Several women involved in the sexual harassment trial of a United Methodist minister said yesterday that racism played no part in allegations against the black minister that are being aired this week in a Silver Spring church.
Charges of racism were raised on Monday, the first day of the church trial, by supporters of the Rev. John P. Carter who said they believe that Carter would not have been charged with sexual harassment by the church if he were white.
Nkenge Trure, a counselor to the two white women and three black women who brought the sexual harassment charges against Carter, called the allegations of racism a "convenient smokescreen."
"Let's blame it all on race and we won't have to deal with the substantive issues," said Trure, who is black and is director of community education with the D.C. Rape Crisis Center.
"I was sexually harassed by John Carter," said Rochelle Francis, also black and one of the five women bringing the charges. "It's not about racial discrimination. I was by no means coerced to press charges. I am here on my own free will."
Francis and three other women testified against Carter yesterday in the proceeding that some church officials have called precedent-setting.
Five women have alleged that Carter, 36, regularly made sexual advances toward them while they were employed or seeking jobs on projects that he oversaw as an official of the Baltimore Annual Conference on Ministries of the United Methodist Church.
Carter has denied the charges and contends that church officials failed to follow the church's judicial procedure in his prosecution.
Jan Lichtenwalter, associate council director of communications for the church, said conference officials had attempted to settle the problems between the five women and Carter, as church law dictates, but that Carter requested a trial.
Bishop William Boyd Grove, who is acting as judge in the trial, yesterday reaffirmed a decision not to allow reporters or other spectators into the proceedings who are not United Methodists.
Grove said the church's Book of Discipline says that the accused may have a trial in front of church members only.
Later, Grove prohibited anyone involved in the trial from speaking with reporters who had collected outside the Good Shepherd United Methodist Church on New Hampshire Avenue.
The most explosive exchange came yesterday evening during cross examination of Janece Patterson, who testified that Carter told her of his relationships with other women, his marital problems and his belief in open sexual relations.
The Rev. Irwin C. Lockman, minister of Metropolitan United Methodist Church in Baltimore and Carter's counsel in the church trial, asked Patterson if she was married. When she replied that she was not, Lockman told the proceeding that it had come to his attention that she is pregnant.
Patterson acknowledged that she is pregnant, but the Rev. Miriam Jackson, minister at the Dickerson United Methodist Church in Dickerson, Md., who is representing Patterson and the other women, strongly objected to the question. Jackson continued to object to questions about Patterson's personal affairs until Lockman abandoned the subject.
The trial has upset Methodists in the Baltimore conference, which includes 745 churches and 240,000 members in the District, most of Maryland and part of West Virginia.
"Nobody wins in a situation like this," said the Rev. Carroll Gunkel, pastor of Bethesda United Methodist Church. "The women are going to be scarred, Carter is going to be scarred, the church will be scarred, and that's unfortunate."
Gunkel said that similar charges of harassment were brought against a white minister in the conference earlier this summer, but the minister chose not to take his case to court, taking a leave of absence instead and agreeing to undergo counseling.
Carter's trial comes at a time when the United Methodist Church, like other denominations, is undergoing extensive self-examination on how it treats women. Lending momentum to that evaluation is the growth in the number of Methodist women clergy nationwide and in the Baltimore-Washington conference.
Yesterday's proceedings were attended by several prominent black ministers, including former D.C. City Councilman Douglas E. Moore, who said that he was present to "stay quiet and watch the racism in the Methodist Church."
The Rev. Frank Williams, retired pastor of Washington's Asbury United Methodist Church, contended that white ministers charged with immoral actions "went on to other places and were offered ministries."
Later in the evening, Williams was called by Lockman as an expert witness on racism in the church. Frequently lapsing into sermon-like cadence, he called Carter's treatment an example of "disparate justice" within the United Methodist Church.
Calling for healing and forgiveness, Williams said, "you don't go out and kill the sheep because the sheep has strayed."
Under cross examination by Jackson, Williams admitted that he had never spoken to the women, heard their testimony nor knew of their specific complaints.
Most of the day's testimony came from Elaine de Coligny, who had worked with Carter at Mountaintop Ministry, a church-run organization in Baltimore overseeing projects on health, employment training and community development.
Initially confident in her testimony, De Coligny, who is white, broke into tears when she testified how Carter helped her get a $12,000-a-year consulting job dealing with racism in the church, and kissed her when he came to tell her that the contract was approved.
De Coligny, 22, said that Carter later tried to sabotage her job.