Anglican Watch

Must read: On confidentiality and rules of the road


Recently we had an issue in which a source believed we breached confidentiality. With that in mind, a review of what’s possible in this space, and what isn’t, may be timely and helpful.

First, we must recognize that abuse happens along a continuum, ranging from micro-aggressions, to verbal activities, to sexual assault and murder. Abusers rarely operate in just one part of this spectrum, although they also rarely cover the full spectrum.

What does that mean in practice? Simply put, the person who bullies someone in church likely engages in other bad behavior as well. So, as a source, you may tell us about how your priest tried to shout you down in a vestry meeting, but the story that emerges may be that he’s been tossed out of three previous churches due to similar behaviors. Thus, it may be that we told your story, but that it was part of a much larger issue.

Second, people are consistent over time. One of my faults, when I run into conflict, is to assume it’s just me, and therefore I must have done something wrong. But time after time, we see that bullies are bullies. Yes, they may turn on the charm when they need to, but if they are bullying you, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are others as well. Nor is it confined to bullying.

Third, because abuse is rarely a one-off situation, we often get multiple reports about the same situation. Sometimes, we get dozens of reports. If the reports are consistent and credible, we may run the story right away. Or we may wait until we hear more.

Sometimes, we sit on stories for years.

If we get an additional report, that may be the impetus to “pull the trigger,” but it doesn’t mean we covered the most recent report, or that we “outed” you. In fact, we deliberately silo information, so the decision to run a story may be independent of the facts of a recent report. Thus, our editor may greenlight a story based on a recent report, but the content of the recent report may be unknown to the writer and not included in the story that actually runs. In fact, we may never run it, simply because it’s been preempted.

Fourth, the abuse we see is almost always the smallest tip of the iceberg. Toxic environments attract toxic people, and vice versa. So, for example, we may get a complaint about boundary issues in a church, only to discover missing money, sexual misconduct, and spiritual abuse. Thus, it’s important not to jump to conclusions in any particular direction.

Fifth, we don’t kill stories based on one person’s objection. Or several persons’ objection. That includes the gnashing of teeth we sometimes get from church HQ, not always affectionately known as 815. Or diocesan staff. Or the Pointy Hats Club.

So, if 15 people complain they are being bullied by their bishop, and one of the 15 says she doesn’t want any publicity, we will respect her decision and not name her, but we’re still going to report the larger situation. And there’s always someone who objects. Episcopalians are highly conflictive, but they hate when that same conflict sees the light of day. That’s ironic, since as Christians we are called to bring light to the darkness. Moreover, bullies rely on silence and intimidation in order to continue their misconduct.

Sixth, if the matter is already public record, we are going to report. We constantly rummage around, and we have lots of sources. So if something is included in other media, or vestry minutes, chances are we will run it if it doesn’t involve naming minors or outing someone.

Seventh, and this is a biggie, we cannot and do not guarantee absolute confidentiality, ever. Yes, we will go above and beyond to protect a source, and we will vigorously protect confidentiality to the utmost of our ability. In fact, we go to extraordinary steps to protect confidentiality, far beyond those used by most major dailies.  That includes using secure methods of communication, limiting data collection on our servers, and brief data retention periods. In short, by the time someone subpoenas us, the data they are after is long gone.

But there are limits, including:

  • Threatening us.
  • Threatening others.
  • Harm to children.
  • Harm to self.
  • Ongoing criminal activity.
  • Ongoing harm to the greater community.

Note that we can and do refer some investigations to Title IV officials (yeah, good luck there), law enforcement, and child protective services. But so far, we have consistently protected the sources involved and it has never been an issue.

Eighth, don’t even bother to demand that we identify our sources. If it is appropriate, we will do so in the original story. If not, that’s not going to change.

Ninth, if a certain story points in one direction, we won’t slant it due to the objections of one or more persons. So, if the big story (hypothetical here) is that a priest raped nine boys, we are not going to focus on his theft of $20 from his discretionary fund because that makes someone more comfortable. We’ll likely add that in, but it is secondary reporting, not primary,

Tenth, if you are a bully, abuser, thief or fraud and we publish about you, don’t waste your time threatening us. Every week, we get threats about defamation, harassment, and all the usual BS.  But defamation isn’t something you dislike. And harassment is not publishing about your conduct or demanding you clean up your act. And — shout out to the Rev. Bob Malm — using a word like “terrorism” is not a threat.

Eleventh, the most abusive personalities are often the most charming. So if you read a story and feel the temptation to post a comment about how the priest in question is the sweetest man you know, think carefully. Narcissists and sociopaths both have an outward act of charm, and a real, inner core that is “vile, vicious and vindictive,” in the words of the late Dani Moss. (Just like me, she wrote under a pseudonym, primarily to protect her children from retaliation.)

Note that there are some stories we decline to cover, even though the situation clearly involves abuse. In those cases, we don’t give a reason. The source may have credibility issues, give off weird karma, or we may have reasons we can’t share. Or we may just be overwhelmed. Or there may be no reason at all.

We also have some advice for those of you in the “silence is golden,” aka passive-aggressive camp. Ignoring our inquiries never helps your case. In civil matters, silence can be construed as consent. If you don’t respond to our efforts to hear both sides of the story, we assume the side we heard is right. Oddly enough, that almost always proves to be the correct assumption. And while we’re at it, read about disclosure as an essential part of healing.

Meanwhile, we’ll be furiously digging away behind the scenes, trying to learn more about what else is behind your passive-aggressive conduct.

In a nutshell, being a non-profit discernment publication brings with it pluses and minuses. We are not beholden to advertisers or others and thus are entirely independent. The downside is that, every day, we make painful decisions about what to cover, how to cover it, and when to cover a story.

In closing, we strive to act with the highest ethical standards, while recognizing that we publish with a bias, which is to bring light to the darkness and stand with victims of abuse. We also can and do make mistakes, which we try to promptly rectify.

Lastly, to anyone already hurt by the church whom we have hurt in any way, we apologize and ask for your forgiveness.

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