Court OKs sex abuse lawsuit against Methodist church in Missouri

Columbia Missourian/September 15, 2009

Columbia - After a recent sex abuse settlement involving a Boonville Catholic church, a separate lawsuit has been filed against a United Methodist Church in St. Joseph and its overseeing bodies, including one located in Columbia.

On Sept. 1, 5th Judicial Circuit Court judge Randall R. Jackson overruled a motion to dismiss a civil sex abuse lawsuit against Huffman Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Joseph. It is also against the Pony Express District of the United Methodist Church in St. Joseph and the Columbia's Missouri Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, both of which are overseeing Methodist bodies.

The plaintiff is a former Huffman member who filed the suit anonymously.

"This ruling is significant because it is the first time a Missouri court has held that a negligence case could be pursued against a church for sexual abuse," said Ken Chackes, the plaintiff's attorney, who has handled about 100 cases involving alleged sexual abuse involving the clergy. In earlier lawsuits, victims had to prove that the church knew the abuser was going to harm children and failed to take actions to prevent it.

The legal petition states that former Huffman lay pastor Jim Bourne "engaged in unpermitted, harmful and offensive sexual conduct and contact upon the person of the plaintiff, who was a minor at the time of the contact."

According to the petition, the plaintiff is an adult male who no longer lives in Missouri and was a minor at the time of the alleged sexual abuse in the early 1970s.

"There are no other victims as of yet," said David Clohessy, director of Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, when asked if others have brought forth allegations against Bourne.

A co-founder of the network's mid-Missouri chapter, Don Asbee, said six abuse survivors, outside of the Bourne case, have contacted the chapter since its inception in May.

"We take these types of allegations seriously," said the Rev. Sherry Hobben, director of communications for the Missouri United Methodist Conference. "The United Methodist Church is one of the leading religious organizations in our training and screening of lay people and clergy."

Hobben said Bourne served as a staff member at Huffman for 16 months and left without the church's knowledge of any misconduct.

"He moved on and had other opportunities in the area," she said. "He left with a good relationship with the church."

The case against the Methodist church is scheduled to go to trial May 10, 2010.

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