A longtime former chaplain at United Methodist-affiliated American University (AU) in Washington D.C. who was an ordained United Methodist is the subject of a lawsuit from a former student alleging sexual assault.
First reported in the American University newspaper The Eagle, the 21-page complaint was filed with the D.C. Superior Court on April 28. It names Mark Schaefer, American University (AU), and the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC) as defendants. Schaefer is currently on staff with a United Methodist Church in an affluent suburb outside of Washington, DC. [Editor’s note: Schaefer has been removed from the staff page of Potomac UMC as of August 27.]
Plaintiff Lindsey Bell-Kerr alleges assault and battery, intentional infliction of emotional distress, breach of fiduciary duty and negligent employment. Bell-Kerr, now a resident of California and an ordained United Methodist elder in the California-Nevada Conference, seeks $10 million in compensation and $10 million in punitive damages. She is in a same-sex marriage in defiance of United Methodist policies.
Schaefer was hired by American University and appointed by the Conference as AU Chaplain following United Methodist minister Joseph Eldridge’s retirement as chaplain in 2016. The complaint states that Eldridge and Schaefer were acting within the course and scope of their employment by AU and the Baltimore-Washington Conference. Eldridge was AU’s longest serving chaplain with 19 years of service. Co-founder of the Washington Office on Latin America, Eldredge was a defender in the 1980s of “liberationist” movements like the Marxist Sandinista regime in Nicaragua, for which he was critiqued by IRD and others.
The complaint alleges that Bell-Kerr, who identified as lesbian, was groomed by Schaefer for sexual abuse beginning her Freshman year at AU in 2002. The abuse included touching of her genitals and forced oral sex, eventually leading Bell-Kerr to attempt taking her own life.
Schaefer’s alleged misconduct was reported early in 2003 but was minimized by AU and Conference officials, according to the complaint, enabling him “to seek out additional victims as a sexual predator.”
“In his role as United Methodist Chaplain, Defendant Schaefer was supervised by American University Chaplain Reverend Joseph Eldridge, worked for the joint benefit of Defendants AU and the Defendant Methodist Conference, and regularly interacted with other agents, servants, and employees of Defendants in completing his work tasks who had knowledge of his behavior,” the complaint reads. “Schaefer’s role was to provide spiritual, ethical, and moral guidance, counseling, and education to American University students and to perform the other duties of a pastor, including developing a rapport with and seeing students in a variety of after-hours settings.”
The complaint goes on to allege that Schaefer “gained the trust, confidence, and respect of [Bell-Kerr] and the other students as a spiritual guide, valuable and trustworthy mentor, counselor, and authority figure; and gained the comfort, permission, acquiescence, and trust of the students to spend substantial periods of time alone with them, by virtue of the position and cloaking of authority granted by Defendants AU and the Methodist Conference.”
The student president of AU campus ministry and a campus ministry intern reported Schaefer’s misconduct to AU Chaplain Eldridge and in writing to United Methodist District Superintendent E. Allen Stuart; the latter subsequently met with the two students in January 2003, according to the complaint. The students stated that Stuart instructed them to keep the situation “local” so as not to “damage Mark’s career.”
Reached for comment, the American University communications office declined to comment on the pending lawsuit, stating that the university “generally handles matters involving alleged misconduct in a confidential manner”. The AU office did provide a statement to IRD that “American University is committed to creating a safe and welcoming environment for students, faculty and staff” and “The University strictly prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination.”
The AU statement went on to explain that the school has taken steps to “streamline and enhance” it’s discrimination complaint process, including establishing an Office of Equity and Title IX.
“AU has extensive procedures and resources in place to address harassment and anyone found to have violated AU’s Title IX or other discrimination policies is subject to discipline, up to and including termination,” the statement read. “Our entire approach underscores the seriousness with which we take these matters and our focus on supporting our community.”
Bell-Kerr received a letter from AU in 2019 admitting Schaefer’s misconduct, according to her court filing.
“[Schaefer’s] conduct demonstrates poor judgment, is highly inappropriate and unethical, and constitutes unprofessional and serious misconduct. As such, we have taken appropriate personnel action in accordance with our other policies,” the AU letter read. According to The Eagle, an AU spokesperson would not confirm whether a letter was sent to Bell-Kerr in 2019.
Previously ordained as United Methodist clergy, Schaefer surrendered his clergy credentials in 2020, the year following his departure from AU. He no longer appears in the UMC directory of accredited ministers, but served two United Methodist congregations in southern Maryland and in suburban Bowie after departing AU, listed as minister on their respective websites. Later, he was hired by a church in Potomac, Maryland for educational work. Local churches have discretion about whom they hire in lay positions, but it is unclear why Schaefer would have continued to serve in a ministerial role at the prior two churches following a surrender of his clergy credentials. Absent information from the Annual Conference, a local church would have no reason to bar him from ministry without conducting an investigation of its own.
Schaefer currently serves on the staff of Potomac United Methodist Church as Director of Christian Education & Communications. The church website notes Schaefer has “two decades of experience serving the church in higher educational and local church settings” and is a graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary, but makes no direct reference to American University, where he served across 15 years.
A report published by Religion News Service (RNS) on August 20 cites an August 18 e-mail to members of the Baltimore-Washington Conference from Bishop LaTrelle Easterling in which the United Methodist official stated that she first received a formal complaint against Schaefer in 2019.
E-mails sent from IRD to the Baltimore-Washington Conference and Potomac UMC last week seeking comment on the Schaefer lawsuit had not yet been replied to at the time of publication.
According to the RNS report, Easterling wrote in the e-mail that AU terminated Schaefer’s employment as a chaplain in December 2019 and that the Baltimore-Washington Conference initiated the process for a “just resolution” laid out in the United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline.
The terms of the resolution required Schaefer to disclose his misconduct to AU, undergo six months of psychological assessment and counseling and complete three years of probation with the understanding that any additional violations could result in surrendering his credentials, Easterling wrote. In 2020, two more formal complaints were filed against Schaefer by former students at American University, alleging sexual misconduct in 2009 and in 2015, she said, long after Bell-Kerr had graduated in 2005. Schaefer surrendered his clergy credentials after the second complaint, admitting to accusations of clergy sexual misconduct, according to the bishop.
UPDATE [08/27/2021]: Mark Schaefer is no longer listed as an employee on the website of Potomac United Methodist Church.
UPDATE [09/01/2021]: Multiple female former students have stepped forward alleging a pattern of misconduct by Schaefer, according to a report from The Eagle. Following dismissal from Potomac UMC, Schaefer has established his own independent congregation and expressed “disappointments with the institutional church.”