Anglican Watch

GG81 kicks off with Title IV looming large — even as hope continues for integrity in the church

The Episcopal Church is Dying

Regular readers of Anglican Watch will probably grin — and roll their eyes — to learn that we have now read the entire Blue Book, the enormous heap of paper that magically appears prior to every Episcopal General Convention (GC).

Yes, we are governance geeks.

In our reading, we note that Title IV and the spectacularly corrupt Episcopal clergy disciplinary process loom large in multiple reports, including on the state of the Church. As Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Even so, we have the sneaking suspicion that delegates still don’t understand how important the issue is.

Consider: Neither PB Michael Curry nor PHOD Julia Ayala Harris mentions Title IV in their opening remarks.

Of course, opening remarks are usually broad statements intended to set the tone and flavor for the rest of the meeting. That said, themes of fear, scarcity, and renewal do come up — so why not accountability?

Marketing 101 and misconduct

Indeed, we can make an argument that many of the problems facing the Church are due to its failure to address misconduct.

Consider for-profit organizations. In that context, college marketing majors early on learn that 66 percent of unhappy customers will never tell a vendor that they are disappointed. But on average, one disgruntled customer tells 24 others about their experiences.

In that context, it’s helpful to remember that, in 2022 alone, almost 6 percent of Episcopalians stopped attending Church on a regular basis. That’s up from 4 percent the year before.

Even worse, for several years, deaths of church members have outpaced baptisms and transfers into the denomination. And things are about the get much worse–Episcopalians comprise a markedly aged cohort compared to the population at large.

In other words, when it comes to attrition, a large portion of those Episcopalians who aren’t dying off are unhappy and, as a result, are leaving the denomination. And it’s a safe bet that, as they make for the door, they are telling another 24 persons about their experiences. (Or, they start a blog and tell millions every year.)

While hard data is unavailable, given the central role of faith to former active church members, we’re prepared to bet that the number of people who hear about negative experiences in the Church is much more than 24.

As to possible arguments that six percent isn’t a lot, we’d gleefully snap up lottery tickets with a six percent chance of winning, especially since the odds of winning this “lottery” continue to increase.

Since we’ve rolled for-profits into the conversation, that raises the question: How do well-run for-profits address unhappy customers?

On that score, the data are clear: Successful for-profits recognize that unhappy customers want someone to empathize, provide an opportunity to vent, demonstrate ownership of the issue, communicate clearly, and produce results quickly.

How does the Episcopal Church respond to disciplinary complaints? The answer exists on two levels, interpersonal and organizational, and in both cases, the answer is grim.

Interpersonal responses

Interpersonally, the Church’s initial response to allegations of misconduct is often one of imperious silence. As in, email your bishop or other person in authority, never hear back. That’s also how PB Michael Curry, Todd Ousley, and Julia Ayala Harris roll, and we say that from first-hand experience. Rather hard to resolve issues when you ignore them, and this is a guaranteed way to generate permanent dissatisfaction.

Indeed, the splendid silence routine might have worked in the 1970s, when church attendance was normative. But that’s a half-century ago, and it definitely doesn’t work now.

So why does the Church pull the passive-aggressive routine and do it so often? We wish we knew.

Some bishops, like Shannon Johnston and Susan Goff, take it a step further. In those cases, they actively say in response to a Title IV complaint, “I don’t want to get involved.

We weren’t aware that Church canons are optional. In fact, that was the whole gist of the Title IV case against the ironically named Bishop Love, and the issue at hand wasn’t even a canon–it was a resolution of the GC.

But then, given that GC won’t even fund the canonically required Title IV database, it sounds like maybe the canons only apply when the Church says so.

Imagine that.

Another approach endemic within the denomination is to dismiss the unhappy member outright. We know the routine: “He’s just angry.” “It’s a personal vendetta.” “She’s a domestic terrorist.” “She’s difficult/crazy/irrational, etc.”

Ironically, when judicatories and members take this approach, it’s often without the courtesy of doing it face-to-face with the unhappy member, which only adds insult to injury. In fact, sounds suspiciously like gossip, doesn’t it?

Needless to say, dismissing a member’s complaints as coming from someone disgruntled is illogical and disingenuous. Of course, they are disgruntled–the real question is: why? And in our experience, the answer overwhelmingly is that the complainant is fully justified. (We run into relatively few tinfoil hat types within TEC, although when we do, they typically are clergy. You know who we have in mind.)

