The New Jersey state Division on Civil Rights announced Friday it has issued a Finding of Probable Cause against a Mercer County pastor and his church in connection with charges the clergyman sexually harassed a female church employee, and that church officials failed to properly investigate the woman's allegations before ultimately firing her for making them.
During its investigation, the Division on Civil Rights also learned that leaders of Trenton-based Galilee Baptist Church leaders were aware as early as 2005 that the Rev. John H. Harris was accused of having sex with multiple female parishioners.
Harris and church leaders are named as as respondents in the case. They are charged in a complaint filed by former church secretary Minnie Davis of Trenton and state Civil Rights Director Chinh Q. Le with sexual harassment and acts of reprisal, including the termination of Davis from her job.A Finding of Probable Cause does not resolve a civil rights complaint. Rather, it means the state has concluded its preliminary investigation and determined there is sufficient evidence to support a reasonable suspicion the state Law Against Discrimination (LAD) has been violated.
"The conduct charged in this case is troublesome," Le said. "Every employee has a right to work in an environment that is harassment-free, and any worker who believes he or she is being discriminated against has a right to report it without fear of retaliation. We are committed to protecting the individual rights and the dignity of all employees."
According to the complaint, Davis was hired by Galilee Baptist as a secretary in 1997, and her job description was later expanded to that of secretary/church clerk in 1999.
In interviews with the Division on Civil Rights, Davis claimed to have had a consensual relationship with Harris that began in 2001, but said she broke it off in 2003 and made clear she wanted no further involvement. Despite her repeated statements disavowing any interest in him, Davis said, Harris continued for years to pressure her for sex in the workplace.
In March 2008, Davis sent a memo to the church deacons and trustees accusing Harris of repeatedly propositioning her for sex, touching her inappropriately and other sexually harassing actions. She also reported that, as a result of her rejection of his overtures, Harris took retaliatory action such as minimizing her work duties, requiring her to provide 30 days notice when seeking time off and implying that she was stealing money.
Harris and the church have denied all of Davis' allegations of harassment and retaliation, and the clergyman has denied any prior consensual relationship with Davis.
According to the complaint, church leaders met in April 2008 and assigned the church's attorney to investigate Davis' charges against Harris. In the interim, the church leadership relieved Davis of most of her job responsibilities - ostensibly to keep her from coming into contact with Harris.
The church's own inquiry ultimately found no evidence to support Davis' accusations, and she was subsequently fired in spring 2008 for "insubordination and neglect."
The complaint states church leaders also had information about Harris' alleged harassment of other women.
Specifically, investigators obtained a copy of an anonymous letter to two church deacons from March 2005 that contained a variety of complaints about Harris, including that he had been involved in "inappropriate sexual relationships" with four different women of the church. Investigators also obtained minutes to a meeting of church leaders held in March 2005 - a meeting held specifically to address the accusations against Harris contained in the letter, and attended by Harris, 12 deacons and a moderator from the Middlesex General Baptist Association.
At that meeting, minutes show, the anonymous letter was read aloud and discussed. Harris refuted all charges, and was subsequently told by the chairman of the church's Deacon Ministry that the matter would be considered closed.
As part of its recent investigation, the Division on Civil Rights interviewed a number of current and former church members and officials, including several deacons.
One former deacon - the same man who pronounced the matter of Harris' alleged sexual involvement with female parishioners closed at the 2005 meeting - acknowledged that he and his wife left the church in 2006 after 41 years of membership because of Harris' alleged conduct.
In addition, two female former parishioners other than Davis told investigators they also were victimized by Harris. One victim was a parishioner who reported seeking ministerial counseling from Harris. The woman told investigators that when she met with him to discuss her problems, Harris propositioned her for sex. When she rebuffed him, the woman said, Harris threatened to make her life difficult if she told anyone of his overture. Eventually, she recounted, Harris summoned her to a meeting attended by two church deacons where he insisted she'd taken what he said out of context. The woman said she fled the meeting in tears and subsequently quit the church.
According to the complaint, Galilee Baptist lacked any written policy prohibiting sexual harassment or any other form of bias-based discrimination in the workplace during Davis' employment. The church also lacked written procedures for employees to report sexual harassment or other types of discrimination. The church also had no written protocol for management to follow in dealing with harassment complaints, and church managers did not make a practice of documenting reports of sexual harassment or bias-based discrimination.
Investigation of the Davis matter was conducted by Civil Rights Investigator Artherine Price and supervised by Lorraine LeSter, manager of the division's Trenton office. Division on Civil Rights Staff Attorney Estelle Bronstein provided assistance in preparing the Finding of Probable Cause.
The Law Against Discrimination provides that each respondent found to have committed a violation is subject to a penalty of up to $10,000, provided the individual has not been convicted of a previous violation within the past five years. The law also provides for other remedies, including compensatory damages and injunctive relief, such as changes in the employer's policies and management/staff training.
Now that the division has issued a complaint, the case will be referred for a process known as conciliation. If conciliation is not successful, the matter will be referred to a state Administrative Law judge for a hearing on the merits, which is a non-jury trial. The Administrative Law judge will then issue a written decision.
— TOM HESTER SR., NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM