Anglican Watch

False perceptions kill clergy discipline in Episcopal Church

Title IV

A favorite topic of ours is clergy discipline in the Episcopal Church, particularly in the context of Title IV, the clergy disciplinary canons.

In that regard, we consistently see four misperceptions among judicatories that undermine Title IV and, in turn, clergy discipline.

Let’s explore those misperceptions.

Title IV is the nuclear option

Far too many bishops, intake officers, vestry members and others view Title IV as the nuclear option. As in, “I don’t want to go there. It’s such a drastic step. (And he’s been a good priest over the years.)

But with the 2009 revisions to Title IV, the focus is — or should be — on “promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and reconciliation among all involved or affected.”

Is that a bad thing? Doesn’t sound like it to us.

And we’d note that, 14 years later, judicatories need to get with the program.

That also means that intake officers, bishops and judicatories need to treat complainants as invoking a Christian obligation, which is to act as peacemakers.

That means that a dismissal at intake should be the rarest of events. No silliness about how the clergy person was acting in good faith, was trying to do the right thing, or other nonsense.

That includes the you-do-too routine, which is straight out of second grade. In that scenario, the intake officer essentially says, “well, the complainant acted badly.” That’s irrelevant, even if accurate. Clergy always are responsible for maintaining boundaries, and always responsible for their own behavior. Moreover, Title IV states:

This Title applies to Members of the Clergy, who have by their vows at ordination accepted additional responsibilities and accountabilities for doctrine, discipline, worship and obedience.

So claims — often fabricated — about complainants being bad actors are irrelevant.

As for the assertion, which we’ve heard many times, “He’s been a good priest over the years, so I don’t want to go there,” that’s nothing more than empty clericalism.

Truly bad actors — and there are many in the denomination — often are narcissists who charm-bomb those they abuse. They are all smiles, hugs and sunshine (let’s not forget Chardonnay and Scotch) on the surface. But underneath the fine words and glittering exterior, they are sneaky, duplicitous, manipulative, and in it for just one thing — themselves.

We also note that many abusive clergy become more brazen over time. So what may have been minor boundary violations ten years earlier readily morphs into affairs with parishioners and other major issues.

So, a clean disciplinary record has little probative value. On the other hand, a long history of complaints can and should be a warning sign.

(One priest in particular comes to mind. Her file is easily 3-4 inches thick, jammed with pastoral directives, adverse correspondence, parishioner complaints and more. Why her diocese allows her to linger on, tormenting staff, running off parishioners, and damaging the larger church escapes us. Not to mention that, since Title IV complaints may be made by any person, in any form, all those complaints should have been treated as Title IV matters. Complainants need not expressly reference Title IV to make a valid complaint.)

The prior examples also illustrate why judicatories need to get with the program. Missional integrity requires church members at every level who are willing, if they see something, to say something.

But no one’s going to say something if they get the big brushoff, told to take a hike, or the respondent is allowed to retaliate.

And for the record, retaliation is, in our experience, the norm, rather than the exception, despite Title IV’s prohibition. Typically, this retaliation comes in the form of a narcissistic smear campaign, replete with all the usual nonsense: claims of mental illness, threatening behavior, domestic terrorism, etc.

Indeed, these claims are so common they’re not even creative. So, dear narcissistic clergy, please at least be a little inventive. We’d be grateful.

It’s not my place to say something

This misperception is endemic. We see it at every level in the church, from bishops, to standing committees, to delegates to General Convention. We even saw it coming from the Florida standing committee, when it challenged the Court of Review’s findings that there has been discrimination in the diocese.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this topic: All Episcopal clergy have an obligation to report conduct that may be a violation of Title IV.

Here’s what the canons say:

[Clergy are required to] report to the Intake Officer all matters which may constitute an Offense as defined in Canon IV.2 meeting the standards of Canon IV.3.3, except for matters disclosed to the Member of Clergy as confessor within the Rite of Reconciliation of a Penitent. Canon IV.1

Note too that there’s no exception for one’s own conduct. In other words, in canon law there’s no Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Unfortunately, this is rarely enforced.