Then, we get to Todd Ousley and the rest of the nomenklatura. While their responses to allegations of misconduct are both interpersonal and organizational, Ousley’s usual antic is to ignore what he can and run interference for the rest. If that doesn’t work, he tells you in writing to get lost.

At least he’s up-front about his feckless attitude.

Organizational responses

That leads us to problems with the formal organizational response in Title IV cases.

Where to begin?

One of the big problems is ongoing, which is that the Church does not see Title IV as a privilege and opportunity.

Specifically, it takes a lot of courage for someone to come forward in a Title IV case. The person who does so is trusting the Church with their reputation, their faith, and their emotional/spiritual well-being. And, to be clear, this trust is almost always betrayed.

How does the Church respond? Typically, by treating a complaint as an adversarial proposition.

Indeed, we’ve lost track of the number of times the Church has told someone, “We don’t want to go down the Title IV path. We’re just not ready for the nuclear option.”

But given that Title IV now focuses on reconciliation and healing, how is that the nuclear option? And if a clergyperson is so far out there that they won’t work towards reconciliation and healing, why would the Church want to keep that person in ministry?

Of course, when judicatories take this approach, the result is that they often ignore the complaint. We have seen this happen countless times (including with Todd Ousley and Clay Matthews), and when it does, the complainant loses their right of timely appeal and is invariably left furious. And, we note that the national church provides no — we mean no — pastoral response. We’ve seen it in only one case, and by that time, it was too little, too late.

The next stage on the often sordid journey of a Title IV complaint is the intake phase. Currently, cases against bishops are taking six months and frequently much longer even to clear this first hurdle.

That’s surprising, as there’s relatively little to do at intake. Interview the complainant, assess whether a canonical violation would have occurred if the facts alleged were true, and write a report. This entire process should be doable within 30 days for complicated cases and within 72 hours for simple cases. (One of our team is a former administrative law judge. In his case, normal output on complicated decisions was typically 40-50 cases a day. So why is the Title IV process so slow?)

Moreover, intake officers often violate church canons by purporting to conduct a preliminary investigation. Canons do not authorize this, and intake officers are almost invariably not equipped with investigatory training. Further, since the intake officer sits on the Title IV reference panel, an intake officer who conducts an ultra vires investigation invariably winds up defending the results of their purported investigation.

What does an ultra vires investigation look like? Typically, the answer is pretty ugly. As in calling the respondent, asking “Did you do it?,” then asking someone on staff.

Does anyone in their right mind think this produces anything of value?

The result is that we see an alarming number of cases in which allegations of criminal conduct, sexual harassment, and more are brushed off as “not of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church,” despite the fact that the behavior in question is a per se violation of church canons.

Relatedly, cases in which there is no arguable violation of Church canons are almost invariably lost opportunities for the denomination. Instead of a pastoral response (not the same as pastoral care, but the latter may be part of the response), judicatories often dismiss in these cases, sometimes with an officious “notice of dismissal.”

Doing so is remarkably stupid, as it misses the opportunity to heal conflict within the Body of Christ. Thinking back to our for-profit model of responding to dissatisfaction with empathy, compassion, and ownership, this approach cements the perception that the Church is selfish, arrogant, indifferent, and has zero emotional IQ.

We also note that, while we support the proposal to change the language around the referral option of no further action except a pastoral response, we have yet to encounter a judicatory who doesn’t understand the current requirements.

Instead, many feel that, since Todd Ousley, the Office of Pastoral Response, and the Office of the Presiding Bishop don’t feel the need to adhere to this canonical requirement, they’re not about to waste time and effort caring for people the church has hurt.

In other words, the Title IV intake process almost invariably makes a bad situation worse.

Beyond intake

Even assuming a Title IV case clears intake, truth, healing, justice, and accountability have major hills to climb before they see the light of day.

For example, it is far from unusual, even early in a case, to hear diocesan officials prejudging the case. “No hearing panel will ever defrock this guy,” they say, despite the lack of an investigation. As a result, the case may get “steered” into a black hole, without the benefit of due process.

Similarly, it’s common to hear discussions about the costs of Title IV. “Why spend money for an investigation when we already have a pretty good idea what happened?,” is a common rhetorical question. To this question, we respond, “How can you afford not to? Are you not tired of shedding members?”

