Anglican Watch

Time to ask Barb Kempf some tough questions, and other steps for improving clergy discipline in the Episcopal Church

No clergy bullies

Today’s post is about Title IV, the Episcopal clergy disciplinary canons. Specifically, what reasonable steps can we take to improve Title IV?

For starters, let’s look at how Title IV functions today. Our take—far from unbiased—is that the best-managed cases rise to mediocrity. Those cases are few and far between, as most don’t even rise to that level. Or anywhere close. 

The worst cases are ones in which the complaint is mishandled. These cases include situations in which:

  • The diocese just doesn’t get it.
  • The intake officer doesn’t understand their role or refuses to follow it.
  • The bishop in question “doesn’t want to get involved.” (Here’s looking at you, Shannon Johnston.)
  • A diocesan chancellor has warned bishops not to get “too involved,” even as they ignore the fact that Title IV is not optional.

In cases where a complaint is mishandled, the relational and reputational damage to all involved can be devastating. Says the Standing Committee on Constitutions and Canons:

a poorly handled Title IV matter can cause unnecessary — and often irreparable — harm to both relationships and reputations of all parties involved. The Church has a responsibility to remediate any unnecessary costs, both relational and financial.

So, recognizing the profound harm that occurs when a case is mishandled, here are Anglican Watch’s easy-to-implement suggestions for improving Title IV:

