Two United Methodist congregations, one in Long Beach and another in south Orange County, have splintered recently over the ways in which the leadership at their district and regional overseers handled the firing of a longtime preschool director and accusations of inappropriate behavior by a pastor.
The turmoil has even led the preschool at the Orange County church to close.
At the heart of the discontent is a wrongful-termination lawsuit, filed in May. In it, Sandra Bonaparte, the former longtime preschool director at Palisades United Methodist Preschool in Capistrano Beach, argued she was fired from her post as retaliation after she insisted officials address allegations of sexual harassment against the pastor. Those sexual harassment allegations, according to the lawsuit, include staring at women’s buttocks and making “sexually suggestive comments” about women’s appearances.
That pastor, who was reappointed to Belmont Heights United Methodist on July 1, said he couldn’t comment on the accusations; his superiors said they found no wrongdoing.
Church officials, meanwhile, say Bonaparte was fired for giving out unauthorized raises to herself and staff. Bonaparte denies that account.
The lawsuit went public after the OC Weekly reported on it in early July.
Turmoil Bubbles Over
Since then, many congregants at Belmont Heights have bemoaned that they learned of the lawsuit and accusations against its new pastor from the media.
“The lack of transparency in the Methodist church, and at the Belmont Heights United Methodist Church in particular,” church member Kathleen O’Daniels said, “works against the best interests of members and the community.”
The church has defended the way in which it communicates with the laity.
“The lines of communication between the leadership of the congregation and the District Superintendent have been, and will be, open to address any concerns,” James Kang, spokesman for the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church, said in a statement.
The conference oversees nearly 350 churches in California, Hawaii, the Pacific Islands, Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.
“We are confident,” Kang added, “in both our process and our people as all of us strive to fulfill the mission of the church to the best of our ability.”
Still, the congregation has been uneasy.
On Sunday, July 14, church officials held a meeting at Belmont Heights to discuss the accusations against Rev. Darren Cowdrey, the new leader of the Long Beach flock.
More than 200 people showed up, those who attended said; typically, about 60 to 70 people attend Sunday services, though that decreases to about 50 during the summer.
The next day, the church held a meeting with its preschool parents, also well-attended. Both were described as tense by people who went.
Several of those who attended said the meetings left them unsatisfied.
“I would like to know more — there’s a lot of unanswered questions the parents have,” one Belmont Heights preschool parent, who requested anonymity for fear of being ostracized from the church community, said. “A lot of parents have seen that and have concerns.
“It sounds,” she added, “like they tried to shut down a lot of that.”
Several employees told the Southern California News Group they were aware of the allegations but had been instructed not to discuss them. Instead, they referred questions to Kang.
An email sent from the Belmont Heights United Methodist Church to its members and preschool parents on Saturday, July 13 — which was obtained by SCNG — also requested they not speak to the media.
Kang declined to comment on those meetings.
But a week later, on Sunday, July 21, Rev. Mark Nakagawa, the superintendent of the California-Pacific Conference’s West District — overseeing about 85 congregations in L.A. and north Orange counties — presided over Belmont Heights’ weekly service. Cowdrey was absent — though near in mind.
Cowdrey opted to take a vacation, Nakagawa told the approximately 20 congregants who attended; Cowdrey wanted to give his flock time to reflect.
“God is calling all of us, as faithful disciples of Jesus Christ, rooted at Belmont Heights, to listen intently and deeply to what God is saying,” Nakagawa continued, “and to how God is moving through this very important time in your life as a congregation.”
At Palisades United Methodist, meanwhile, the controversy has divided the loyalty of parents between the church and its former preschool director.
The church fired Bonaparte in September. The reason, according to California-Pacific Conference officials, is she doled out raises and bonuses to herself and staff without permission.
Bonaparte denied wrongdoing. Instead, she argues in her lawsuit, the church fired her for raising concerns about Cowdrey’s behavior toward women. The California-Pacific Conference, in turn, has denied that allegation.
“Ms. Bonaparte was terminated for legitimate reasons unrelated to her complaints,” Lori Meaders, California-Pacific Conference chancellor, said in a Friday, July 12, statement.
Still, her firing — and the murky reasons behind it — led the Palisades preschool to deteriorate, multiple sources have said.
The day following Bonaparte’s departure, parents and church leadership faced off in a chaotic meeting in which parents expressed concern for the safety of their children. Church leaders, in an audio recording obtained by SCNG, countered that the children were indeed safe.
The church quickly installed Mary Massey to succeed Bonaparte as executive director.
But at the time, Massey had not completed a criminal background check, which the state requires for those working with children, according to an investigative report from the California Department of Social Services, a copy of which SCNG obtained.
Massey did not return multiple requests for comment.
Several teachers and parents say they were dismayed by Bonaparte’s firing and how the church handled it and the aftermath.
At least two parents wrote to church leadership — one in October, the other in February — criticizing them for both the firing and not being candid with the preschool’s parents. SCNG obtained each document.
