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There’ve been additional developments in the Tommie Lee Watkins Title IV disciplinary case in Alabama. These include a flurry of pre-trial motions and procedural matters, culminating in a hearing. Anglican Watch remains deeply concerned about selective enforcement of Title IV in this case, given Watkins’ status as the only openly gay black priest in the diocese. In that context, the diocese continues to ignore allegations of repeated sexual misconduct involving Stephen McWhorter, a retired white priest associated with St. Lukes’s, Birmingham.
Thus far, much of the pre-trial posturing by defense counsel in the Watkins case has been trying to re-frame the matter as involving racial injustice and prejudice based on sexual orientation. However, almost all of the evidence is broad-based material without direct reference to the case and thus meaningless.
Similarly, the list of witnesses is mainly irrelevant. Yes, they might be good people, and they may be able to testify that the defendant holds doors for old ladies and doesn’t burb at the dinner table. But none appear able to address the specific allegations of sexual grooming and misconduct.
We also note that defense counsel Michael Rehill appears to have done everything possible to delay trial and drive up expenses. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the books and one in which many — us included — question the integrity of the tactic.
But what is most telling is that, just a few days before trial, Michael Rehill, Watkins’ attorney, and his Title IV advisor, both withdrew. While we can only speculate about the reasons, this is a common outcome and an ethical obligation when an attorney knows her client is about to offer knowingly false testimony and cannot dissuade her client from doing so. And while it’s possible Watkins was running low on funds to pay his attorney, that would not explain the simultaneous withdrawal of his Title IV advisor.
Add in the fact we have dealt with Rehill before and followed many of his cases, and we are not particularly impressed with his ethics. So, whatever was going on must have been profoundly ugly.
Where are things now? We’ve reached out to Watkins for comment and hope he will share his perspective. We also await a decision from the hearing panel.
Based on the pleadings and pre-trial antics of defense counsel, our take is that Watkins is guilty. Indeed, we see no other possible outcome. And if he is found guilty, the church must defrock him.
But that still leaves the question of why the church is going after Watkins while ignoring McWhorter, who is white. And the allegations we have heard about McWhorter are every bit as ugly as those involving Watkins.
For the record, Anglican Watch’s view is that if a priest engages in sexual misconduct, they should be defrocked. We might envision a small, one-time exception, like someone having too much to drink and kissing an ex without permission. The outcome would be an abject apology, counseling about alcohol use and boundaries, and a stern warning that further issues will result in removal from the priesthood. And that is about the extent to which there should be any wiggle room on these issues.
But when it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, boundary issues with children, or anything of this nature, the church needs a zero-tolerance approach. That’s how for-profit companies handle these issues, and it is appropriate.
And we suspect that much of the sexual misconduct in the Episcopal Church would come to a screeching halt if people knew that misconduct was an immediate, one-way ticket out the door.
In the meantime, let’s hope that the Diocese of Alabama gets its act together. As things stand, the Watkins case looks like the one that was too big to ignore, while similar but less visible issues get swept under the rug.
We say again: McWhorter should not function as a priest. At all. Not even to preach on Sunday.