Proposed changes to Episcopal clergy discipline are fundamentally flawed, miss the point

Title IV is broken

In the run-up to the upcoming triennial general convention, the Title IV committee of the Episcopal Church recommended a series of changes to Title IV to reduce single points of failure in the disciplinary process. The move, while well-intentioned, misses the mark by overlooking several vital reasons the clergy disciplinary process fails.

The committee’s recommendations, reported by Episcopal News Service and other media, came after the current President of the House of Deputies (PHOD), Julia Ayala Harris, complained of a dismal — but all too predictable — outcome when she filed a complaint of sexual harassment against retired bishop of Oklahoma the Rt. Rev. Edward J. Konieczny.

It also comes as no surprise that the proposed changes, most of which the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons has recommended for approval, track closely with Ayala Harris’ complaints.

Before we go further, an essential bit of context: While Ayala Harris may rightly feel aggrieved by the outcome of her Title IV case, she is part of the more significant Title IV problem.

How so?

In a nutshell, the problem is that, like many PHODs, Ayala Harris likes to sit in splendid isolation despite the fact the church pays her (well) for her time. That stands in contrast with previous PHODs, who were overworked volunteers.

Specifically, when faced with Title IV complaints where she might be of assistance, Ayala Harris ignores the complaint. This passive-aggressive behavior, endemic in the denomination, is the very “deafening silence” criticized in the Title IV committee’s report. And while Title IV does not require Ayala Harris to act on such complaints, as an ethical matter and a role model, she needs to do so.

This issue, which is that church officials/bishops feel free to ignore Title IV, is the exception that kills the rule. It also makes every other Title IV provision nothing but a cruel joke to people who come forward to complain.

In other words, without the requirement that bishops follow Title IV, it’s nothing but an oversized bit of canonical church babble.

Indeed, the topic at hand is the discipline of bishops. Still, both Clay Matthews and Todd Ousley, in their roles as intake officers for complaints against bishops, have shrugged off complaints that ordinaries have ignored the “requirements” of Title IV. Specific bishops known to ignore Title IV include:

  • Presiding Bishop Michael Curry
  • Bishop Shannon Johnston
  • Bishop Susan Goff
  • Bishop George Sumner (who actively supports the sexual harassment of women by Episcopal clergy)
  • Bishop Chilton Knudsen, head of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops. (While we’re on the topic, Knudsen can’t even be bothered to report child sexual abuse. Not only is her testimony in the Chicago case unpersuasive, but we know of other cases in which she has ignored the requirement that she report these issues. So much for caring for “the least of these.”
  • Bishop James Mathes

And, of course, we have the retired bishop of Southern VA, Herman “Holly” Hollerith, who, in a misdirected email, stated he wouldn’t touch issues involving child rape with a “thousand-foot pole.”

Moreover, when Anglican Watch called Hollerith out, he first tried to lie his way out of things, saying he had no idea what we were talking about. He then quietly resigned as intake officer for Title IV complaints against Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, even as he ignored our request to take responsibility for his actions and apologize.

Guess that whole thing about Lenten repentance doesn’t actually mean much for Hollerith. Or Christianity. In other words, Holly’s nothing more than a nasty D-list politician who wears a clergy costume to work.

Of course, with Curry, Ousley, Hollerith, Mathes, Sumner, Knudsen, Hollerith, and others all ignoring the requirements of Title IV, it’s unlikely anyone else will take them seriously.

Even worse, Todd Ousley developed a particularly sneaky way to sandbag Title IV cases against bishops. Instead of actually addressing the complaint, which is that the bishop dismissed the complaint out of hand, thus denying procedural due process, he posits the complaint as “being unhappy with the outcome of the case.”

But brushing off a Title IV complaint is not a legitimate Title IV outcome, so Ousley knowingly undercuts the actual complaint. And he has done so even in the case of allegations of child rape.

Adding yet another layer of insult to injury, neither Ousley, Mathews, nor Chilton Knudsen comply with the procedural notice or pastoral response requirements of Title IV. If they don’t do, why would we expect other bishops to honor these provisions? In fact, they routinely have not even told complainants that their complaints have been dismissed at intake, thus precluding the possibility of a timely appeal.

Relatedly, a recurring problem at intake remains unaddressed in the Title IV committee’s recommendations, which is that a biased or corrupt intake officer may sandbag a complaint, especially if the bishop already has said that he does not want to get involved.