Indeed, one intake officer we know asked the complainant, “You actually want the diocese to spend thousands of dollars over this?” Well, yes, that’s why he complained. Maybe you can use the tens of thousands of dollars he gave the diocese over the years to pay for the case.

Moreover, judicatories often overestimate their understanding of complaints. Many times, we have heard allegations of illegal conduct reduced to, “Well he said something you didn’t like.”

Um, no.

Nor is it uncommon for intake officers to revert to the childhood you-do-too routine. Title IV applies only to clergy, but we’ve seen multiple cases in which intake officers blame the complainant or play the sin-leveling game.

To be clear: Clergy are always and everywhere responsible for their conduct. There is no exception, no matter how many accusations a respondent hurls back at the complainant.

Same for retaliation. Even before being expressly added to the canons, any dolt would conclude that even a hint of retaliation is conduct unbecoming of clergy.

Yet many dioceses, including Virginia, Dallas, Newark, Easton, and others, actively encourage and condone retaliation. (In Dallas and Virginia, bishops diocesan participate in the retaliation.)

There’s also implicit support for retaliation.

Specifically, when dioceses do not suspend respondent clergy at the start of a Title IV case, the respondent(s) invariably use their time to draw in allies and flying monkeys, discuss the complaint, and trash the complainant. Invariably.

Same for ignoring complaints of retaliation.

As for pastoral directives, they are useless in this regard. While it is common to tell the respondent that he may not have contact with the complainant, the truly abusive, including the narcissists who form a huge percentage of the clergy, always find workarounds. These workarounds may take the form of dubious looks, comments about “well, he always was dysfunctional,” or well-planted gossip at the clergy conference. But it happens in every instance of real misconduct.

Then we come to the it-happened-before-I-got-here routine.

All but inevitable in cases of long-running misconduct, this is an easy out for judicatories who don’t want to take complaints seriously. But, just as manufacturers are responsible for the SuperFund sites they create, even decades later, so too are organizations accountable for their conduct. Indeed, that should be a normative expectation for churches — so why are we still dealing with this baseline issue two millennia into Christianity?

Another favorite of judicatories everywhere is the old saw, “I don’t have the authority to fix that.” To that, we say, “bullcrud.”

Yes, the confusing and duplicative nature of Episcopal polity makes it difficult to move forward. But if the system has the power to create the problem, it has the power to effect a full resolution. If not, the system is broken and must be fixed or replaced; neither bodes well for the denomination.

Then, there is the ugly issue of lack of transparency. As Christians,we are called to bring light into the darkness. But where does Title IV happen? Almost invariably in the darkness, with no disclosure.

That is the case with the Title IV cases against retired Bishop Howard of Florida. We know that two cases are afoot–one for his alleged treatment of LGBTQ+ persons, the other for alleged financial improprieties. Yet there is zero public information about either, which only engenders further distrust in an already toxic diocese. And while there’s plenty of information swirling behind the scenes, even this rather fiesty publication is not willing to go there.

And no matter how things turn out, one thing is certain, which is that a Title IV case will take at least a year. Given the median age of Episcopalians, it follows that injured parties may not live long enough to see the end of a Title IV case, even if the case is successful.

That begs the question: Is justice delayed justice denied? Far too often, it seems the answer is yes.

The ensuing damage

As the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons notes, the results of badly handled Title IV cases — which are normative versus exceptional — are devastating to all involved:

Further, a poorly handled Title IV matter can cause unnecessary — and often irreparable — harm to both relationships and reputations of all parties involved. The Church has a responsibility to remediate any unnecessary costs, both relational and financial.

We also need to point out that the Church never — repeat never — tries to reach out to those it has hurt to see if the Church can fix the pain it has caused. That begs the question: What does that say about the Church’s bit about “loving, liberating, life-giving?”

It is our position that even if the Church cannot repair the damage it has caused — and very often it can’t — the Church needs to make an effort. Every diocese should have an annual Day of Reconciliation in which persons who have left the Church can share their experiences, get a meaningful apology, and receive specific ways to re-engage.

Indeed, when was the last time a priest or vestry reached out and said, “We know we behaved badly. We are sorry, and we would like to know how we might make it right with you?”

Answer: Never.

