Title IV: The risks of disclosure

By | August 2, 2021
The Episcopal Church: Not Safe For Whistleblowers

Title IV is the canonical framework for clergy discipline in the Episcopal Church. And while it’s constantly being tweaked and re-tweaked, there is a fundamental problem with Title IV.

Simply put, the problem is that it does not fully appreciate the importance of disclosure and truth-telling, and leaves victims of clergy abuse open to retaliation. That is the case, even with the adoption of provisions that ostensibly protect whistleblowers.

From Heresy to Here: A Brief History

Originally, the only canonical offense for which clergy could be disciplined was heresy.

Today, that strikes many as amusing, because it’s difficult to be a heretic in a church that famously tolerates just about any religious belief, and in which there have been remarkably few trials for heresy.

The limited scope of Title IV was made clear following the ordination of the so-called Philadelphia 11, a group of women who were ordained in 1974 in violation of existing church policy, which limited ordination to men. In the months following, various efforts to try those involved for heresy swirled about, ultimately going nowhere.

Similarly, efforts to defrock the late Episcopal Bishop Walter Righter, who was tried for heresy in 1996, were unsuccessful following the firestorm that ensued when he knowingly ordained a non-celibate homosexual to the diaconate.

But even as women and sexual minorities were making progress towards fuller inclusion in the life of the church, it was becoming increasingly clear that limiting church discipline to heresy wasn’t adequate to make the church a safe place for all.

Indeed, even as dioceses increasingly began to ordain women, many found it difficult to find a full seat at the table. Reports of harassment, bias, and uneven access to key callings in the church were rampant, and a glass ceiling much more resilient than that of the private sector was and is experienced at almost every level of the church.

Nor did things stop there. Underneath the ugly treatment of women and minorities ran an even uglier undercurrent, with more and more reports surfacing of sexual abuse, including among children.

As a result, Daughters of the King, female clergy, and even the church’s captive insurance carrier, the Church Pension Group, began clamoring for change. Greater oversight was needed, they argued, to prevent the church from being swamped by a tidal wave of abuse cases.

Over time, Title IV gradually expanded to cover a range of conduct, from dishonesty to sexual misconduct to failure to obey one’s bishop.

The effort was somewhat successful, heading off what the late Ann Fontaine, a priest, editor at Episcopal Cafe and former victim’s advocate in the church, believed would be thousands of cases of litigation over sexual abuse. As a result, the Episcopal Church has largely avoided the sea of scandal engulfing the Catholic Church.

Or has it?

Gaps In Coverage, Gaps in Understanding

Some believe that the lack of a full-on scandal has more to do with the tiny size of the denomination, and less with the effectiveness of Title IV.

Once numbering 3.4 million, the church now comprises less than 1.8 million members, with anecdotal evidence suggesting further precipitous decline during the pandemic. Thus, the church rarely makes news these days, no matter what the issue. And the reality is that, in a society rife with racism and sexism, an individual case of abuse in an Episcopal church is unlikely to garner much outside attention. That contrasts sharply with the Catholic Church, where its size and wealth all but guarantee coverage, even over minor allegations.

The same is true for the Southern Baptists. Currently the largest Protestant denomination in the US, scandals in that denomination have rocked American society, garnering worldwide media coverage.

Nor are things any better within the Episcopal church, where information flow is rarely adequate, and clergy and parishioners alike only know of Title IV complaints via the annual clergy retreat or the “grapevine.” As a result, the information people receive is often speculative, or heavily influenced by a popular but abusive rector and his or her sycophants and “flying monkeys.”

Moreover, the denomination lacks centralized tracking of Title IV outcomes, with cases that are dismissed or handled via pastoral directives and other low-level interventions receiving next to no attention, and only cases involving bishops ever getting any meaningful attention — the Jon Bruno case being one such situation.

As a result, the early warning signs of a problem with a clergy person are often shielded from public view, with offenders getting multiple second chances, even as evidence piles up of a serious problem. This is a huge loophole, and one that allows a great deal of clergy misconduct to fly under the radar. This in turn allows abusers to build a circle of sycophants and enablers around themselves, shielding themselves from any meaningful outside scrutiny.

The situation is exacerbated by the church’s obsession with sex. Have an affair as a priest, and you are out on your ear. Commit a criminal offense, and bishops can and will take a pass whenever possible.

