Anglican Watch

Empty Christmas services at Grace Episcopal Alexandria underscore the problems churches face when they experience clergy abuse

Grace Episcopal Alexandria empties following clergy abuse

Disclosure: Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti is a former member of Grace Episcopal and launched this publication following criminal conduct by former rector Robert H. Malm.


Far too often, vestry members, judicatories, and others in positions of power within the Episcopal church treat clergy misconduct as an inconsequential issue peripheral to the primary mission of the church. But one need only look at Grace Episcopal, Alexandria, VA, and the sharp decline in attendance at the church to realize that, when ignored, clergy misconduct kills churches.

Even just a decade ago, Christmas and Easter services at Grace church involved standing-room-only crowds spread across five services.

Today, following criminal conduct by former Grace rector Robert Malm in 2015 and the abrupt resignation of Anne Turner, the rector who followed Malm, over unethical behavior in her personal life, Grace faces an existential crisis of plummeting revenue, loss of almost 2/3 of pledging units, and considerable decreases in attendance.

In other words, if the church can’t even turn people out for the holidays, it’s in dire trouble. And sharp increases in giving by remaining church members are masking the elephant in the room, which is that the church is imploding.


Part of the problem is that Malm stayed too long. 

After serving as rector for more than two decades, by 2000, Malm clearly was burned out. 

Not only did Malm avoid doing any of the administrative aspects of his job, but he routinely was “out of town” whenever he felt like it, even as sermons became remarkably short, and Malm avoided engaging with parishioners. And while Malm often claimed he had “neither the time nor the inclination” to address aspects of his job that he didn’t like, he had plenty of both when it came to time at the beach.

Things came to a head in 2015 when Malm repeatedly committed perjury against Anglican Watch editor Eric Bonetti, a former member of the church, in an effort to shut down online criticism of Malm’s conduct. 

Specifically, Malm falsely told law enforcement and the courts that Bonetti had made terroristic threats against Malm and the church, based on the fact that he found words like “suicide” in a blog published by Bonetti’s late mother. Church attorney Jeffery Chiow, a member of the parish, compounded the problem with various lies to the courts and vestry including claims of “domestic terrorism” and harassment by blogging.

Things reached a low point when Chiow attempted to drag Bonetti’s mother, then in the final stages of COPD, into court as part of the litigation.

Meanwhile, the Diocese of Virginia ignored the matter, including direct complaints to Bishops Susan Goff and Shannon Johnston.

At each stage of this process, the church shed significant numbers of members, even as the vestry lied to parishioners about the circumstances around the conflict.

Yet, despite his criminal conduct, no one at the church or diocese ever reported the matter to law enforcement. And the church inexplicably named the so-called New Narthex the Malm Narthex, forever tying itself to an abusive priest.

Things looked promising when Anne Turner, former assistant rector, was selected from among a small pool of applicants as Malm’s successor.

Indeed, Anglican Watch staffers recall thinking, “What a relief. At least they got someone sane as rector.”

But it wasn’t long before we received complaints about an extramarital affair by Turner. We forwarded those complaints to the diocese, and the source spoke directly with the diocese.

Days later, Turner resigned. In short, we think Turner was every bit as ethically challenged as Malm; she just concealed these issues by being more engaged.

Not surprisingly, the church experienced further sharp declines in giving and attendance. 

Indeed, at the time of this writing, the church has gone from almost 400 pledging units ten years ago to 127 pledging units, with little sign that additional pledges will come in during 2024.

Identifying the problem

Part of the challenge Grace faces is that, like most churches in trouble, members don’t see that there are any issues with the church itself.

Indeed, from the perspective of the average person in the pews, life is a great big sunny slice of stained glass paradise.

But if things are so great at Grace, why aren’t people lining up at the door?

Nor are these issues ones where parishioners or clergy can say, “Well, that happened before I got here,” and sweep matters under the rug. 

One of the great truths of toxic rectors is they engender poisonous churches. 

Thus, after 30 years of Bob Malm, the church has become remarkably like him–ostensibly friendly and welcoming while being feckless, spiritually indifferent, and ugly right behind the scenes.

And the church has fallen into what law enforcement terms a goofy loop, or situation in which things endlessly spin in the wrong direction. 

Specifically, parishioners get frustrated and misbehave towards each other, and folks wind up leaving. The departure of parishioners places additional financial and logistical challenges on the remaining members, who soon find themselves again in conflict. Lather, rinse, repeat.

So, solving problems at Grace begins with identifying the issues, likely with outside help. And it requires an intentional commitment to backing away from conflict, as well as admitting to the possibility that all is not well at the parish.