But we’re prepared to say that, over time, this provision will come back to bite more than one feckless judicatory.

Specifically, we are tracking several cases of sexual harassment, child molestation, abuse, and rape where the bishop in question — and other clergy — are fully aware of the allegations. In those situations, sooner or later things will hit the fan. And when they do, they question will be asked, “Why didn’t you act sooner?” (Paula Clark, Michael Curry, Glenda Curry, Alan Gates, Carlye Hughes, Susan Goff, Shannon Johnston, Chilton Knudsen, here’s looking at you.)

And, of course, clergy with issues, whether those include substance abuse, domestic violence, anger management issues, or other impairment all have an obligation to self-report.

Everything is confidential

No, no, no and no.

Neither is everything confidential, nor should everything be confidential.

Under Canons IV.8.3-4, the following provisions apply:

Sec. 3. In every case, and notwithstanding any other provision of this Title to the contrary, the Bishop Diocesan may disclose such information concerning any Offense or allegations thereof or concerning any Accord or Order as the Bishop Diocesan deems pastorally appropriate.

Sec. 4. The Bishop Diocesan shall give consideration to the respective privacy interests and pastoral needs of all affected persons.

These provisions raise three sub-issues:

  1. Both primary and secondary victims require disclosure in order to be in right relationship, both with one another and God. Thus, secrecy prevents health, wholeness, reconciliation and healing.
  2. Secrecy often prevents disclosure of additional misconduct. We have seen this countless times, both in our own work and in the work of other denominations. We go public with allegations, and others come forward. Sometimes, it may be an email years later from one other person. Other times, there’s a tsunami of additional complaints. But it is rare not to learn of additional misconduct.
  3. Victims are not required to maintain confidentiality. We repeat: Title IV only applies to clergy. Moreover, victims often find healing via telling their stories. Thus, it is both unauthorized and unethical to “direct” complainants to maintain confidentiality (think Mary Thorpe and Sven vanBaars). Important caveat: complainants should be cautioned that, if they choose to disclose, they likely will face ostracism and other retaliation from parishioners and clergy.

As bishop, I should only suspend the respondent if she’s gonna punch someone out

Uh, no.

Under Canon IV.7.4, here is the standard:

If at any time the Bishop Diocesan determines that a Member of the Clergy may have committed any Offense, or that the good order, welfare or safety of the Church or any person or Community may be threatened by that member of the Clergy, the Bishop Diocesan may, without prior notice or hearing, (a) place restrictions upon the exercise of the ministry of such Member of the Clergy or (b) place such Member of the Clergy on Administrative Leave.

Our experience is most clergy whose behavior warrants a Title IV proceeding spend much of their time lying about the complainant, gaslighting their churches and friends, and otherwise causing damage.

Many times, these machinations cause lasting harm to the faith community for which the respondent works. And the damage radiates in all directions, since respondents usually pull fellow clergy, friends, relatives, and others into the fray.

Even when this conduct doesn’t derail the Title IV process — and it often does, given the inherent imbalances of power — it typically causes lasting harm to the faith community, as well as the respondent’s family and friends and onlookers.

In other words, failure to suspend respondents invariably leads to trauma, often worse than that caused by the original offense.

Compounding matters is that judicatories rarely recognize this behavior or the lasting trauma it causes. Thus, it is neither prevented nor addressed; of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Thus, in cases in which the alleged behavior is deliberate, and not based on a lack of understanding, Anglican Watch recommends that judicatories consider suspension — paid or unpaid — as a default preliminary response when a complaint is filed.

Our hope is that, as the Episcopal Church increasingly realizes that it is imploding, it will take these issues seriously.

Only when will the denomination have the street cred to turn around its flagging fortunes.

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