Sexual Harassment Allegations Emerge About the Rev. Stephen McWhorter

By | January 10, 2022
The Rev. Stephen McWhorter
Note from editor: On January 9, 2022, we contacted both the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama and St. Luke’s, the church with which McWhorter currently is associated, asking for comment. So far, we have received no response.
Let us hope that all involved, including the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia (DioVA), act with integrity and transparency in this matter, including caring for those hurt by McWhorter’s alleged actions. And for the record, an apology without more is not acceptable. Nor is it Christian.
For that matter, the usual DioVA response of, “Protect the church. Don’t get too involved,” doesn’t cut it. The church provided the credentialing and recognition that McWhorter allegedly exploited. It thus falls to the church to ensure that the underlying power dynamic is respected.

Anglican Watch recently learned from multiple sources of allegations of sexual harassment involving the Rev. Stephen McWhorter. McWhorter is a priest canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama.

The allegations involve women, who have shared with Anglican Watch allegations of egregious sexual misconduct, including multiple instances of inappropriate conduct directed towards these women.

Background

Ordained in the diocese of West Virginia in 1967, McWhorter is known to have served for many years as the rector of St. David’s Episcopal, in Ashburn Virginia.

While there, he bloviated about the church’s gurgling baptistry, located in the center of the church’s nave, and designed for full immersion. “The baptistery . . . is at the center of our life,” he said. “There is psychological and spiritual depth to going into the water and being buried with Christ to share in his resurrection,” McWhorter said. He said that watching the rite in a large baptistery can also be inspirational to the congregation. “It didn’t make sense to have a large church with a baptistery the size of a birdbath,” he told the Washington Post in a 2005 story.

In 2008, McWhorter, then canonically resident in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia, accepted a call as the interim of St. Thomas’ Church, Birmingham. By 2010, McWhorter was serving as interim of Christ Church, Frederica on St. Simons Island, Georgia.

And just in case we weren’t impressed by McWhorter’s baptismal theology, he has taught ethics at the UAB Medical School, as well as offering seminars on teaching medical students to think ethically.

Pretty rich, huh?

Allegations

The allegations received here at Anglican Watch are detailed, specific, and ugly. They suggest an individual devoid of empathy, unconcerned about the welfare of others, and who has engaged in an ongoing pattern of misconduct. In other words, they implicate narcissism, sociopathy and a serial predator. That said, no one here at Anglican Watch is a mental health expert, and thus we are unable to do more than share our take on this matter.

Out of respect for the individuals hurt by this conduct, we are not going to publish names, dates, or details. But we believe the allegations to be credible. We believe the women who have come forward to share their stories.

Even more troubling is the fact that Episcopal bishop Shannon Johnston, who was the bishop involved when these allegations first emerged, is fully aware of these allegations. But Anglican Watch has seen no evidence that Johnston has provided the pastoral response to victims that is required when, as here, a Title IV clergy disciplinary complaint has been made. Indeed, he has reportedly refused to discuss the matter with victims on the basis that the matter is confidential — despite the fact that Title IV expressly provides that the bishop may waive confidentiality in order to provide a pastoral response. Indeed, it very much appears that Johnson has attempted to cover up the matter.

The trauma McWhorter has caused is not inconsequential. Anglican Watch has learned of profound psychological and emotional distress on the part of those McWhorter has hurt.

And keep in mind that the distress resulting from misconduct doesn’t just effect direct victims. It extends to family members, friends, onlookers, bystanders, and even often members of the abuser’s own family.

So why are the dioceses in question not taking the matter seriously?

Lack of Accountability

So why is someone like this still serving as a priest? That is a fair question, and it is the position of Anglican Watch that there is no reason why McWhorter should still be a priest.

Repeat: McWhorter should no longer be a priest. Nor should he be in any position of trust.

His conduct is not a one-off mistake, nor a spur-of-the-moment incident of misconduct. Instead, it is a pattern involving the inherent disparity of power between a priest and lay women in the church, and McWhorter’s exploitation of that power imbalance. It is the conduct of a ruthless, ugly and despicable human being, utterly indifferent to the welfare of others.