Relatedly, the diocese needs to be careful in parsing the issues. Accountability precedes possible reconciliation, so it is important to verify that criminal conduct has occurred, respond appropriately, and go from there. Just as we cannot support any resolution at Tenth Presbyterian or Proclamation without accountability, we cannot support efforts to clean up the mess at Grace without seeing those in positions of power being called to account.

It’s also worth noting that there is no requirement in cases of abuse that victims — and there are many in this case — reconcile with their abuser. That is an issue that is far down the road, and there are numerous things that have to happen before we see this possibly happening.

Looking forward

What else can members and clergy do to resolve problems at Grace?

First, the answer starts with a commitment to health. If the only goal is the status quo, that’s precisely what the church will get–more of the same.

Second, the church needs disclosure. Just pretending that there’s no elephant in the living room won’t make the elephant go away.

But disclosure also requires a safe space for disclosure to occur. Typically, this can only happen via professional, third-party intervention.

Third, with disclosure and truthtelling comes an obligation to repent and make restitution. In other words, there needs to be accountability. 

Some of these issues are going to be difficult, including the fact that the vestry has outright lied to people on multiple occasions. But without a change in direction, the church will continue to circle the drain.

Fourth, once the hard work of disclosure, truthtelling, and repentance is complete, the parish needs to be sure it does not get another narcissist as rector. 

Indeed, choosing another narcissist as rector — and heaven knows there are plenty out there — will spell the end of the parish. Grace just is not strong enough to withstand another rector whose primary purpose is to pull in adulation versus pointing people to God.

Fifth, it’s essential to set up internal controls to ensure that the parish doesn’t revert to past practices. Grace needs to ensure that the vestry operates independently, without tampering by the rector. This includes selecting leaders on the basis of spiritual maturity, versus availability. Indeed, this would preclude a number of current “leaders,” including Kemp Williams, Alison Campbell, Jeff Chiow, and others.

Similarly, the church will need diocesan support to ensure that it follows best practices, including mutual ministry reviews, periodic performance reviews of the rector, and more. It also would be wise to consider a closed-end contract, limiting a new rector’s tenure to ten years. The last thing the church needs is a rector who’s “out of town” any time he feels like visiting family, running a marathon, or just wants a week at the beach.

Will the parish succeed? We’d estimate the odds as somewhat against the church, perhaps a 60 percent chance of failure versus a 40 percent possibility of success. Old habits die hard, and this is a church that’s had problems for decades.

Meanwhile, we think the lessons of Grace Episcopal Alexandria and its meltdown apply to hundreds of churches out there with charismatic but unfaithful clergy and a toxic environment. And to those churches, we say, “You’re on borrowed time. Clean up your act, before you’re forced to close your doors.”


  1. Meh, episcopal churches better get used to nobody showing up. If these people cares in the slightest they would change something

  2. “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Upton Sinclair

    Would be very hard to give up those very comfortable jobs in the richest zip code in America. I wish I got six figures to b.s. convincing rich white boomers they are forgiven.

    Honestly the more and more I think about it, the more I think of the National church as just a crazy real estate and trust fund scam. I mean…. why not? The church itself claims its going to die in 2034, that was before covid and in my humble opinion, highly optimistic.

    How many people know that the “republican party at prayer” reorganized the church in the 1960s? The nations elite set up their church like it was taken from an episode of mad men. Complete with a corporate office off second avenue. They developed clergy into regional managers of the various properties. Meanwhile all these churches that predate this founding by hundreds of years signed their deeds, titles, and churches over to this corporation. Who controls this when the church shrinks down to 500,000 members? What abut when the last boomer goes and the church is smaller than Scientology and its 30,000 members? Its a brilliant scam: all the property, billions of dollars in trusts, $1.3 billion dollars a year coming in just from plate and pledge. What are these people leaving their money to? Probably to pensions to the generation that lost virtually every member of the next generation.

    Ive been carefully watching the Methodist split. While most people portray this as a split over gay marriage, it seems to be much more about this exact same property deal between the individual congregations. They don’t want to make to the same mistake.

    The episcopal church moved its 2027 convention to Phoenix Arizona. I couldn’t imagine a more perfect city for what could easily be its last convention. A city built on land that should have long ago been given back to the natives. A city running out of water as they pump an ancient aquifer to water golf courses. A city that has no future and died because of horrible planning, hubris and greed. I think I might go to that one. Should be fun to watch this disaster.

      1. I mean, there’s no reason this wont be a Murdoch case like in South Carolina. I had to listen to Gracie’s story three times just to absorb what happened to her. Not to mention all the added drama of how Christians treat each other if someone ever rocks the boat.

        Its not just Aaron Solomon, the classic psychopath that the church has always protected. That baseball story was hard to read. You can say whatever you like about me as an atheist, I would never steal a baseball from a grieving widow at a funeral. It might be the lowest, most petty thing Ive ever read.

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