When this happens, two of the three reference panel votes are already there to block an appeal, and there is no alternative path forward via the national church.

The issue of a pastoral response is also problematic for the Title IV committee.

To its credit, the committee correctly notes that a pastoral response is a vital aspect of any Title IV complaint, including ones dismissed at intake. (More on the issue of dismissal in a moment.) But at one point, the committee conflates pastoral care with pastoral response. That’s a problem, as a pastoral response likely incorporates pastoral care but goes far beyond.

Indeed, a Title IV-competent diocese should have social workers, financial resources, safe homes, and various other resources available to respond to complaints–even those that don’t come within the purview of Title IV.

We are particularly mindful that many dioceses are spectacularly ill-prepared to address abuse within clergy families.

Indeed, the cases we have worked on reveal shocking incompetence on these issues, manifested by a lack of insight and urgency and an utter lack of preparation.

This abject failure is particularly troubling, as one in three American women and one in four American men will experience domestic or sexual violence at some point in their lives. Yet 74 percent of Protestant clergy underestimate the prevalence of domestic violence in their churches. Relatedly, 19 percent of clergy surveyed would not address the issue, even with adequate training and resources.

Thus, it falls to the woefully unqualified episcopacy and other judicatories to lead by example on these issues — an opportunity the church consistently squanders.

Relatedly, we note that many judicatories still take an approach to Title IV that derives from the old, punitive model of clergy discipline. Among the issues we see are:

  • A reluctance to “deploy the nuclear option” in the form of Title IV when the whole goal is to promote healing and reconciliation.
  • A binary approach to Title IV, in which intake officers dismiss complaints on the basis that clergy are presumed innocent (true, but not for purposes of intake) or other specious arguments. Instead, judicatories and church members alike should see Title IV as an essential component of the church’s ministry and a chance to heal fractured relationships before they result in irreparable harm to all parties involved.
  • Unqualified/unethical intake officers who routinely act outside their canonical Title IV roles, including claiming to investigate complaints (they do not have that authority) and purporting to adjudicate issues.
  • Ordinaries unwilling to oust corrupt intake officers.

Beyond these issues, we note that the recommendation of the Title IV committee that a Restorative Covenant be included in Title IV as a potential outcome of mediation is doubtless well-intended.

That said, the current provisions around an accord already address the enforceability of mediated results. While we recognize the likely genesis of this proposal from Ayala Harris’ experiences, requiring a reference panel to agree to a Restorative Covenant may be problematic.

Indeed, a victim of clergy abuse in any form may rightly be presumed to be an impaired person under Title IV. Moreover, the parties to an accord occupy inherently different positions of power. Thus, signoff by the ordinary and other reference panel members is likely a worthy safeguard for all involved.

Finally, we note that the clarification that a pastoral response requires, um, a pastoral response is rather like the recent efforts in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia to make clear that parish pledges to the Diocese should be based on net operating income (NOI).

As in, if a church spends the money on a regular basis to keep the doors open, it’s NOI. That is the case whether it’s off-budget, funded from a trust or separate donations, belongs to ECW, or comes from restricted donations. It’s still NOI.

Everyone and their twin sister knows that. The problem is most parishes are tight on money, so being afraid to call a spade a spade, so-called leaders pretend NOI is based solely on pledges.

As a result, the new Virginia covenantal giving program, which had its genesis in scumbag Sven vanBaars, tries to make everyone understand the definition of NOI.

But the reality is that it is almost impossible to make an unwilling parish pay its fair share of the diocesan budget. There are a million and one workarounds, and folks will always find a way.

Similarly, we’ve had that conversation with bishops diocesan many times, where they pretend they don’t know that a pastoral response is one of the highest priorities in a Title IV case. Instead, they come back with, “Well, the intake officer can always talk with the complainant.” But that is NOT a pastoral response, and they know that.

So, it’s a bit naive to think that specifying that a pastoral response is required will result in changes. The reality is that most bishops can’t be bothered, and the few who take these matters seriously pretend that a pastoral response is pastoral care. It’s not, and they know it, but they can’t be bothered to devote the time and money to following the canons.

In closing, we applaud the Title IV committee’s efforts to improve the dismal mess that is Title IV. But the recommendations coming out of the committee are too beholden to the experiences of Julia Ayala Harris, while overlooking the fatal flaws that make Title IV a paper tiger in far too many cases.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Exit mobile version