Trial judgment could bankrupt church

Monday, June 6, 2005

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A $6 million judgment against the United Methodist Church in Missouri is about $500,000 more than the church's total net assets and could bankrupt the church, the Missouri conference's new bishop told members over the weekend.

Last month, a Springfield jury awarded $4 million in punitive damages to Teresa Norris, who already had been awarded $2 million in compensatory damages.

Norris claimed she was raped seven years ago by her pastor, the Rev. David Finestead, in her office at Campbell United Methodist Church in Springfield, where she was director of music ministry.

She never filed a police report, and waited six weeks to report the crime to authorities. There was no forensic evidence of an attack, and no criminal charges were ever filed.

Finestead, who has maintained his innocence, left the denomination and is now a Baptist minister in Kansas.

Robert Schnase, the Missouri conference's new bishop, told the nearly 2000 delegates at their annual meeting over the weekend that the church doesn't have enough money to pay the entire award, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Sunday.

Schnase explained to the delegates what Norris had alleged, what had happened at the trial, the conference's legal standing and the financial implications for the church if its legal options run out.

The Rev. Steve Cox, the conference's director of connectional ministries, said church officials have discussed bankruptcy, but are reluctant to take that route.

"Bankruptcy has been considered, but it will be considered last and it's considered something to avoid," he said.

Norris and her husband, Sid, sued the church in 2002. Their attorney argued that church leaders ignored repeated complaints about Finestead from other women at the church in the three years before the alleged rape.

But church officials said they had no reason -- despite the warnings -- to believe Finestead would become violent. And some still don't think any rape ever occurred.

There is a "lack of clarity as to whether the event ever took place," Cox has said.

Church leaders are waiting for rulings from a circuit court judge in Springfield on several motions, including one that would overturn the jury's decision and another that would allow the judge to reduce the size of the award. Attorneys also have asked for a new trial.

The church also could appeal the jury's verdict to a higher court, but that would cost as much as $600,000 for an appeal bond. And then there's the bankruptcy option.

If the appeal efforts fail, the Missouri conference plans to ask its churches across the state to contribute an additional $160,000 in 2006. An additional $500,000 would be redistributed from each of the conference's 2005 and 2006 budgets.

"We're kidding ourselves if we think this is not going to affect every single ministry we have," Schnase said.

"But our ultimate hope is not in the appeal process," he said. "Our ultimate hope is in God alone."

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