  • Before we go further, let’s call a spade a spade. Specifically, it’s time to ask questions about what Barb Kempf, the new intake officer for bishops, is doing with her time. Two weeks into things, we have yet to see even the simple step of emailing complainants, letting them know she has their complaint, offering a pastoral response, and highlighting timelines and next steps. These are fundamental elements of treating people with dignity and respect, and it shouldn’t take more than a day or two to send these emails. So what is she doing with her time? If she’s going to be Todd Ousley 2.0, and sit in splendid silence, hiring her was a waste of time and money, and she needs to go. Simple as that.
  • The largest dioceses are consistently the worst at implementing Title IV. Historically, Massachusetts and Virginia are chronic offenders; signs suggest Virginia may be improving. Given their size, additional training should be a priority for both dioceses. (Virginia ignored a 2017 recommendation from an EDOW official to obtain additional training.)
  • Many judicatories need additional context for Title IV. Title IV is not a painful necessity or something to be avoided. Instead, a complaint reflects the trust that someone places in the Church to handle their concerns with dignity and respect. And that invitation involves issues that go right to the heart of human existence, including the soul. Thus, a Title IV complaint is a tremendous honor and should be treated as such.
  • Relatedly, the Church remains plagued by a flawed theology of forgiveness. While an apology may be necessary, repentance requires restitution and amendment of life. Far too many cases wind up “resolved” with a fauxpology and nothing more, reflecting a heretical notion of cheap grace.
  • Just as statutes typically require implementing regulations, the Church also needs a Title IV equivalent to the Manual of Business Affairs. Such a manual would expand the current training materials and define topics like “conduct unbecoming” or “spiritual abuse.” And don’t think for a second that bishops or intake officers know what these are. They don’t, and we express no opinion on whether that is by accident or their choice.
  • Dismissals should be appealable to the provincial court. Right now, intake officers are often part of a bishop’s inner circle. Even if a disciplinary committee president overrules a dismissal, chances are overwhelmingly good that the case will not go anywhere.
  • Bishops diocesan should be encouraged to remove intake officers with a track record of corruption. For instance, in one high-profile case in Virginia, intake officer Sven vanBaars claimed he “could not determine” if the respondent had engaged in illegal activity. But the intake officer has no fact-finding role. Thus retaining vanBaars and those of similar ilk only further erodes trust in the Title IV process.
  • It is helpful to send the intake report to the complainant for review. We often see intake reports with serious errors that cause problems later in the case. Complainants can be valuable in spotting errors, filling information gaps, and helping produce an effective intake report.
  • Additional templated forms may be helpful. Far too many intake officers send out officious “Notices of Dismissal” that inevitably cause problems. Similarly, any correspondence that includes phrases such as “the reference panel determined that the respondent [fill in the blank]” is a problem. The reference panel makes no findings of fact, nor does it evaluate the credibility of witnesses. Nor does an investigation occur at intake. 
  • The national Church should expressly state that spiritual abuse is abuse. Even the Church of England now has written provisions to address these issues, yet the Episcopal Church still brushes these issues off as interpersonal conflict.
  • Dioceses should be encouraged to share resources. This allows for more flexibility, makes it easier to avoid conflicts of interest, and decreases the likelihood of the bishop diocesan as a single point of failure.
  • Additional guidance is needed for chancellors. Specifically, they should have no role in Title IV cases, unless it involves answering specific legal questions. They should not be involved in specific cases, advise bishops to ignore Title IV, or otherwise subvert the Title IV process.
  • The Church Pension Group (CPG) needs to understand it may have a Title IV role. For example, if someone sues a diocese over child abuse, CPG should make sure someone has invoked Title IV. If not, CPG should be the complainant.
  • It needs to be clear that bishops who refuse to follow Title IV warrant a complaint to the national office and that such complaints will be taken seriously. In the past, Todd Ousley has knowingly portrayed such issues as cases of someone “being unhappy with the result of your Title IV case.” But refusing to follow Title IV by definition is not a Title IV outcome.
  • Many bishops abuse the “weighty and of material importance to the ministry of the church” provision. It needs to be expressly clear that allegations of criminal conduct, adultery, retaliation, domestic violence, etc., are, by definition, “of weighty and material importance to the ministry of the church.” To be clear: there is never a situation in which allegations of criminal conduct are not material.
  • Clarification is needed around the role of Title IV and civil litigation. The two are entirely separate, and the Church has an obligation to act on a Title IV complaint, even if the underlying matter is the subject of litigation. Indeed, if the Church handles the situation appropriately, it may render moot the need for civil litigation — a desirable outcome for all parties.
  • The Church needs to protect its right to adjudicate matters of clergy discipline. Thus, bishops must not refer people to litigation in place of Title IV. Otherwise, litigants will argue that the Church has waived its rights. (Yes, that would be Alan Gates.)
  • Far too many dioceses treat the entire Title IV process as a secret. The complainant sends everything to the canon to the ordinary, who corresponds back. In these cases, the complainant is left wondering if the case actually went to a reference panel, if there really was an intake report, etc. In more than one such case, we suspect the answer to these questions is no.
  • More specific guidance around a pastoral response would be helpful. Specifically, it’s not the same as pastoral care, and a sensitive, considered pastoral response may eliminate the need for full-on Title IV proceedings.
  • All bishops should be required to provide the requisite Title IV notices, including notice of dismissal and right of appeal.
  • There is a need for an alternative path forward in cases where a bishop diocesan refuses to address an issue, dismisses on a pretextual basis, sandbags a case, or is herself part of the problem. Having someone neutral as an intake officer protects all involved in those situations. Ideally, this would be an independent law firm.
