Anglican Watch

St. Mark’s Philadelphia vestry sends defamatory email in Mullen matter

Sean Mullen allegedly fired from St. Mark’s Philadelphia

You can’t make this stuff up.

In response to our inquiries about the abrupt departure of Sean Mullen, the long-time rector of St. Mark’s, Philadelphia, the parish vestry sent Anglican Watch a defamatory, evasive email. The email says:

Hi Eric—

Mother Mazur forwarded me your email this morning, the allegations of which have us quite shocked. I also see you have already published an article, which is unfortunate, as both aspects of your report are completely false: there has been no incident of misconduct with children here, with Father Mullen or anyone else.

Furthermore, Father Mullen was not fired. He resigned for reasons completely unrelated to the parish.

Would you kindly edit your article to correct those points? I realize it’s not nearly as sensational a departure as you may have hoped for [sic] your article, but the departure of our beloved Rector—after over twenty years of ministry here—is difficult enough without such horrific libel being thrown into the mix.

I appreciate your attention in this matter.

Joshua Cojerean
Rector’s Warden

Libel

To be clear, our article about Mullen’s abrupt departure falls squarely within the neutral reportage privilege and thus cannot be libelous. Thus, Cojerean’s claim that Anglican Watch has engaged in “horrific libel” is made with reckless disregard for the truth and, therefore, is itself defamatory. Moreover, the other element of a claim in tort is present, which is publication to the other members of the vestry.

The St. Mark’s vestry also needs to recognize that Cojerean’s comments are entirely conclusory and have no probative value. And defamation has a specific legal definition: it is not, contrary to the approach of many clergy, anything you don’t like. So we can do without the fabrications about “horrific libel.”

Reporting unconfirmed allegations

We also have received several comments about reporting unconfirmed allegations. However, even a cursory review of media outlets of every size — both traditional and new media — routinely report unconfirmed allegations. As stated above, the only issue is whether an outlet clearly identifies them as such.

With neither St. Mark’s nor Mullen having offered a reason for Mullen’s departure, we come to the question, why would anyone find the communications from the parish credible?

We don’t.

But it didn’t involve children….

We also need to be clear: The Episcopal Church’s all-too-frequent: “He resigned, but it didn’t involve [fill in the blank],” is disingenuous and unhelpful, especially in light of the church’s dismal track record on clergy discipline.

Indeed, the phrase is a red flag and invariably indicates an issue, often disciplinary, lurking right behind the scenes. And in many cases, what really happened is that the priest met with the bishop, and the bishop said, “Either resign, or we’re going the Title IV route.” In those cases, it’s referred to in human resources departments as a forced resignation.

Nor does the Episcopal Church have any credibility on these issues. Indeed, we have documented countless situations in which the denomination has sandbagged complaints of egregious clergy misconduct. Just a few of these ethical meltdowns:

  • Ethically bankrupt Holly Hollerith, who states that he won’t address child rape “with a thousand-foot pole,” then tries to lie his way out of it.
  • Retired bishop Chilton Knudsen, who states in writing that allegations of felony criminal conduct by clergy are not actionable under the disciplinary canons — and now heads up the disciplinary committee for bishops.
  • Knudsen’s improbable testimony in the Chicago abuse case, in which she claims she “vividly” remembers calling the police about allegations of child abuse — she just can’t remember with whom she spoke. Of course, that begs the question: If she really did call the police, why did Knudsen not follow up when she didn’t hear back?
  • Alan Gates and his refusal, in writing, to address criminal conduct by clergy.
  • Todd Ousley’s fabrications, including that the presiding bishop doesn’t have the authority to tell bishops diocesan “what to do.” But that is neither what the canons say, nor consistent with the pastoral directives that ++Michael Curry has issued during his tenure as presiding bishop.
  • Shannon Johnston’s cover-up of sexual abuse and harassment of an adult woman by a priest who was then canonically resident in Virginia — resulting in zero pastoral response to the victim.

And there are many, many more cases in which the Episcopal Church has shown itself to be organizationally narcissistic and indifferent to corruption within the church.

So why would anyone believe church officials when they say, “It didn’t involve [fill in the blank]?” We’re talking about a church that doesn’t even have an issue with child rape—per none other than Holly Hollerith himself.

Or, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, “by the tenth time the church shows you who and what it is, it’s important to believe it.”

It’s not like the church hasn’t given the public ample reason to look with a jaundiced eye when the church communicates about clergy misconduct.

Spiritual health

Nor is the whole “something happened, but we won’t tell you what” routine spiritually helpful.

As the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban rightly notes, we cannot be in right relationship when we do not know the truth about each other. Further, as Christians, we are called to bring light to the darkness — not say, “Nothing to see here. Move along, move along.”

In other words, it’s called transparency, and it’s something Jesus brought. Regrettably transparency is rarely seen in the Episcopal Church.

