Does The Episcopal Church Face a Looming Sexual Scandal?

By | October 29, 2020

Over the past year or so, we’ve seen the Roman Catholic Church suffer a devastating hit due to its handling of sexual misconduct. Similarly, the Southern Baptist Convention has had its own scandal, resulting in declining trust and plummeting membership. And the Church of England has been rocked to its very core by the recent IICSA and Whitney Reports, delivering scathing and well-deserved condemnation of the church and its response to abuse victims.

That begs the question: Is the Episcopal Church (TEC) next? While empirical data is scarce, it’s a fair bet that, while the church may not be next in the rota, its day is coming.

Consider the experiences of the beloved late Ann Fontaine, an Episcopal priest and an editor of Episcopal Cafe. Early in her career, Ann served as a victim’s advocate. While by all accounts, she was highly successful, she eventually had to quit serving in that role. Why? Because she simply couldn’t handle the endless onslaught of human pain and suffering. And while Ann was one of many, including the Daughters of the King and the Episcopal Church Women, who fought mightily to add protections against abuse to church canons and policies, there is little doubt that more needs to be done.

Indeed, Ann reported that, in the course of her ministry, she encountered literally hundreds of persons who had been sexually abused. And Ann was well aware that much of The Episcopal Church is indifferent to non-sexual abuse, including emotional, psychological, spiritual, financial, and others.

Where one starts to get a sense that trouble looms for the church is in the list of proposals that didn’t make the cut at the last General Convention (GC) most of which failed in the House of Bishops:

  • A requirement that would have established accountability by requiring auditing and compliance reporting of abuse protection policies by the dioceses.
  • The watering down of whistleblower protections, including the insertion of a loophole that swallows the whole — if the matter is not found to be within the the purview of the Title IV disciplinary canons — whistleblower protection doesn’t apply. And given the liberal use by some dioceses of the “weighty and material” clause in the canons — which here in Virginia has been held to include shunning, deliberate misuse of funds, and embezzlement — almost any complaint lacks protection if the diocese doesn’t want to deal with it.
  • The removal of proposal for a central database of accords and orders in Title IV cases — a proposal that some said didn’t go far enough, for the threshold would be a successful Title IV case. This, in turn, would make it difficult to establish and see patterns of spiritual abuse, or grooming of vulnerable persons for sexual abuse.
  • The death of a proposal to establish an alternative path forward or appeals process for situations in which the bishop diocesan simply refuses to act.

There’s also another issue, which is the lack of implementing regulations. Just as state and federal statutes often are implemented through regulations, so too would the Episcopal Church benefit from precise definitions and guidelines. To be sure, efforts have been made to address these issues through a TItle IV procedural officer and TItle IV training materials. But the fact remains that interpretation remains almost exclusively within the purview of lame-brained bishops, who often face a conflict between their role in providing pastoral care to clergy and the suffering of abuse victims.

But the real flaws in the Episcopal Church that need to be addressed are the same as those identified in the IICSA report, including:

  • Ending clericalism.
  • Ending unquestioning deference to authority.
  • Establishing a culture of accountability.

The latter is key, for one of the great failures of TEC at every level is accountability.

Even the 2018 report on the Heather Cook DUI debacle noted this, further noting a lack of urgency. And the latter notion was reflected in actions here in DIoVA, which said after Palermo’s death that it would update its alcohol policy shortly, but didn’t do so for several years. Moreover, when the promised update finally did appear, the result was unimpressive, reflecting nothing more than a lightly tweaked version of the existing policy. The whole thing smacked out of “out of my inbox, into yours. Next.”

Nor was the Heather Cook report groundbreaking, for similar reports have been coming out of GC for many years, with exactly the same result.

Nor is anectodal evidence reassuring.

For example, one church employee with whom this author worked stated that the church where they worked together was the first at which she had not been abused. That in itself should be alarming to any person of good conscience. Similarly:

  • Female staff at national church headquarters report poorly handled sexual abuse complaints.
  • One friend of the author, who has now left organized faith altogether, reported sexual abuse by her priest to her bishop, only to be brushed off with the promise that he would pray for her. That bishop now is on staff at the Virginia Theological Seminary.
  • Coverup of an egregious case of sexual harassment by Bishop Shannon Johnston, without any pastoral care or consultation with the victim.

And of course, the watering down of protections at General Convention suggests that the priority is not accountability, redress, and the protection of victims, but the protection of the mini-fiefdoms occupied by most bishops.

There’s also a troubling paradigm that this author has observed, which is what I term the narcissistic use of confidentiality. Far too often, bishops cite confidentiality to shield the abuser when a case arises, despite the fact that the canons clearly provide for waiver in order to provide a pastoral response. Yet this author knows of multiple cases in which a bishop has disclosed the identity of the victim, ostensibly for a pastoral response, but with the end result that the victim is publicly humiliated. At the same time, no damning information involving the perpetrator is released. My view is that there should always be disclosure of misconduct, for with disclosure comes healing, but to the extent possible the wishes of the victim should be honored.

To make matters worse, many who have been through the Title IV process report that TEC adheres to a 1960’s, Madmen-era view of abuse—if it doesn’t involve sex, children, or money, it doesn’t count. In this regard, I believe the church needs to empower a commission to discuss, explore, report on, and issue recommendations on all forms of abuse, including sexual harassment, gender disparity, spiritual abuse. It then needs to take the resulting report seriously and act on it.

Perhaps the only thing saving TEC from an explosive sexual scandal is that, as the 15th largest denomination in the US, and one that is rapidly dwindling, there may not be enough fuel left to cause an explosion, no matter what scandals emerge. In short, TEC is so small no one cares any more what happens.

A scandal is almost certainly coming. But it may be too little, too late, in a church that for too long has been, to use George Clifford’s phrase, “emulating the Scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus reprimanded for tithing mint, dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith.”

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