She said that she sent Palmer documentation at the time of her husband’s recent guilty plea.
Palmer did not respond to inquiries from The Washington Post. But Laura Heckman said that the bishop never took her calls. “It was devastating. Bud’s betrayal, in some ways, was a little bit easier to accept … But the bishop and the church’s betrayal is excruciating,” she said.
That meant her ex-husband was still a pastor. And in time, he would allegedly harm women again, according to some of the accusers.
Megan Anderson met Bud Heckman in 2015. She was a junior in college, and working in her first job, an entry-level role at the small religious newspaper The Interfaith Observer. The job sent her to Salt Lake City, to an event called the Parliament of World Religions. When she got there, her boss pointed out Heckman: If Anderson, a joint major in math and religion, was interested in a career in interfaith work, Heckman was the person to know, he said.
Heckman seemed interested in getting to know Anderson too, taking her on a tourist outing where she said that he touched her several times in a way that made her uncomfortable. He asked her to come to his hotel room afterward, and tried to put his hand down her pants, according to her account and to the church’s charging document.
When she fled the hotel room, the harassment didn’t end. For months, she said, Heckman texted her about his sexual thoughts about her.
At that same 2015 conference, Heckman entered the hotel room of another young woman whom he had met at an interfaith event the year before, according to that young woman’s eventual allegations against him. She said he was wearing his boxers. Over a period of years, he sent her sexually explicit text messages and once talked in a work-related phone call about his desire for intimate contact with her, according to the church charges.
K.R. and Anderson did not immediately respond to inquiries about the settlement on Thursday night.
The advocates who helped the four women bring their case had said earlier that they hoped Heckman’s case, the first Methodist #MeToo case to go public despite the church’s secrecy around judicial matters, will help the church improve its process for handling harassment claims. Already, said law student and Methodist trial advocate Kevin Nelson, women who allege that they have been harassed by other Methodist ministers are reaching out to them, asking if they too should bring a case to their bishop: “Some people are beginning to see that it’s not a fact that if you tell your story, no one is going to care.”