“It’s quite shocking to witness firsthand the ways in which everything has been handled,” Brittany Curfew, who at the time was also a member of the School Advisory Council, wrote in an open letter to leadership. “It’s been the opposite of discipleship and has successfully and permanently turned so many community members away from any sort of interest in your church and what you stand for.”
In an interview in mid-July, Curfew said she wasn’t alone among parents in her concern over the firing. Several other parents, in interviews and messages to SCNG, said the same.
The preschool then began losing teachers and students.
One teacher described in an October email to a parent the atmosphere of the school. That teacher requested anonymity because she was one of those who complained to Bonaparte about behavior from Cowdrey that she said was harassment, and because she didn’t want to lose her new job.
“As much as I put focus on the children and try to be positive,” she wrote, “the work environment just gets worse and worse.”
Eleven days later, she sent an email to the parents of every kid in her class.
“Making this decision was very difficult for me,” she wrote. “Due to the current situation at our school, I feel it is time for me to move on.”
When this teacher quit, it prompted Curfew to pull her youngest child out of the school; she pulled her older son out in March.
Palisades started the most recent school year with about 100 students, Bonaparte’s attorney and the former teacher, in an interview in mid-July, said. By the end of the year, they added, the school had about 30. At least three teachers, and a handful of other staff members, quit.
Palisades United Methodist Preschool has since closed, Kang confirmed.
“Unfortunately, despite great effort to improve the ministry of the preschool,” Kang said in a statement, “it was decided that the school will close.”
He declined to say when the school closed, or if it will reopen in the future.
Esmeralda Lopez Arellano was among those hurt by the closure. She signed up her son to go to Palisades’ summer school, but before the session began, Arellano received two letters from the school.
The first said renovation work would close the school only for the summer.
Then a second letter arrived, on June 29, telling her the preschool was closed for good. It gave no reason.
“It was kind of upsetting,” Arellano said. “It’s a wonderful school. It’s just sad.”
A lawsuit And Accusations
Some at Palisades also questioned the official reason Bonaparte was fired.
One person, who requested anonymity because she didn’t want to be ostracized from the community in which she was raised, said she was in the meeting last April where those raises and bonuses were approved by a church panel that includes the pastor, church members and preschool parents.
Although the church and preschool are run by separate staff, the preschool’s funding comes from the church.
The vote was unanimous, the woman recalled, although no one was taking notes at the time.
Curfew also said a representative of the School Advisory Council, of which she too was a member, told the rest of the panel the raises were approved, as was typical.
Bonaparte, for her part, argues in the federal lawsuit that she thinks the official reason for her firing was a pretext.
The “real reason” she was fired, the complaint states, is that she made “repeated complaints of retaliation and sexual harassment against Pastor Cowdrey, which were ignored and then covered up.”
Reached by phone on Friday, July 12, Cowdrey said he was “not allowed” to comment on the lawsuit, except to reiterate he’s not a defendant.
“I know I have the support,” he said, “of the people above me. That’s about all I can say.”
Cowdrey, in fact, is not a defendant in the wrongful-termination lawsuit.
But that’s because Bonaparte never had any personal issues with him, her attorney said. That attorney, Geniene Stillwell, declined to make her client available for an interview.
But Cowdrey is named extensively throughout the federal complaint.
Three women, according to the lawsuit, told Bonaparte about behavior by Cowdrey they said made them uncomfortable. SCNG has independently confirmed the identity of and spoken to two of those women.
The other, through Stillwell, declined an interview request. There may be several other women, according to the lawsuit, who also complained to church leadership; SCNG has been unable to confirm their identities.
At least one other woman, however, did tell SCNG about her experience with the pastor.
The allegations range from staring at women’s buttocks to commenting on their bodies and consistently making sexually suggestive comments over a period of months, according to the lawsuit and interviews with three of those women.
A former parent at Palisades preschool, who spoke to SCNG on the condition she remain anonymous, said that for months, Cowdrey would comment on her appearance — such as her clothing and heels — when she dropped off her child in the mornings.
It got to the point, the parent said, where she’d sit in her car, with her child, and wait until Cowdrey left the preschool area to walk her to class. Sometimes, she admitted, her child was late to class because of it.
She, and the former teacher, told SCNG they confided their concerns to Bonaparte.
California-Pacific Conference officials, though, said they conducted a “thorough investigation” after they learned of the sexual harassment allegations. They found no wrongdoing, the officials said.
If wrongdoing had been found, Kang said, “Rev. Cowdrey would have been immediately suspended” under the conference’s zero-tolerance sexual harassment policy.
Kang also said pastors are required to undergo sexual harassment training every three years.
But during a September School Advisory Council meeting, an audio recording of which SCNG obtained, staff indicated Cowdrey had not received that training in his Palisades post until after Bonaparte filed the complaints. He was the lead pastor there for four years.
Still, Kang said, the conference’s higher-ups have full confidence in Cowdrey.
“Our Conference will continue to fully support both the ministry of Belmont Heights UMC and Rev. Cowdrey,” he said, “utilizing every means at our disposal including legal action if we discern that this becomes necessary in fulfilling our mission as the Church.”
No trial date has been set for the wrongful-termination lawsuit.