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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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Multiple sexual misconduct complaints filed against former University chaplain, Methodist records show

Mark Schaefer was allegedly fired from the University

Editor’s note: This story contains references to sexual assault and misconduct as well as profanity. This story has been updated to add additional information.

Former American University chaplain Mark Schaefer was allegedly terminated by the University in 2019 and stripped of his clergy rights in the United Methodist Church in January after multiple female alumni made formal accusations of sexual misconduct against him.

An Eagle investigation uncovered internal Methodist documents indicating that three women filed written complaints with the church regarding Schaefer’s behavior during a 13-year period. ​​The complaints included claims that he initiated unwelcome cuddling, prolonged hugs, sent unsolicited gifts and engaged in other conduct they felt crossed pastor-congregant boundaries. 

Schaefer operated in a position of power and trust as a campus minister, according to interviews with two of the women who filed complaints and a third who considered doing so but did not. He repeatedly leveraged his position to develop uncomfortably close relationships with them, they said.

The church’s definition of ministerial sexual misconduct includes the “misuse of the pastoral or ministerial position using sexualized conduct to take advantage of the vulnerability of another.”

Two of the women included in this article asked to be identified by their initials and the third requested complete anonymity. All three cited privacy concerns and did not want this article to be associated with their name. In accord with The Eagle’s ethics code, these requests have been granted. 

“Neglect at the hands of the institutional church”

Methodist Bishop LaTrelle Easterling from the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church released a statement about Schaefer’s complaints on Aug. 18 after The Eagle contacted her office for comment.

“We have systems in place to prevent misconduct, and we lament when those preventative measures are not enough,” Easterling wrote. “I apologize on behalf of the church for the instances when we have not protected others from harm or have caused harm by our actions or inactions.” 

The Baltimore-Washington Conference requires ministry leaders to complete yearly training on “identifying sexual misconduct [and] techniques for maintaining appropriate boundaries,” as part of its sexual ethics policy

On Aug. 26, Schaefer was fired from his position as director of Christian education, a non-clergy role, at Potomac UMC in Maryland. Potomac’s Pastor Laura Blauvelt cited the discovery of a lawsuit and multiple complaints filed against him as the primary reasons for his dismissal in an email sent to the congregation that day. 

“There was support expressed for Mark as a person and strong concerns raised about his past behavior. The tension between wanting to extend grace and the struggle not to condone sexual misconduct in any form was exposed as the heart of the matter,” Blauvelt wrote, referencing an Aug. 23 church council meeting convened to discuss and vote on Schaefer’s employment. “The letter sent to the members of the Annual Conference from our Bishop, made it impossible to bridge the gap. The majority of our Church Council voted to dismiss Mark from his position with us.”

Schaefer was hired at Potomac in February after two short pastoral stints at churches in Maryland, according to his LinkedIn profile, and after permanently losing his clergy rights in January. 

Schaefer’s conference file, containing the records of the multiple complaints filed against him, was not available for Potomac UMC to review during the hiring process due to human resources protocol, according to Easterling’s office. Local churches are given authority to make their own hiring decisions without review by the Conference.

Schaefer now serves as the pastor of a newly formed and primarily Christian congregation, independent from an institutional religious organization. The website for the Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter was launched on Sept. 1 and states that it is open to people of all faiths. The organization seeks to build a community for members who have “experienced rejection, hurt, or neglect at the hands of the institutional church,” according to the About Us page. 

“In their times of greatest need, they have found themselves shunned, ignored, or even blamed by their communities of faith. The Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter seeks to be a place of grace and support for all people, not merely when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed the most,” the page states.

Interim University Chaplain Bryant Oskvig told The Eagle that every religious community can determine unique criteria for who is eligible to serve as a religious leader. The Congregation of St. Thomas the Doubter did not respond to a request for comment from The Eagle. 

