CPG: Failing abuse victims and the church, one settlement at a time

By | January 29, 2023
Church Pension Group is morally bankrupt

The Church Pension Group, or CPG, is a captive entity that provides insurance and financial services to the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America denominations. But that raises a troubling question: Does CPG act in the best interests of its clients when it comes to abuse? We believe the answer is a resounding no.

Understanding abuse

It is axiomatic that to address abuse effectively, we must understand the issue. That said, CPG lacks even a rudimentary understanding of abuse. We find that troubling, as CPG also has a leading role in developing the model policies for preventing sexual misconduct.

On that score, CPG is a one-trick pony. Its policies almost exclusively address sexual misconduct while largely overlooking non-sexual abuse. Yet it only takes a brief discussion with survivors of non-sexual abuse, including the inevitable retaliation meted out to whistleblowers, to understand that sexual abuse is just a single waypoint on a broad spectrum of abuse. When boundary violations occur, regardless of where they sit on the abuse spectrum, trauma invariably follows. Thus, failing to prevent these violations causes lasting harm to the church and the people who comprise it.

Moreover, by treating non-sexual abuse as a second-tier problem, CPG may actually incentivize bad actors to act out in this space. As things stand, sexual misconduct may or may not result in clergy facing discipline; we estimate the odds at 50/50. But non-sexual abuse almost always gets a pass. So, if a priest wants to “put a parishioner in his place,” he knows non-sexual abuse is the way to go. And anti-social personalities, often attracted to clergy careers, invariably look for ways to hurt those they dislike.

Ironically, it should not be hard for CPG to recognize and address non-sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is, at its heart, an exploitation of the imbalance of power, real or perceived, between a clergyperson and a congregant. Thus, any exploitation of this imbalance that benefits the clergyperson is abusive. Yet CPG remains blind to these issues, thus exposing itself to financial loss and its clients to organizational and reputational damage.

Knowing how to heal abuse

Regardless of whether CPG recognizes the form of abuse at issue, it also does a dismal job of addressing abuse claims outside the courtroom or working toward healing.

At the heart of Christianity is the notion of accountability. Thus, when the church harms someone, it must repent, make restitution and amend its ways.

But CPG does not follow this model. Instead, it almost always ignores the matter. That’s the case even when litigation is imminent.

Thus, CPG prefers to litigate versus settling the matter promptly. In doing so, it follows the old Catholic scorched earth policy and will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on legal fees versus simply owning up to misconduct. Thus, CPG leads by example and shows that he who has the money makes the rules–the very antithesis of the Gospel message. Therefore, it is not surprising that the Episcopal church, in the best of times, faces elevated levels of conflict.

This approach also adds another layer of trauma to those already hurt by the church. Litigation is profoundly stressful under the best of circumstances. It is PTSD-producing in someone already dealing with trauma.

Nor does CPG always play fair. We have learned of numerous circumstances where attorneys for CPG have tried to trot out information about victims’ sexual history or prior mental illness to discredit victims. In other cases, including three involving Anglican Watch staff, CPG attorneys have brazenly lied about matters of fact to the court. In no case have the relevant attorneys suffered consequences. And, for the record, we reiterate a simple truth: Clergy — and the church — are always responsible for maintaining boundaries. Always. No excuses. No exceptions.

Insuring illegal conduct

Then there is the issue of CPG insuring illegal conduct. On this score, there are public policy and organizational risks that must be considered.

On the public policy front, it is not unusual for carriers to deny coverage for intentional illegal acts. That makes sense since the reputational harm arising from intentionally illegal acts can be devastating. Similarly, actual and punitive damages can be staggeringly large. Yet in almost every case, CPG provides air cover to clergy who have engaged in heinous intentional acts. This tells clergy they have a bottomless well of litigation funding, no matter how badly they behave. That does nothing to incentivize good behavior.

Nor does CPG have a mechanism to object to its coverage of intentionally illegal conduct. The CPG firmaments are replete with Episcopal clergy and bishops, but we never hear of one responding to complaints about this issue. That includes folks like Bishop Thomas Brown, who chaired the CPG board, and Mary Kate Wold, the CEO. That raises the question: Given their visibility ad contacts, how would they respond if CPG stepped in to cover intentional illegal acts? Somehow, we don’t think CPG would choose to get involved.

Mediocre settlements

We have repeatedly heard from survivors who report shockingly low settlements, even for victims of childhood rape and other conduct that shocks the conscience. Often these settlements are less than $100k, which amounts to nothing once legal fees are factored in.

Consider the financial fallout facing victims of clergy abuse: What is the effect of significant PTSD over the course of a lifetime? Does it affect the victim’s earning potential? Their ability to form lasting, loving. committed relationships? How much will they spend on copayments, counseling, and medication over a lifetime?

In other words, settling for paltry amounts is a pyrrhic victory for CPG and the church. Yes, it preserves cash, but it causes devastating reputational issues that tear the church apart at the seams.

Non-disclosure agreements

Right about now, CPG officials reading this are quietly muttering under their collective breath, “Well, when we settle we insist on non-disclosure agreements,” or NDA’s. And that proves our point: CPG is woefully misguided and unethical.

For the record, in the history of western jurisprudence there has probably never yet been an NDA involving a church that stayed secret for long. There’s always someone willing to send a copy anonymously to journalists. Or the NDA shows up during later litigation-related discovery. Or it’s disclosed by implication, as in, “I’m thinking of a number just over $19,999.”

Thus, NDA’s do little to protect the church.

On the other hand, NDA’s seriously harm all parties involved. Being in right relationship requires disclosure on multiple levels, including organizational, intra-personal, and inter-personal. When this does not happen, the church does not learn of its own failings and cannot correct them.

At the same time, disclosure is vital for survivors. It offers reassurance, the chance to identify fellow victims, and the ability to share in support groups and other therapeutic environments. This phenomenon is recognized by the Roman church, which is under increasing pressure to waive existing NDA’s. And in cases where NDA’s are not waived, the result is yet another layer of trauma.

To be precise, the only situation where NDA’s are not unethical is when the victim requests them. The victim’s pain and suffering are their story to tell, and the decision to share this information is solely theirs.

We also note that, in some cases, it is essential that judicatories tell of the abuse, even if they do not name victims. For example, parishioners have the right to know if a predator is part of the congregation. This allows them to make appropriate decisions to protect themselves and those they love.

It’s also worth noting that an NDA is a metaphoric equivalent of waving a red cape in front of a bull. The instant journalists learn of one, they know there’s more to the story, and calls go out to attorneys, friends of the victim, the clerk of court, and more. And even when journalists cannot get details of the settlement, they can and will find out details of the allegations. And we can bet our bottom dollar that the underlying misconduct will see the light of day.

CPG in a nutshell

Like the Episcopal church, CPG is stuck in a madmen-era time warp, where the tactics above make sense, and the primary goal is to protect the church’s reputation. But sooner or later, these issues will catch up to the denomination. If nothing else, young people are powerful advocates for transparency, and the denomination’s backroom deals and other shenanigans are potent incentives to steer clear of the church.

Will CPG eventually change? We suspect so. But change will only happen when the denomination loses so many members that it can no longer pretend that things are business as usual.

In the meantime, we note that having a woman, Mary Kay Wold as CEO, or openly gay bishop Thomas Brown on the board, has done nothing to promote meaningful change at CPG. Yes, true to form the church publishes statistics about inclusion and diversity, but it does very little in day-to-day business to act with integrity.

Let’s hope that CPG cleans up its act and does a flash forward to the 21st century. Because as things stand, it’s still 1967 regarding CPG and abuse.

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