The Church Pension Group and survivors — the final injury

By | November 6, 2022

There’s an often overlooked aspect to the Episcopal Church’s handling of clergy misconduct, and that is the role of its captive insurance carrier, the Church Pension Group, or CPG. As an Episcopal entity, you’d think CPG reflected the Way of Love, wouldn’t you? But far too often, you’d be wrong.

Really wrong.

So why do we say this?

In conversations with survivors of abuse, both sexual and non-sexual, we see that CPG follows a pattern straight from the traditional Catholic church playbook — deny, equivocate, counter-attack, discredit, and often outright lie. And when a complaint is filed, it’s tooth and nail every inch of the way in court. Forget notions of Christian love and accountability — it’s scorched earth all the way. Scrap that Way of Love thing.

That begs that question: Why should survivors have to go to court to get the church to act with integrity? Isn’t reconciliation all about doing what’s right, even when not forced to do so?

From a Christian perspective, the first thing that CPG should do — but rarely does in reality — is to investigate the claim. That does not mean asking the perpetrator, often a priest or bishop, “did you do it?” and calling it a day.

It means bringing in independent resources to understand the situation and, if wrongdoing has occurred, moving towards mediation or reparation immediately. In addition, CPG should have the integrity to file a disciplinary complaint in cases where it’s warranted. None of this, “We don’t get involved in that aspect of things,” bullcrud.

It’s also important for adjustors and others at CPG to understand that many of the most seemingly credible abusers are sociopaths and narcissists who are expert liars, possessing wide-ranging arsenals of manipulation, charm-bombing, feigned innocence and more. Thus, any investigation needs to be done by professionals capable of recognizing when they are being played. And it bears note that a huge percentage of clergy are narcissists, probably about 1 in 3.

Even if a civil case does go forward, there’s a fine line to be walked. Abusive legal discovery practices, smearing victims, courtroom fabrications and more should be strictly off-limits. If the attorney hired is not Episcopal, which is often the case, there should be a clear expectation that she act with utmost integrity. She is representing the church, and all involved have the right to be treated with dignity and respect.

Nor are these expectations unreasonable. The CPG firmaments are replete with Episcopal bishops, priests, and other apparatchiks, all of whom should bring to the table a notion of respecting the dignity of every human being. But complain to them about CPG’s conduct and you will get the usual Episcopal response, “The Way of Silence.”

Tellingly, in the landmark case of Moses v. the Diocese of Colorado, 863 P.2d 310 (Colo. 1993), the church fought tooth and nail to avoid accountability in a truly egregious case of sexual abuse.

Similarly, it took the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to get the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island to act with integrity in an outrageous case of sexual harassment. And now, we see the Episcopal Diocese of Colorado back in court over appalling allegations of sexual abuse.

Of course, these are but the tiniest tip of the iceberg. In conversations with survivors, Anglican Watch has learned of countless cases in which dioceses covered up, ignored, brushed aside, or attacked survivors of abuse, both sexual and non-sexual in nature. Our guesstimate? One in thousand cases ever sees the light of day. Particularly bad are the dioceses of Newark, Massachusetts, and Virginia, which in our experience are cesspools of coverup, avoidance, and other secondary misconduct.

Tellingly, the worst is church headquarters, aka 815 (named after its street address, near the UN in New York), where things remain a Madmen-era den of bullying, nepotism, power politics, sexism and more. Indeed, one would have thought that the Ellen Cooke debacle, replete with sordid tales of embezzlement, padded resumes, palace intrigue and an utter lack of internal controls, would have led to a wholesale mucking out of the stalls, but no such luck. Indeed, we regularly hear from current and former 815 staffers who basically say that being there brought about an end to their faith.

Ironically, CPG is probably the one place where the church operates with relative efficiency. Overall, the Episcopal Church is a sloppily run non-profit that fails to meet even basic standards of good governance. But CPG, with billions of dollars in its portfolio, does a reasonable job of operating in a business-like manner.

That begs the question: Given the church’s affluence and the funds floating around CPG, why doesn’t CPG do something to ensure that, 30 years from now, it has a church to insure? As in funding efforts to deploy best governance practices? Or, far more importantly, funding initiatives to promote healthy resolution of conflict? And insisting on integrity in clergy discipline?

And before we go further, we have little doubt that places like Trinity Wall Street and some of the more affluent parishes can and would help. So don’t even bother with the “where would we get the money?”, routine.

On a more specific note, Anglican Watch also rejects the non-disclosure agreements on which CPG insists when it reaches a settlement. Yes, these are part and parcel of every business settlement, but they are injurious to victims of abuse and per se unethical. This is a church, not a supermarket dealing with a slip-and-fall.

Yet in every instance, CPG tries to keep settlements secret. And that’s not without good cause — the amount of many such settlements is appallingly small and reflects the church’s desire to make the issue go away, versus caring for the individual hurt.

It’s worth noting that the notions of a loving approach to resolution of abuse claims aligns with the church’s approach to litigating abuse cases. In almost every instance, the church raises the ecclesiastical abstention doctrine, arguing that, under the First Amendment, the courts cannot get involved in internal church matters. But if the church is going to be successful in keeping courts out of abuse cases, it needs to show that it can and will address those issues internally. The church cannot have its cake and eat it too, sweeping abuse under the rug, even as it insists the courts cannot intervene.

On that score, it needs to be added that church discipline and the courts are, by definition separate matters. It is entirely inappropriate for dioceses to take a pass on disciplinary complaints on the grounds that the matter is being heard in court. Misconduct is misconduct, and should be handled independently of outcomes in court.

For example, a priest might be acquitted of rape in a criminal court due to an inability to meet the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt.” But if there is enough evidence to support civil liability — which requires a preponderance of evidence — disciplinary action is warranted against the priest. Indeed, church canons reflect this, with Title IV proclaiming that clergy are held to a higher standard.

As we have seen time and again, the reality is most Episcopal clergy are held to a lower standard, and in many cases no standard. And whatever standard it is, it’s one that is mercurial at best. Time and again, Anglican Watch learns of identical fact patterns, often in the same diocese, that yield opposite results.

Indeed, the Episcopal Church is probably the only place where an employee can engage in egregious sexual harassment, embezzlement, or other illegal activity and keep his job. Not only that, but in many cases the church rewards the priest for his misconduct, whether it is paying for counseling, assisting with transition to a non-clergy job, or otherwise benefitting the abuser, even as laity get brushed off and left to their own devices. Diocese of Virginia and Todd Ousley, here’s looking at you.

Nor is this behavior confined to toxic dioceses, like Virginia. We have seen this situation in every diocese. And in more than one case, church officials have outright lied about the situation to laity, who need to understand basics in order to heal from misconduct.

In short, mucking out the Aegean stable that is the Episcopal Church requires an effort at every level. And with time fast running out, we are not sure that the task can be accomplished before history rings the curtain down on the denomination. But CPG has the ability and obligation to be part of the solution.

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