“Strong concerns”

Schaefer was terminated by AU in December 2019, Easterling said in her statement. One of her responsibilities as bishop is to appoint the Methodist ministers that work on campus; she also serves as an ex-officio member of the University board of trustees. Easterling’s office did not provide further details about how she knew of his termination to The Eagle. 

A spokesperson for AU would not confirm or deny that Schaefer had been fired in 2019, stating that personnel matters are confidential. 

In a separate statement to The Eagle, Vice President of Communication Matthew Bennett said that the University could not comment on complaints filed with another organization.

“While we are not involved in complaints filed with other organizations, we review complaints filed with the University, and support members of the community who have experienced harassment, discrimination, or sexual assault,” Bennett wrote. 

A lawsuit filed against Schaefer for sexual assault is under litigation in the D.C. court system. Lindsey Bell-Kerr, a 2005 graduate, sued Schaefer, AU and the church for $20 million in April; she claims that Schaefer sexually assaulted her as a student in 2002 and 2003 and that AU and the church failed to investigate.

Schaefer and his lawyers have denied all allegations made in the lawsuit, according to court filings. He did not respond to direct outreach from The Eagle for this story and declined to comment on this story through one of his lawyers, Peggy Bennett. 

Bell-Kerr was the first to file a complaint with the church, in 2019, but her lawyer declined to share a copy of the document, citing pending litigation.

Two previously unreported complaints were submitted in 2020 by separate women, alleging inappropriate behavior that occurred in 2009 and 2015. The Eagle obtained copies of these complaints and supporting documents. 

Schaefer surrendered his clergy credentials after the second complaint was filed and “acknowledged and admitted all substantive actions of sexual misconduct,” according to the complaint’s resolution document signed by Schaefer and Easterling. 

The complaint was filed by a 2015 female graduate of the University who asked to remain anonymous.

“A pattern of violating boundaries”

The 2015 graduate met Schaefer during freshman year welcome week in 2011, while he was serving as a volunteer chaplain and adjunct professor at the University. After she joined the student Methodist community, they interacted almost daily and he became her close spiritual leader. 

Three weeks after she graduated, in the summer of 2015, Schaefer invited her over to his apartment for dinner, she said. She still considered Schaefer to be her pastor and spiritual leader and continued to attend his weekly Bible studies. However, she was interested in transitioning the relationship into an adult friendship, so she accepted the invitation, she told The Eagle. 

After dinner, Schaefer invited her to the couch where he initiated unwelcome cuddling, something he had never done before. 

The 2015 graduate continued to stay in touch with Schaefer, hoping that uncomfortable night was just a lapse in judgment. She avoided his late-night invitations to sleep at his apartment, swim at his pool and made sure to always have an exit available if they made plans to interact. 

In 2019, she heard from mutual friends that Bell-Kerr had filed a complaint against Schaefer. After connecting with Bell-Kerr, she realized that Schaefer cuddling with her without spoken permission was not just a one-time mistake. 

“I believe that Mark has a pattern of violating boundaries and I wanted the church to be aware of this,” the 2015 graduate said. 

After the 2015 graduate submitted her complaint with the church, it was resolved through the church’s “just resolution” process. Schaefer voluntarily surrendered his clergy credentials, he was permanently removed from clergy appointments within the church and she received a year of paid therapy from the church, according to the resolution document. 

The Methodist Church employs the “just resolution” process to settle internal accusations of misconduct outside the courtroom. The process seeks to achieve accountability when boundaries are crossed and bring healing to everyone involved, Oskvig, the University chaplain, told The Eagle. 

“It’s hard to know when … it crosses a line”

Schaefer’s third complaint never made it to the “just resolution” process. 

Easterling, the bishop, dismissed it after Schaefer surrendered his clergy credentials as part of the 2015 graduate’s resolution, telling the third complainant in an official letter that her office no longer had supervision over Schaefer. The woman has opted to be identified by her initials, M.P.W.

“ further action could be taken by the conference, since Schaefer was no longer a pastor and not under their jurisdiction,” Easterling’s office wrote in a statement to The Eagle. 

