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Suspension of Minister Unfair, His Lawyer Says

April 07, 1993|CATHERINE GEWERTZ and DAVID HALDANE | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

COSTA MESA — The lawyer for the Rev. Donald Kutz, a Corona del Mar minister who was suspended following allegations of sexual improprieties, on Tuesday attacked the decision as unfair, saying Kutz was never allowed to defend himself and was the victim of "frontier justice."

In a three-page open letter to the press and public, issued at Kutz's request, attorney Kevin Connolly said the minister "categorically denies" any misconduct.

Kutz, minister of Community Church, Congregational for 18 years, was suspended last week after six current or former church members claimed that he had engaged in sexual misconduct with them during the last 13 years.

Church members were sworn to secrecy about the claims, but one woman who identified herself as one of the accusers told The Times that Kutz sexually harassed some women and "took advantage" of others by having affairs with them when they were emotionally "vulnerable."

Kutz, 50, strongly denies those allegations and has appealed his suspension to the denomination's ecclesiastical council, even though his lawyer said in the letter Tuesday that Kutz believes that his future should be decided by his congregation.

Members of a countywide committee of the United Church of Christ, which undertook a 5 1/2-week investigation of the allegations against Kutz, and the Southern California Conference of the United Church of Christ, which suspended him, could not be reached Tuesday to respond to Connolly's letter.

But Connolly attacked the way the church handled Kutz's suspension.

"It is believed that the process used by the committee was unjust and certainly not within any format known and or used by any Western civilization," Connolly wrote.

Nancy Engle Van Otten, a church member and a friend and supporter of Kutz, said there is "lots of support" for Kutz within the congregation.

"We all believed he would have been exonerated," she said. "I was surprised by the outcome."

About a month ago, Connolly said, Kutz was approached by an advisory board "christened" by the church to investigate the allegations. Kutz accepted the committee's suggestion that he take a paid leave of absence to allow the committee to "use its stated due process" and to spare his congregation "the brunt of the allegations," Connolly said.

But Kutz and his supporters never were given a chance to respond to the allegations, "let alone offer evidence on the untruthfulness" of the claims, Connolly wrote.

Kutz experienced "what appeared to be a 'frontier justice' mentality" that "cared little about truth, right or wrong," Connolly said.

The lawyer said the allegations against Kutz "appear to have their genesis" in "a small minority faction within the congregation whose monetary and or political position within the church has been undermined."

Connolly was unavailable to elaborate on that. But one church member, Gary Van Otten, said the lawyer might be referring to church members who are still angry over a financial reorganization that took place within the church during the last year or two.

Gary Van Otten, who is the husband of Nancy Engle Van Otten, said that the church found it needed to cut back its spending, that in the process "some programs were cut back or eliminated and that there were some hard feelings."

But the Van Ottens said Kutz has been done a grave disservice if he has not been given a chance to respond to the claims against him.

"We and many others feel just the same about him now as we did before this all came up," Gary Van Otten said. "He's a good man."

Nancy Engle Van Otten said Kutz, who is divorced and lives with his 10-year-old daughter, feels that "the whole process has just beaten him down."

"Having this thing go public is very difficult," she said. "Seeing your name in print with these kinds of charges attached to it. . . . I am a supporter, and I believe those allegations are false."

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