This week, a Hennepin County court awarded a Winona victim of clergy sexual abuse more than $1.4 million.

Former United Methodist Minister Donald Dean Budd will owe more than $1 million for the abuse the court said he committed while counseling the woman. Budd served at McKinley United Methodist Church in Winona before the church merged with Central United Methodist.

Suffice it to say, any clergy member or church leader having sexual contact with a parishioner outside of marriage is completely and always inappropriate.

In this case, it was against civil law.

Yet, the more notable decision the jury made was splitting $410,000 portion between Budd and the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the governing body of the former McKinley United Methodist Church. The conference and Bishop Sally Dyck oversaw Budd and subsequently tried to keep the victim from coming forward, the judgment determined.

We hope the court's award serves notice to other churches and leadership.

While abuse involving Catholic priests has made headlines, this instance shows that all churches, all denominations are vulnerable and it can happen whenever there's a person in a place of public trust.

It's sad the Minnesota Annual Conference hierarchy decided to walk in the footsteps of so many other religious institutions.

The court's ruling said it was holding the conference in part responsible for the way it tried to cover up the abuse. It tried to stop the victim from going public, instead trying to push the accusations behind closed doors, with the church itself being the arbiter.

Clearly, the Methodist Church was more concerned with its image than doing right or healing.

We commend the victim for coming forward and speaking out. The amount of courage it takes to speak out against a well-liked pastor is amazing.

We hope it sends a message to other victims that they will be heard, taken seriously and justice will be served to those who would abuse people in the name of religion.

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Change needs to happen in the United Methodist Church. Members and parishioners need to demand more from their leaders. They need to break apart the system that would allow these sorts of things to be decided behind closed doors. Members and the public have a right to know what's going on behind closed doors in the name of God.

We also hope this negative publicity reminds folks that clergy abuse isn't something that happens far away. It can happen right here. We need to be vigilant, and we need accountability.

At the very least, Dyck should be removed. How could a leader possibly be effective when she was responsible for this coverup that will now cost the churches in her care at least tens - if not hundreds - of thousands of dollars? More than money, she gave her blessing as she tried to squelch a victim's voice.

Now, the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church has to practice what it preaches.

It must ask for forgiveness, not only of the victims, but to those members who place their faith in the integrity of the church's leaders.

The annual conference also must not use the tired excuse that it was just following protocol in the Budd case. It must resolve to make serious changes to empower victims of clergy sexual abuse, not provide cover for those who would violate that trust.

By Darrell Ehrlick, editor, on behalf of the Winona Daily News editorial board, which also includes publisher Rusty Cunningham and deputy editor Jerome Christenson. To comment, call 453-3507 or send email to letters@winonadailynews.com.

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