It’s been roughly a year since things unraveled at St. Paul’s, Montvale, NJ, thanks to the abusive behavior of a group of dissidents led by Jeff Piatt and Beth Abrahamson.
This post examines where the situation is now and explores bishop Carlye Hughes’ dismal handling of the situation.
By way of background, a review of church financial records makes clear that Piatt and Abrahamson were using the parish to launder money and avoid paying income tax.
On multiple occasions, Piatt and Abrahamson wrote checks to the church, then flipped the amount back to family Piatt family members to repay non-existent advances.
Meanwhile, through Montvale Landscaping, owned by Piatt, he was charging the church questionably large amounts for landscaping.
But if Piatt is such a faithful church member, why wouldn’t he donate the services?
Further, Piatt’s various lies about events at the church, including his fabrication that Pastor Jill Williams forced him out, reveal his true motives.
Williams eventually decided that dealing with Piatt wasn’t worth the trouble and accepted a calling in Maryland, where she and her wife are enjoying life by the ocean.
Today, in Montvale, the church remains closed. Former members may access the grounds during daylight hours to visit the columbarium, but the place otherwise is deserted.
The vestry carefully followed church canons and voted to transition to mission status. In doing so, the vestry transferred all assets to the diocese.
Since then, the diocese has paid almost none of the bills associated with the property.
Recently, a retired priest moved into the rectory and has said she may hold contemplative services on the property.
The loyalists who remained faithful members of the church and acted with integrity have stayed close and worship together in area homes.
And Piatt and his minions have reportedly approached the diocese, offering $100,000 in funding to restart the parish. The diocese has ignored the offer.
The (non) role of Bishop Carlye Hughes
As bad as Piatt’s behavior is — and it includes criminal conduct — Bishop Carlye Hughes played a significant role in the meltdown of this lovely parish.
Initially, like far too many judicatories, Hughes was conflict-avoidant and stuck her head in the sand.
When that didn’t work, there was a fair amount of shooting the messenger by the bishop. This took the form of the whole “there are good people on both sides” routine.
As we’ve often said, there are NOT two sides to every story:
- Bullying your clergyperson is wrong.
- Stealing church financial records is wrong.
- Lying about the conflict is wrong.
The correct response by the bishop at that time was to investigate, make sure she understood the dynamics of the situation, and establish boundaries.
By not establishing boundaries, Hughes allowed the conflict to expand exponentially.
As a result, when the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center (LPMC) stepped in to try to mediate, they quickly realized that there was nothing to negotiate. The dissidents wanted total victory, not peace, and that is not the fabric on which mediation is built.
Thus, LMPC bailed.
After that, Hughes reverted to type and allowed the matter to drag on. And she did damned little to support the parish vestry or Pastor Jill Williams. Nothing like resisting injustice and oppression, eh?
Finally, after Pastor Jill left of her own volition, Hughes sent a letter telling the dissidents to knock it off.
But at that point, the dissidents’ behavior had gotten so outrageous that trying to get the horse back in the barn was never going to happen.
What we find really troubling is that Hughes has done nothing for the loyalists–those members who acted with respect, who did the right thing, who followed church canons.
Indeed, right now, this small group occupies the same role as the miscreants. That is neither fair nor Christian, and Hughes is showing no pastoral care for them at all.
That begs the question: When did the church stop treating integrity and loyalty with respect?
The bishop should address the bad behavior of the dissidents, and Anglican Watch believes the best way to do it is to help the loyalists form a mission under a new name and provide them with supply clergy. When the time is right, the group may decide to rent space in another church, continue as a house church, or perhaps merge with another parish.
We note that many parishes in the coming 20 years will begin following non-traditional models of this sort. Yes, there are some beautiful buildings in the denomination, but with few exceptions, they are wildly costly to operate, energy inefficient, and poorly suited to today’s needs. Thus, with fewer people in the pews, many churches will need to offload costly relics of the past.
As for the dissidents, we recognize that Hughes is correct when she says that TEC doesn’t throw people out. But if the group is going to remain involved with the denomination, there needs to be a forthright conversation about normative behaviors, with specifics in writing. A modern-day version of the Ten Commandments for Episcopal dissidents who use their parish for money laundering.
We also believe that Hughes has left many tasks undone in relation to St. Paul’s. These include things that are typically a part of interim periods:
- Making peace with the past.
- Healing trauma.
- Bringing closure.
- Ensuring conformity to denominational norms and canons.
- Mapping out a vision for the future.
None of this has happened, and it increasingly looks like Hughes is biding her time, waiting to sell the real estate before she retires, then planning to drop the funds in a diocesan endowment.
Nor are we open to excuses. Yes, things are busy. We get that Hughes has had knee replacement surgery. But she gets paid to do a job, and she needs to do it. It’s been a year now—time for her to pull her head out of the sand.
Doing so without caring for the people who built the parish is unconscionable and will reflect poorly on the diocese and Carlye Hughes. It also further traumatizes those already hurt by the church.
As things stand, we are appalled with the way Bishop Carlye Hughes and the Diocese of Newark have handled these issues.