  • The Church needs to move beyond the current de facto definition of abuse, which covers sex and children. Abuse occupies a continuum, ranging from verbal and relational abuse; to sexual abuse; financial abuse; coercive control; and more. Training materials should discuss the abuse continuum with specificity and note that someone who engages in one type of abuse is far more likely to abuse in other ways.
  • Relatedly, the Church does itself a profound disservice when it dismisses non-sexual abuse out of hand, as it often does. These situations empower abusers, lead them to conclude they can act with impunity, and undercut the notion that if you see something, you should say something.
  • Two significant failings exist in Title IV. First is impairment, where we have seen zero progress since the Heather Cook debacle. Second is domestic violence, which the Church utterly does not get. In both cases, judicatories must understand that these are urgent, life-or-death matters. Additionally, in domestic violence cases, the respondent should be immediately suspended. That prevents clergy from using their influence in the parish to improperly influence judicial outcomes. It’s also worth noting that dioceses that lack a pastoral response team and other, ready-to-deploy resources, typically struggle to respond effectively to domestic violence when alleged in a Title IV case.
  • Judicatories must recognize that police officers who engage in domestic violence or abuse are immediately removed from the force. There is no reason that clergy should not be held to the same standard.
  • Relatedly, child abuse, sexual or otherwise, or domestic violence should be grounds for immediate suspension of the respondent. If the allegations are found to be credible, the respondent should never again be permitted contact with vulnerable persons.
  • Dioceses should consider continuing Title IV cases involving domestic violence, even if the complainant withdraws the complaint. Given the dynamics of abuse, it is not uncommon for complainants to be bullied into retracting their complaints.
  • There is a profound need for a discussion about mental illness, both in the context of Title IV and in general. Many abusive clergy attempt to use allegations of mental illness to discredit complainants. Too often, diocesan officials either buy into such claims or ignore them. But there is no correlation between mental illness and a propensity for violence. In addition, trading on these tired tropes is conduct unbecoming and profoundly damaging to the Church’s reputation. 
  • There is a need for guidelines to address toxic laity. While laity may not be subject to Title IV, issues of bullying, sexual harassment, embezzlement, and similar issues need to be dealt with consistently. As things stand, judicatories often ignore these issues because they don’t know what authority they have. Or they handle them randomly, which may differ from the last such case. These factors lead to accurate perceptions that these issues are poorly addressed.
  • Bishops need guidelines for when mediation is appropriate. All involved recognize that mediation often is a cost-effective, less excruciating outcome. But it is inappropriate in cases where criminal conduct is alleged, or the respondent may have a major personality disorder.
  • Judicatories need a better understanding of primary and secondary victims. Far too often, they address only the issue immediately in front of them, ignoring the harm to parishes, bystanders, and others.
  • Intake officers should be certified by the national Church. Far too many still believe that they are authorized to conduct an investigation, to make findings of fact, to judge the credibility of witnesses, and more. Intake officers who engage in this conduct should not be recertified.
  • Dioceses that have not adopted the model standards or are not self-auditing must be held accountable. We are aware of no fully compliant dioceses. Meanwhile, only a handful are trying to achieve that goal.
  • Periodic mental health and impairment screenings should be mandated for all licensed clergy and required in all cases involving transfer to a new position. Far too often, a clergy transition results from unresolved conflict, marital difficulties, impairment, or wrongdoing. Thus, these are inflection points at which it’s worth taking a second look.
  • The national Church should implement consistent standards for the screening of postulants. Some dioceses conduct an in-depth battery of tests. Others do inconsequential cursory reviews that lure people into a false sense of security.
  • The national Church should make a more significant effort to communicate the importance of disclosure. Far too many judicatories treat Title IV as absolutely confidential, which is unhelpful. Or try to “direct” complainants to keep their complaints confidential, which is abusive. Yes, complainants should be aware that they will inevitably face retaliation if they disclose. But for many, disclosure is part of healing.
  • Non-disclosure agreements are appropriate only if the complainant requests them and only if they are revocable at will. The Church should never exploit the inherent power differential by seeking silence. Nor should resolution of a complaint ever be predicated on secrecy or nondisclosure. Christians are called to bring light to the darkness, not sign contracts enforcing darkness.
  • Parishes must vet any criminal or civil filings against parishioners with the bishop and diocesan chancellor. More than one parish has experienced irreparable harm after the rector, in league with incompetent, narcissistic attorneys on the vestry, decided to file a civil case against a parishioner.
  • All Title IV complaints should be tracked by the national Church. When complaints are not tracked, someone with dozens of complaints about spiritual abuse or other issues may appear to have a clean record, when the opposite is true—they have a record that suggests other, more serious issues are likely present.
  • Many dioceses may benefit from reviewing old Title IV complaints, particularly those that have been dismissed. This is particularly the case when the bishop is simply rubber-stamping dismissals, versus asking tough questions. We know of far too many cases that have been dismissed based on the reputation of the complainant or other pretextual reasons.
  • Cultural change is needed within the Church. Right now, far too many clergy and standing committee members treat coming forward as “absolutely out of line,” in the words of one such person. Bringing light to the darkness is never “out of line.” Those who expose the Church’s shortcomings are among its best friends–even though the Church often treats whistleblowers as its worst enemies. Or tries to discredit them via claims of mental illness, criminal activity, and more.

Of course, change is neither fast nor easy. But integrity must be at the heart of everything the Church does. 

Without integrity, the Church is nothing but a poorly run social club.

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