Last week's trial of a United Methodist minister in Silver Spring touched many nerves. There were charges of sexism and racism and a side issue of blocked access by reporters to the church trial.
After a week-long trial a jury of 12 United Methodist ministers found the Rev. John P. Carter guilty of one of two charges of sexual harassment and suspended him from the ministry for three years. With the verdict reported, Laura Sessions Stepp, The Post's reporter at the trial, breathed a sigh of relief and returned to her more customary duties as Maryland editor.
How she happened to undertake the trial assignment raises the curtain on how a church deals with internal misconduct and how the media attempt to cover such usually private proceedings. In this case, the Methodist women complaining about harassment alerted the press, and the defendant exercised his right to a public trial before fellow Methodists. Post Reporter Molly Sinclair was assigned and went to the church, but she was told it was open only to United Methodists. Other reporters were also barred.
After discussions with various editors, Mrs. Stepp, a United Methodist, accepted the assignment even though "it was a hardship" involving long hours and a ban on recording devices, photographs and her lap-size computer for writing the story. Mrs. Stepp was asked by a church official, "Are you going in as a Methodist or as a reporter?" She replied, "As both, and as a reporter I will be as fair and as balanced as I can. The fairest way is to hear the testimony, both sides, and not get information second-hand." Her readers were told of the admission policy of the church.
While Mrs. Stepp, the daughter of a Methodist minister, isrespectful of church doctrine, she now feels the "church should have allowed any reporter in. The case involved charges of discrimination by sex, but by letting only Methodists in, the church was itself discriminating against other Christians and other faiths. I don't like the rule. It made me uncomfortable."
But reporting the trial, she said, showed that the church was dealing "with issues important to society" and doing so in a judicial and instructive way. The minister has 30 days in which to file an appeal. His supporters have stated that the trial of the black minister, who was charged with making sexual advances to two white women and three black women, was racially motivated. The church has pointed out that earlier this summer a white minister was also charged with immorality, but chose to take a leave of absence and undergo counseling rather than go to trial.
Bishop Joseph Yeakel, who heads the area's Methodists, would have preferred a private trial, "but we live in an age of freedom f information and want to give a defendant all possible options."
Certainly, in an era when significant internal disputes, whether in government or private corporations, are of public interest, a church trial is worth attention, particularly when both sides seek an open session. The trial, as Bishop Yeakel put it, "reopened two of the most widespread and deep issues in our entire society -- racism and sexism."
But should coverage be limited only to reporters who happen to be Methodists? How would we feel if the Pope decreed only Catholics could cover the Vatican or -- much worse -- if the Shiites had said only a Shiite could cover the TWA hijacking? And would setting conditions on admission lead to demands for review of news stories before publication, with rights to excise or alter the content?
Robert Lear, head of the Washington bureau of the United Methodists News Service, thinks limiting admission is a "dumb rule" and was "unfrtunate," placing editors in the strange position of assigning reporters on the basis of their religious preference.
Doesn't a limitation suggest to the public that church leaders expect more sympathetic, favorable reporting than from a reporter who is not a member? My own experience has been that a good reporter deals with the story, not with his or her religious affiliation, and so far I have heard only compliments for the fairness of Mrs. Stepp's reporting.
The trial was an unusual event, the first time a United Methodist minister was tried on charges of sexual harassment. It was awkward for the church and the media, but the public was the gainer.