M.P.W. described the church’s dismissal of her complaint as “infuriating,” adding that she waited months to even speak with Easterling only to have her concerns seemingly brushed aside. 

Her formal complaint to Easterling revolved around “special attention” that she received from Schaefer as a student beginning in 2006, taking form in gifts, car rides home, lingering hugs and other acts that made her feel like she was his favorite. 

M.P.W. and Schaefer stayed in touch after she graduated in 2009, exchanging emails and visits when they were in the same city. He continued to send her gifts like flowers and birthday presents. 

Four years after she graduated, during a phone call, Schaefer admitted to having a crush on her when she was in college, M.P.W. said. He called her while going through a breakup, she wrote in her complaint. 

Because they remained close for years and Schaefer never crossed any legal lines with her, M.P.W. had grappled for a long time over whether she should file a complaint against him, she said. 

“When you’re a woman or have a female-presenting body, you experience a lot of harassment,” M.P.W. said in an interview with The Eagle. “So there’s just kind of this base level of shit you have to put up with to function in the world and it’s hard to know when … it crosses a line into being able to report it to somebody.”

A decade of hindsight and hours of therapy helped her to understand the relationship as “highly problematic” given the lack of normal boundaries M.P.W. expected with a pastor, she said.

After hearing that Bell-Kerr and the 2015 graduate shared similar experiences and had filed complaints against Schaefer, M.P.W. decided to do the same in hopes that the church would hold him accountable. 

“I have realized that Mark, as campus chaplain and pastor, was in a position of power and that he should have been the one to set clear boundaries with his students,” M.P.W. wrote in her complaint. “I feel like Mark was grooming me for a more serious relationship with him while I was a student, using the counseling and spiritual guidance that he provided me as a gateway.”

“Dear Prudence”

A third woman spoke to The Eagle about her experiences with Schaefer, many of which were similar to those of M.K.W. and the 2015 graduate. She too asked to be identified by her initials, R.C.

R.C. spent significant time in the AU Methodist community from 2006-2010 as a student, serving as the chapel’s piano accompanist for several years and presiding as treasurer for the student Methodist community in her junior year, she told The Eagle. 

She met Schaefer early on and came to know him as an overly friendly figure who constantly showered her with compliments. They grew quite close and R.C. considered him to be her mentor. 

“As a 19-year-old with self-esteem issues, it was just nice having this man around to tell you that you were okay and so I came to trust him because, you know, he was a pastor,” R.C. said. 

In December of 2012, Schaefer invited her and a friend out for drinks within a few months of admitting his crush on M.P.W. He proceeded to make R.C. uncomfortable with excessive hugging and hand-holding, she said. After that night he repeatedly invited her over to his apartment, which she declined, and eventually asked her to accompany him, alone, on a short trip to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. 

After she declined that invitation too, R.C. wrote to the Slate advice column “Dear Prudence” in 2013 about her experiences. 

“My other female friends don’t seem to think there’s anything odd about his attempts at friendship, so am I reading too much into this?” R.C. wrote. “How do I tell him to lay off without hurting his feelings since he’s emotionally fragile right now?”

Contact between R.C. and Schaefer grew more infrequent after she rejected his beach trip invitation. She said she convinced herself not to file a complaint against him with AU because she wasn’t sure whether conduct after she graduated qualified for protection from the University. 

Amy Griggs, one of Bell-Kerr’s lawyers, told The Eagle that the discovery of multiple complaints filed against Schaefer doesn’t change her approach to her client’s lawsuit, but said that “it certainly bolsters the concept that there is harm that has been done.”

The additional complaints “[establish] a pattern of misconduct by Schaefer and shows the impact of the neglect from American and the Baltimore-Washington Conference in failing to address the information they had before them,” Griggs said.

The United Methodist Sexual Ethics Task Force provides resources regarding sexual misconduct within the church and can be reached at the confidential number 1-800-523-8390. 

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