Indeed, churches that refuse to acknowledge the truth about past misconduct typically become mired in toxic relational patterns, which may go on for decades after the original event. And they play into a perennial problem for the denomination: Too little accountability, too much cheap grace.

Practical matters

On a practical level, it’s not a great media relations strategy to trot out Cojerean’s passive-aggressive bit about sensationalism; reporters tend not to be helpful in these circumstances.

Nor are church members likely to find the facially thin statements from the vestry reassuring. Church members have a right to know about misconduct when it occurs, and those who bring these issues to light are doing the church a favor—even though the church rarely sees it that way.

Relatedly, the Biblical axiom “you shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free,” is not the same as, “you shall know what didn’t happen, and you shall deal with it.”

Far too often, the result of, “and it didn’t involve children,” is that a parish winds up, “passing the trash.” In other words, some knucklehead gets a pass on his or her behavior, gets hired at another church, and goes right back to their bad behavior. And situations like that permit folks like Bill Allport, who purportedly embezzled from a parish in Texas, to show up in Englewood, NJ, where he spent a good deal of his time bullying others, drinking in his office, and otherwise acting in a way profoundly harmful to the parish, the community, parishioners, his family, and himself.

What next?

At this point, we welcome details on what is really going on at St. Mark’s. But we’re not going to fall for the whole circle-the-wagons-and-deny-everything routine. Nor are we going to play the church’s game of “we didn’t respond to you, so you were obligated not to publish.” And we’re not in the mood for melodramatic fabrications about “horrific libel.”

In that vein, here is our response to Cojerean:

Joshua,
We need to be accurate: There is nothing libelous in the article. The law is clear: Reporting allegations, when identified as such, falls squarely within the neutral reportage privilege. We were both careful to identify these as allegations and unconfirmed. So please be accurate in your assertions and refrain from fabrications about sensationalism.
Can you tell us why Mullen resigned? Any time the diocese feels it needs to send out an announcement, and to state that the backstory does not involve children, there is an issue, and it likely is not good.
As to the mechanics of Mullen’s departure, it matters little whether he resigned, was fired, or departed through some other means. The circumstances strongly suggest misconduct.
Thank you.
EB

Relatedly, the situation suggests that the Diocese is doing the parish a grave disservice. Cojerean and the vestry have no idea how to respond and, even based on our limited vantage point, are screwing up badly. The combination of passive-aggressive fabrications and content-free communication serves only to undermine the credibility of the parish and erode membership over time.

Hopefully, both the church and the diocese quickly come to recognize the importance of disclosure, truth-telling, and providing a safe place where parishioners can work through the trauma they are facing. Indeed, there are lots of resources available to the parish and its vestry, if they can let go of the idea that they’ve got this one nailed.

As things stand, the trauma of Mullen’s departure may be exceeded only by the incompetence of the parish and the diocese in working through the current challenges at the church.

5 comments

  1. Excellent and informative commentary. Two minor suggestions:
    a) when the PB issues a mandatory instruction to another Bishop during a Title IV process, it is called a Pastoral Direction;
    b) Bishop Chilton Knudsen resigned as President of the Disciplinary Board for Bishops about a month ago; she has been replaced by the Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely.

    1. Thank you. We’re glad to hear Chilton is gone. In addition to her claim that allegations of criminal conduct don’t rise to the level of an actionable Title IV complaint, there is another incident of failure to report child sex abuse in her past. We’re not in a position to share details, but the claim is credible. Add in her antics in Chicago, and she is an ethical sinkhole.

      So Chilton has zero business being involved in any Title IV issues.

  2. Following your initial reporting, I was finally able to get a statement from St. Mark’s associate rector, Rev. Mother Mazur, which is shown below.
    On May 21, 2024, at 16:00, Meghan Mazur wrote:

    “Fr. Mullen resigned from parish ministry in February following an accord with our Bishop regarding a Title IV violation. We were not given much information about the nature of the incident, but know that it was nothing illegal, nothing having to do with minors, etc. The parish misses him greatly, but is doing well on the whole. Fr. David Cobb just began as our Interim Rector.”
    (signed) Meghan Mazur

    Whose reporting is more accurate, yours or Mother Mazur’s or information still to come? I don’t know, but Christian charity and justice leads me to believe that the information provided by Mother Mazur should be published along with your original reporting any additional information that may come to light.

    1. As we stated previously, we have been willing, and remain willing, to publish additional details. So no need for the lecture on Christian charity and justice.

      To be clear, disclosure remains key to a healthy recovery, and per Title IV, the bishop has authority to waive confidentiality when necessary to provide the pastoral response mandated by canon. We encourage all to provide a safe space for these conversations, and to pursue health and wholeness.

      An excellent resource on the importance of disclosure and an appropriate pastoral response is the Rev. Canon Robin Hameal-Urban’s book, “Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct.” We commend it to all clergy, vestry, judicatories, and others who seek health.

      Indeed, the references to “horrific slander” and other ad hominem comments make clear the parish is struggling with these issues.

      Blessings,

      AW

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