Moreover, while Title IV purportedly addresses dishonesty and a variety of offenses, including the catch-all “conduct unbecoming,” the reality is that spiritual abuse — bullying, mobbing, emotional abuse — are almost invariably passed over by church officials.

“It will be another 20 years before the church addresses bullying,” says one prominent canon to the ordinary. (That overlooks the fact that, given its current trajectory, there will be no Episcopal Church as we know it in 20 years.)

Nor is there any recourse for complainants who are faced with a bishop who simply can’t be bothered. This happens surprisingly often, with bishops at even the largest dioceses declining to get involved, even when allegations of criminal conduct arise. Some judicatories take this approach because they are conflict avoidant — a trait shared by many clergy.

Others get bad legal advice and are told to ignore church canons and not get involved in order to protect the organization from liability. Thus, like the Catholic Church, these bishops throw those entrusted to their care under the bus in order to protect their reputation.

Compounding the situation still further is the limited understanding of abuse by church officials. For example, one bishop, now serving on the staff of Virginia Theological Seminary, dealt with allegations of clergy sexual abuse involving an adult parishioner by merely saying, “I’m praying for you,” while ignoring the underlying dynamics of power in this situation. Simply put, there is no such thing as consent when a parishioner or staff member is involved, and clergy are always responsible for maintaining boundaries, no exceptions, no excuses.

Moreover, many bishops ignore the loosely defined “pastoral response” requirement of Title IV, which requires a pastoral response any time a complaint is made to an intake officer. This is not the same as pastoral counseling, but instead should be a holistic approach intended to promote health and wholeness for all involved. Bishops known to take this approach include Susan Goff, Shannon Johnston, Alan Gates, and others.

On top of everything else, Episcopal bishops form one of the most exclusive clubs out there. And while being a bishop no longer obviates the need for restaurant reservations on a Friday night, it still provides a basis on which to compare notes.

As a result, if one bishop diocesan decides not to get involved, it’s a safe bet that others will take a similar approach.

Penchant for Privacy

In all of this, there is a common thread, and that is the flow of information. Both within the church and outside the church, knowledge is power. It allows churches to make informed decisions, to process their shared experiences, and to build authentic, healthy relationship. When it is not shared, knowledge allows abusers to continue behind the scenes, to act with impunity, and to hurt an ever-wider circle of victims.

Ironically, it is in this area that Title IV fails more often than not.

Bishops, like all clergy, tend to be politicians. They are often adverse to conflict, and wary of doing anything to rock a boat that’s already taking on water.

This plays into the hands of diocesan chancellors and lawyers, who often prefer to protect the institution, even if doing so comes at the expense of those the church purports to serve.

Exacerbating this situation is the tendency of church officials to treat disclosure as binary proposition, where church officials either share all or nothing. Neither is appropriate or helpful.

Parishioners and church staff do not, of course, need or want to know every detail.

For example, details of a sexually abusive relationship involving the parish rector are likely to be traumatic, not just for direct victims, but for parishioners and others indirectly hurt by the misconduct as well.

At the same time, saying nothing can be catastrophic as well.

The latter situation is illustrated by a church in Northern Virginia. There, a Title IV case had been simmering behind the scenes for many months. Those close to it were well aware, including that the diocese was helping the rector in question train for a new career following what would be his eventual resignation from holy orders. Even worse, church officials lied to parishioners, telling them not to read anything into the rector’s sudden interest in a whole new career choice.

Things came to a head one Sunday when the Canon to the Ordinary, then Pat Wingo, showed up at services one Sunday, saying “Your rector has been suspended. I’ll be officiating and there will be a meeting after the service.”

Needless to say, this was a bombshell, and many parishioners were totally unprepared to deal with it. Even worse, the diocese refused to provide specifics, leaving parishioners to wonder what on earth was going on, even as church officials refused to provide a meaningful pastoral response, despite the clear language of the canons.

It comes as no surprise that further uproar ensued in the coming months, including one Sunday when a married parishioner burst into tears, admitted that she was having an sexual relationship with the rector, and ran out of the church, never to be seen again.

The trauma of these events is deep and lasting, and relationships of trust between the parish and the diocese are all but nonexistent. Even those otherwise friendly to the diocese now feel some resentment towards the diocese for its clueless and flat-footed behavior. This was made even worse when the new canon to the ordinary, Mary Thorpe, told the parish search committee, struggling to find a rector, “You’re damaged goods.” Needless to say, many agreed with that statement, but believed that much of the damage was caused by the diocese and its mishandling of the Title IV case.