In that regard, handling the matter in secrecy serves only to perpetuate harm. As Christians, we are called to bring light to the darkness. We are not called to hide the darkness in the darkness.

And while Anglican Watch has learned that there may be a pastoral directive prohibiting McWhorter from again supervising parish staff, that still leaves McWhorter free to abuse his position in other settings.

Consider: Youth groups. Non-Episcopal settings (like medical schools). Summer camps. Cruise ships. Youth counseling. Marital counseling. The possibilities are endless and deeply troubling.

Given this lack of accountability, would you want your spouse, your partner, your son, your daughter, your friend, or your neighbor having a pastoral relationship with McWhorter? It is doubtful that any rational actor would.

And what about someone vulnerable, like a victim of prior abuse? Someone with developmental disabilities? Someone with mental illness? Or someone facing great trauma, like the loss of an immediate family member?

Moreover, in what other profession can you engage in a pattern of sexual harassment and keep your job? Any response other than removing McWhorter from ministry is too little, too late. And it puts the lie to the Episcopal Church’s claim to take #metoo and #churchtoo seriously.

We also want to add an important reminder in this and similar situations: Clergy are always responsible for maintaining boundaries. Full stop.

Far too often, victims question themselves, with things like, “Maybe I was too friendly,” or “I should have said no earlier.” Those are common and understandable reactions, but they are mistaken. Clergy occupy the position of perceived power, and are always responsible for maintaining boundaries. There are no exceptions.

We are also concerned about McWhorter’s changes in canonical residency. While there may be good reasons for these changes, many retired priests simply retain their original canonical residency as a matter of convenience. Thus, the suspicion here at Anglican Watch is that either McWhorter is trying to put his past behind him, or this is a bad case of pass the trash. Or answer C — all of the above.

At the highest level, the McWhorter situation illustrates several great challenges facing the Episcopal Church. These include:

  • Lack of transparency.
  • Lack of accountability.
  • Excessive authority vested in bishops, who often lack adequate training and may face conflicts of interest due to their pastoral role.
  • The disempowerment of victims of abuse. In this situation, we have seen zero concern for the women allegedly hurt by McWhorter’s predatory behavior. At the same time, we have seen far too much concern for McWhorter’s reputation and that of the church. Indeed, once there is a substantiated claim of sexual harassment, there is — or should be — no expectation of privacy on the part of the perpetrator.

Ironically, folks like Shannon Johnston don’t understand that, by handling situations like this behind closed doors, they actually cause long-term harm to the reputation of the church.

Consider: If you were one of the medical students who was taught what passes for ethics in McWhorter’s world, what is your reaction when you learn that McWhorter is allegedly sexually harassing women?

Not only will you question what you were taught, but you will ultimately question the ethical reference point of the Episcopal Church. That is particularly the case when you compare the church’s conduct with that of corporate America, where such conduct is grounds for immediate termination.

Nor is McWhorter’s story all that exceptional. Far too many rectors—usually older males—wrap themselves in the mantle of clericalism, where they say and do whatever they want, and hurt whomever they want, with no supervision, no accountability, and no repercussions.

Shifting gears, a word to the inevitable attorneys: These are allegations, and nothing here has been adjudicated in a court of law. But the allegations come from credible sources, and we believe them.

We further call on the Diocese of Alabama, where McWhorter is canonically resident, to immediately remove McWhorter from any and all exercise of ministry. Not in a month. Not in a week. Now.

Church records indicate that McWhorter is a resident of Sylacauga Alabama and is associated with St. Luke’s Episcopal, in Birmingham.

Worshippers beware.

Women beware.

World beware.

Anglican Watch welcomes comments from others who may have been harassed, abused, or mistreated by McWhorter, or by other clergy. Your identity will be kept confidential. You are also welcome to contact Anglican Watch directly. 

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Been There

Very typical. From the church, expect the silent treatment. McWhorter will probably hire some lawyer to threaten and bluster. The hierarchy will close ranks, say everything is confidential, and try to cover things up. Those hurt will be ignored, blamed, dismissed, told they are mentally ill, and more.

The Episcopal church is so broken I don’t even know where to start.

Editor

Regrettably, I agree with you on all scores.

That said, sunlight is a great disinfectant.

colin

good. its time for this institution to die