Arguably, some of that occurred with the Church of St. James the Great in Newport. But the whole thing about putting a diocesan official on the premises shows that the diocese never really owned its misconduct. Instead, it tried to weasel-word its way out of things with the usual “mistakes were made on both sides” routine.

Bad news bishops

As we move into GC81, there is a long and sordid list of corrupt Episcopal bishops who are known to violate the trust placed in them via Title IV. We believe that delegates should understand who these bishops are and evaluate their conduct, including their votes at GC, mindful of their past misconduct. The list includes a number of bishops who are otherwise well-regarded and some who are known to be problematic.

Here are a handful of the worst offenders:

  • PB Michael Curry, who talks a good game but ignores complaints of bishop misconduct. That begs the question: Why have a presiding bishop if he won’t preside?
  • Todd Ousley, a genuinely evil man who even ignores child rape in his efforts to protect other bishops. All we can say is that this one needs to go. Now.
  • Shannon Johnston, retired Bishop of Virginia, narcissist extraordinaire, and unofficial record holder of the Greatest Number of Toxic Relationships. Johnston does not see a problem with ignoring Title IV on the basis that he “doesn’t want to get involved.” So much for Bishop Love and the notion that church canons are mandatory.
  • Dallas Bishop George Sumner, who has two Title IV complaints pending against him. One disappeared into the darkness around Planet Piskie; the other was a recent refiling. Both address his retaliation against Rich Daly, a former Episcopal priest who opposed sexual harassment of adult women.
  • Active Atlanta Bishop Rob Wright, who until now has ignored the snotshow involving Christ Church Kennesaw and Ben Day–a debacle of the first order and outrageous abuse of ecclesiastical authority.
  • Retiring Massachusetts Bishop Alan Gates, who absolutely trashed the Title IV case involving Church of the Advent, even as he ignores criminal conduct by clergy within his diocese. The heaps of wasted money and the rewards bestowed on former rector George Anderson for his misconduct, including an extramarital affair, are shocking and unconscionable, and reflect a profound lack of respect for members of the diocese.
  • Santosh Marray, current Bishop of Easton, who is now making a diligent effort to unseat Johnston as the most toxic bishop on Planet Piskie.
  • Chilton Knudsen, retired Bishop of Maine and, until recently, president of the Disciplinary Board of Bishops. Knudsen’s track record of dishonesty, empire-building, and corruption is nothing short of shocking.
  • Susan Goff, retired Ecclesiastical Authority for Virginia, who has never yet met a Title IV complaint she couldn’t ignore.
  • Jennifer Brooke-Davidson, former Assistant Bishop of Virginia, now serving on the Disciplinary Board for Bishops, and spectacularly mendacious for sitting on the Bishop Love case, even as she ignored Title IV in Virginia.
  • Holly Hollerith, retired bishop of Southern Virginia, who says he won’t touch child rape cases with a “thousand-foot pole,” then tried to lie his way out of the situation and has ignored calls to apologize. This man is beyond revolting.
  • Chicago Bishop Paula Clark, who continues to ignore the hot mess involving Will Bouvel and the latter’s perjury. This is profoundly unethical, and we welcome anyone to quote us.
  • Bad Witch Bishop Glenda Curry of Alabama, who even now has not alerted diocesan members to the presence of not one but two known pedophile clergy, even as she lies about an investigation into alleged child rapist the Rev. Richard Losch. And yes, it is a lie, because she has not contacted either the victim, or this publication, both of which have detailed information about Losch’s conduct.

Looking forward

Anglican Watch is far from unbiased, and we have never claimed otherwise.

Still, we think there is hope for the denomination. But that is predicated on the Church taking integrity seriously, along with all that this entails, including accountability, urgency, transparency, repentance, reparation, and inclusion.

These goals amount to a tall order. The denomination has spent decades dithering over silly issues and rearranging the deck chairs, even as it does nothing about corruption within the hierarchy.

And we note that, while we are unabashedly progressive, we are deeply troubled by the de facto exclusion of friends like David Virtue, David Duggan, and others. While we may not agree with their views, they are entitled to their views, and we defend without reservation their right to hold opinions that differ from ours.

Indeed, we’d rather deal with conservatives who decry marriage equality openly, even if the rhetoric is colorful, than deal with liberals who proclaim inclusion, diversity, and welcome, then sneak around, acting corruptly.

Let’s hope that this General Convention is finally the turning point where the Episcopal Church trades being politically correct for being morally correct.

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