Today, that church has a new rector, one who by all accounts is loving and highly skilled. Yet the trauma continues unabated, with the parish continuing down a path of precipitous decline. Nor does the diocese recognize the harm it has caused, with the second canon to the ordinary now serving another church in the area that has experienced trauma. One can only hope that Mary is kinder to her new church.

In another case familiar to the author, the bishop hammered out an agreement with a sexually abusive priest behind the scenes, with zero discussion with the victim. You can imagine the victim’s surprise when this individual, whom she thought was in the past, showed up unannounced one Sunday at her church.

Not surprisingly, the victim feels violated in every way, and her complaints to the bishop diocesan have been met with “sorry, but it’s all confidential,” despite the fact that the canons clearly provide that the bishop may waive confidentiality when it is in the best interest of those involved to do so.

In short, the tendency of judicatories to want to play their cards close to the vest by avoiding disclosure is causing enormous damage to the Episcopal Church. And church officials appear to have zero awareness of the harm they are causing.

Non-Disclosure Agreements 

On a related note, judicatories who are confronted with abuse will often pursue a corporate solution to the situation in the form of a settlement, accompanied by a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA.

As discussed elsewhere on this blog, NDA’s have a role to play. They are useful in protecting sensitive data, as when a parish administrator is asked to keep confidential details of giving to the parish. Similarly, members of a parish audit committee might appropriately be asked to sign an NDA before receiving access to parish financial records.

It’s also entirely appropriate for a victim of abuse to get an non-disclosure agreement. This may help them avoid reliving painful experiences and provide a path forward to health and wholeness.

But it is always wrong and a form of further abuse for a church to ask abuse victims to sign an NDA. Healing from abuse requires the ability to talk about it, and doing so is both liberating and a means to holding abusers accountable.

For the record, Anglican Watch never supports an NDA, unless requested by an abuse victim. In such cases, the victim should retain the right to terminate the NDA at any time, for any reason, or for no reason at all.

Clueless at Every Level

For the record, things are every bit as bad at the national church, where even with a Title IV website, officials at every level remain clueless. Indeed, this author has spoken directly with Todd Ousley, the bishop responsible for training other bishops about Title IV.

In that conversation, Ousley stated that bishops don’t have the authority to tell canonically resident clergy what to do. That was, to put it mildly, a shocking proposition, as Title IV expressly states that the bishop diocesan may issue a pastoral directive at any time, for any reason, even absent a Title IV complaint. Thus, while one can only guess how Ousely came to that conclusion, it is at variance with the express language of church canons.

Needless to say, if the bishop in charge of training other bishops about Title IV doesn’t know what it says, there’s scant hope for other judicatories.

The damage that results to the church and its people from such clueless behavior is sad, for it’s both unnecessary and self-inflicted. And some in the church recognize this, with the Standing Committee on Constitution and Canons (SCCC) saying in a recent report that a badly handled Title IV case often causes more harm to the church and victims of misconduct than the does the actual misconduct. Moreover, as the SCCC notes, the reputational harm that results is often irreparable.

Looking Ahead

At the last general convention (GC), there were some glimmers of hope, with GC voting in new protections for whistleblowers, and extending the statute of limitations for complaints involving sexual misconduct. But a careful reading of actions in the House of Bishops reveals that many measures were quietly defanged at that level.

For example, the whistleblower provisions, which originally extended to volunteers, have been reworded to cover “opposition to any practice made illegal under the canons.”

At first blush, this would seem like a good thing.

But the trap is in the mechanics of Title IV. An intake officer, often tight with the bishop diocesan, can refuse to hear a case, even if it involves allegations of illegal conduct. That has happened in at least three cases with which the author is familiar. And so, if she decrees the matter to be outside the scope of Title IV, your complaint is by definition not covered by the whistleblower provisions.

In other words, a decision to come forward is not protected if there is a dismissal. And it is a safe bet that the clergy respondent can and will, either directly or indirectly, retaliate with impunity.

In short, while Presiding Bishop Curry can talk all he wants about loving, liberating, and life-giving, but the reality is that victims of abuse who come forward in the Episcopal church are unlikely to experience any of these three adjectives when they bump up against the reality of Title IV.

Have you faced abuse in the church? If so, we’d love to hear from you.


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