AME Fighting Multimillion Dollar Harassment Suit

A Kansas City jury has sided with a former pastor's claims against a leader of the predominantly black denomination

BY: Adelle M. Banks

 

WASHINGTON, May 29 (RNS)--The African Methodist Episcopal Church has posted a $4.5-million appeal bond in a Kansas City, Mo., court five months after being found liable in a sexual harassment case against a presiding elder of the denomination.

Saundra McFadden-Weaver, a former pastor of the denomination, sued the church and Elder P. Albert Williams, claiming he sexually harassed her. She won the case in December when a jury rendered a verdict in her favor and ordered Williams to pay her $1 million in punitive damages and the church, its board of incorporators and Bishop Vernon Byrd, leader of the denomination's Fifth Episcopal District, to pay her $5 million in punitive damages.

In March, Judge Lee E. Wells of the Jackson County Circuit Court lowered the $5 million figure to $4 million, sustaining a motion from the church.

The appeal bond amount of $4.5 million includes interest that is expected to accrue during the appeal process.

Brian Madden, a Kansas City lawyer representing the denomination, confirmed that the bond was posted on May 16. If the AME Church loses the case on appeal and does not reach some other agreement through mediation, it must pay the amount of the bond to McFadden-Weaver.

Michael Fletcher, lawyer for McFadden-Weaver, said "substantial assets" of the church were frozen for a month before the appeal bond was posted. Madden would not confirm that assets were frozen.

"We do not consider it appropriate to comment upon the facts of the underlying litigation while the church's appeal is pending before the Missouri Court of Appeals," Madden said in a statement provided to Religion News Service. "We do, however anticipate that the judgment against all defendants in this matter will be reversed."

Fletcher said McFadden-Weaver suffered "year after year of harassment" from Williams, a presiding elder over churches that included her Mariah Walker AME Church in Kansas City.

"He consistently was touching her," Fletcher said. "She'd push him away."

He said the "final straw" for her client was when Williams groped her breasts in the church.

"She then complained about that breast grabbing," said Fletcher. "Four months later, she was excommunicated, 12 days before Christmas."

After her 1996 dismissal, McFadden-Weaver started a nondenominational church, Community Outreach Christian Fellowship Church in Kansas City.

Church officials also declined to comment on the details of the case.

"The matter is in court and I...can't say anything about it," said Bishop John Hurst Adams, senior bishop of the 2.5-million-member AME Church.

Fletcher said McFadden-Weaver would not have carried out the suit if Williams and other church officials had apologized.

"All she wanted was an apology and for P.A. Williams to be moved," Fletcher said. "They moved him to Kansas City, Kan. That's what his punishment was. Saundra said that's not good enough."

He said the parties to the suit may enter mediation in the next two months and if mediation is unsuccessful, oral arguments would be heard in an appellate court.

"We've made overtures to them and asked and told them that this is a situation that we think is pretty detrimental for the black church in particular," Fletcher said. "They offered $300,000. We thought it was funny."

He said the offer, made by officials of the predominantly black denomination, came earlier this month.

Fletcher said most cases of this type are settled out of court.

"Most churches, frankly, once they get it, they step up to the plate and try to do something about it, at least from a cursory perspective," he said. "Here, this church didn't do anything...The church does not get it."

Fletcher, who specializes in employment law and has dealt with other cases of sexual harassment in churches, said it is not unusual for him to defend a client like McFadden-Weaver.

"The abuse of women in churches...is maybe more prevalent than in the workplace," he said. "It's almost a totalitarian situation in some churches...She was saying no and reaching out...for protections and they weren't there."

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