Moving Forward to Address Clergy Misconduct

By | October 2, 2019

Years ago, activists within The Episcopal Church began clamoring for the development of programs to prevent and address sexual misconduct. The move came at a time when the church was struggling to find ways to include those who historically had been marginalized on the basis of gender, national origin, sexual orientation, and other criteria.

Many among those groups recognized that church canons, which at the time only addressed heresy, simply were not adequate to prevent conduct intended to exploit, repress, and intimidate women and others who sought full inclusion in the life of the church. And while the resulting changes to church disciplinary canons and policies to prevent sexual misconduct were game changers at the time, the church has come to rest on its laurels, with the result that The Episcopal Church today lags behind the Roman Catholic church and other denominations in its protections. As a result, much work needs to be done to bring standards of conduct within The Episcopal Church up to par with those of other faith traditions.

Before we go further, we should recognize that outstanding work that has been done to promote inclusion and safety within the church by many, including the late Ann Fontaine, a much-loved staff member for the Cafe for many years. Ann, a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised, noted in a 2010 article that while the church has had considerable success in preventing and addressing child sexual abuse, its track record with adults, vulnerable persons, and non-sexual abuse was, at best, mixed:

“Exploitation of vulnerable adults and harassment has a more mixed success rate. Much depends on the local diocese and requirements for response and discipline. Although the canons are in place, it is often a hard road to get the canons enforced. Rather than viewing events as abuse of power, they are confused with “affairs” or the victim is blamed for the occurrence. Egregious, multiple offenses are usually dealt with eventually but justice is slow to be found for these abuses. Most professions realize that the person in power has the responsibility in any relationship – regardless of actions. The church is beginning to understand this. The discipline of bishops is the least successful area in the church.”

So what needs to change? And how can the church be made safer for all?

  • We need to make these issues a priority. Too often, discussion of these topics elicits a bored yawn or blank look. Yet these matters affect the very fiber of the church and the health of the Body of Christ; violations result in often irreparable damage to those who have been hurt and the parishes involved.
  • We need to promote a culture of transparency and accountability. Indeed, after the Heather Cook debacle, the church convened a task force to review the matter, which concluded that the church has faulty understanding of forgiveness and a lack of accountability. Yet despite the results of this and previous studies, not much has changed. Indeed, here in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, the diocesan alcohol policy, posted online in 2015, ends by saying, “In response to Bishop Johnston’s statement at Annual Council in 2015 about the importance of examining our policies surrounding the use of alcohol, a more extensive policy will be affirmed by Executive Board and posted at a later date.” Yet as of this writing, nothing has happened. So much for accountability.
  • We need to better educate church members and officials. While the new church website on the Title IV disciplinary canons is a good start, my observation is that church members at all levels remain woefully uninformed about these issues. Indeed, I was shocked and alarmed when a senior denominational official recently told me that bishops cannot get involved in the details of a priest’s misconduct absent an active disciplinary case. This is at direct variance with the provisions of Title IV, which expressly provide that a pastoral direction may be issued in such circumstances. Similarly, diocesan staff often lack even rudimentary knowledge of these issues, despite their importance to the life of the church.
  • We need specific written guidelines about appropriate pastoral boundaries. For example, most Catholic dioceses have written standards of conduct about bullying, harassment, and intimidation, as well as a toll free phone number to report violations. In The Episcopal Church, however, the wording of Title IV leaves such conduct exempt from scrutiny in many dioceses, for it would be dismissed as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.”
  • We need diocesan officials to take these issues seriously. My own experience with the disciplinary canons suggests that if it doesn’t involve sex or children, church officials will take a pass. Indeed, I have had church officials expressly state, in writing, that illegal conduct by clergy will not be addressed unless criminal charges are brought. This is a shocking proposition, and one that would exclude even the most egregious clergy misconduct from diocesan review.
  • We need to be alert to efforts by denominational officials to water down protections. Specifically, during the last General Convention, the House of Bishops appears to have rendered illusory a number of #metoo safeguards passed by the House of Delegates.
  • We need church vestries and other decision-making bodies to implement their own standards of conduct, including addressing bullying and establishing written norms for conduct. Accountability becomes impossible without a means to benchmark and assess conduct.
  • We need to ensure that churches are safe places for those who have experienced trauma in the church. While this would seem to be a given, my experience is that churches, generally speaking, are among the least safe places for victims.

While The Episcopal Church was, at one time, a leader in its efforts to prevent misconduct within the church, its failure to move beyond sexual misconduct has caused the church to fall woefully far behind the times, even with the legislative changes at the last General Convention. To remain relevant in the 21st century, it must do far more to ensure that it truly is the inclusive church that it claims to be.

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