Title IV: On the importance of communication

By | February 5, 2023
Title IV communication is vital

We live in a society in which communication is almost instantaneous. And with social media, much communication is inaccurate, incomplete, or untruthful. Yet when it comes to the Title IV clergy disciplinary process, many dioceses remain firmly entrenched in a Madmen-era time warp of “no comment,” or ignoring the media altogether. Handling things in this way is a significant mistake that causes lasting harm to the church and its reputation.

To look at things differently, nature and people abhor a vacuum. And so, people try to figure out the answers when information is lacking. Reporters will start calling friends, reliable sources, and those they know to be reliable. On a parish level, the gossip wheels begin to turn. 

And while ethical reporters will do their best to track down accurate information, parishioners don’t have the same skill sets or resources. So what may have been a minor disciplinary issue suddenly is discussed in terms of theft of money, sexual misconduct, or other over-the-top claims. 

The source? Invariably it’s framed as, “Someone told me.”

So, wise diocesan leaders will communicate early and often. This information sharing may involve a balancing act between attorneys who want to avoid all risks and those who understand the importance of disclosure on the inter-personal, intra-personal, congregational, and diocesan levels. But by communicating with those affected, anxiety is lessened.

And ironically, while many fear that communication will throw a monkey wrench into the Title IV process, it usually has the opposite effect. Openness and transparency engender not only trust but accountability.

Sharing relevant details of the Title IV process also allows judicatories to define the issues. When a diocese either doesn’t communicate or comes late to the game, it becomes challenging to get ahead of the rumor mill. It also is tough to engender trust, for people wonder why they’ve been left in the dark for so long.

In that regard, reporters can be powerful allies. Many won’t understand Title IV, so discussing the process helps them see it as a discernment process, versus one that is punitive.

Conversely, diocesan officials who refuse to respond to media have already damaged their reputation with reporters and thus will get little traction if they later try to correct reporting errors. And when the diocese wants coverage on other issues, reporters who’ve been ignored likely will return the favor.

It’s also vital that diocesan officials understand that they cannot tell a complainant to treat a matter as confidential. 

By definition, their experience is theirs to share, and it is inherently abusive to insist otherwise. That said, complainants should be cautioned that while they are free to disclose their experiences, they may face hostility from fellow parishioners for doing so.

But with one limited exception, Title IV only covers clergy, and nothing gives church officials the right to impinge on the victim’s freedom of speech. And, as we have noted previously, nondisclosure agreements that apply to complainants are inherently abusive.

It’s also essential to communicate with complainants. Every day, we hear from people in the church who are traumatized when they file a complaint, then hear nothing for months, sometimes years. Nor should they be forced to follow up with the diocese; those who disclose potential misconduct are doing the church a favor, not the other way around.

Finding the right person to serve as the point person for Title IV communications also is essential. Those chosen must be sensitive to privacy issues and the possibility of defamation while committed to transparency and truthfulness. This is not an easy combination to find; ideally, that person has crisis communications and risk communication training.

There also are several interpersonal factors to consider when planning for Title IV communication.

For instance, if a priest or bishop is placed on leave, some in the parish may not be ready to hear the news. Thus, it is vital to announce ahead of time that there will be an important announcement, that there is no pressure to attend the meeting at which the announcement is made, and that the topic may be troubling. 

Consider: What about parishioners who have recently suffered a loss? Or are struggling with PTSD? Just showing up at Sunday worship and announcing that a rector has been suspended, as one spectacularly flat-footed canon to the ordinary did in Virginia, is a recipe for added trauma.

It may also be appropriate to share some ways Title IV differs from a civil or criminal case, particularly if the matter reaches a hearing panel. For instance, the burden of proof is not beyond a reasonable doubt. Similarly, hearsay is not automatically excluded, and there is no right against self-incrimination.

That raises another point: Those who communicate about Title IV should be intimately familiar with its provisions. A surprising number of bishops and canons to the ordinary wing it and get things wrong. One common error is that complaints must be in writing. Yet the canons specifically say complaints may be in any form, in any manner. That includes being made anonymously. 

So, even if you think you know the Title IV canons inside and out, pick it up, read it end to end, and then do it again before you comment. Nothing is worse than a diocese that says something stupid in this context, yet it happens regularly. 

Another important thing is to be proactive in following up. There’s nothing wrong with reaching out to a parish or others hurt in a Title IV case months, even years after the fact, and asking, “How are you doing?”

We could offer a ton of additional information, but space is limited. So there are two excellent resources worth reading:

  1. Wholeness After Betrayal: Restoring Trust in the Wake of Misconduct,” by the Rev. Canon Robin Hammeal-Urban. This is an excellent book, and Robin is one of the few Episcopal priests we have encountered who gets it. Our only complaint is that she does not advocate for greater attention to bullying and other spiritual abuse.
  2. TitleIV.org, the church’s website on the topic. The content is well-done, although links in the site are often out or broken, and it’s not unusual to get database errors. But that is the Episcopal church for you.

In short, several recent changes to Title IV clarified that greater awareness, including by the church media, is helpful for all involved. Now we need the church to get over its collective desire to hide these issues or handle them behind closed doors and instead bring light to the darkness.

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It should be common sense, but I am going to add a key point. Don’t lie. More than one bishop has lied about a Title IV case, or allowed the respondent to lie to his congregation about the matter. One pastoral directive in all cases should be that all sermons and newsletters get cleared by the diocese before they are released.

For those bishops and CTTOs who read this and are tempted to lie or declare everything confidential, be reminded: Sooner or later, things always come to light. And those you claim to serve will be very hurt. They will never again trust you.