Turmoil at St. Paul’s school underscores dysfunction in TEC

By | November 3, 2020

In a move that received relatively little news coverage (including none on Episcopal Cafe), implementation of the sexual abuse settlement agreement at St. Paul’s, the exclusive Episcopal school in New Hampshire, has collapsed. The move, and the actions that allegedly led to the resignation of Jeffery Maher, the independent overseer responsible for helping the school heal, serve as microcosms of conflict in the Episcopal Church (TEC) and the dysfunctional ways the church responds, including engaging in coverup and illegal activity.

Here is the letter:

Chief among Maher’s reasons were that the school had become uncooperative, while creating an “intolerable work environment.”

Other issues cited by Maher include:

  • Not wanting to investigate issues that could have criminal or civil liability.
  • Demands that the school be notified every time a school employee is interviewed.
  • Publicly questioning existing rules, regulations, and requirements of the settlement agreement.
  • Restricting access to information.

Perhaps most damningly, Maher cites other issues that he cannot share in his resignation letter—almost certainly indicating information relating to possible further civil or criminal charges, as such information must be kept confidential prior to its referral to investigators/prosecutors.

As troubling as these accusations are, survivors of abuse, sexual and otherwise, will find the conduct described in Maher’s letter and related documents painfully familiar.

In this author’s conversations with survivors, including his own experiences with TEC, one constant has been that church officials consistently seek to mitigate legal risk, versus doing the right thing. That has been the case, even in confirmed situations of clergy misconduct, where the need to help parishioners recover from the pain of betrayal (as well as to adhere to the express provisions of church canons) has been wholly ignored in favor of avoiding potential legal exposure. Such conduct undercuts the very reason and mission of church, which is to care for God and one’s brothers and sisters, and is profoundly disruptive to the church over time. In fact, in the cases this author has observed, including one parish at which he used to work, the diocese indeed avoided legal liability. But it did so at the cost of the implosion of the parish itself, where trust has collapsed and participation dropped dramatically as a result of the diocese’s preference for risk mitigation.

There’s also an unfortunate tendency to engage in group think.

For example, this weekend, the author protested outside an Episcopal Church. A couple parishioners were on the right track, which is to not feel threatened and to engage in a friendly way with me. But in both cases, they were steered away by other parishioners, with one person being told, “Hey, play with our team,” and the other being told, “It’s best not to engage.”

But how do you resolve conflict without engagement? Jesus shares his thoughts with us on this topic, when in the Sermon on the Mount he says, “if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to them; then come and offer your gift.”

In other words, ignoring things and hoping for the best doesn’t work. And group think in which parishes and other entities in the church use formal and informal means to preempt potential reconciliation do all involved profound harm, often while thinking that somehow they are maintaining the peace or avoiding awarding bad behavior. Yet we see intimations of this behavior in Maher’s letter, including the allegations that the school wants to be notified every time an employee is interviewed. Such conduct will, by definition, discourage candor by interviewees.

Another aspect of Maher’s letter sounds all too familiar, which is an “emotive outburst” by senior school administrator, which he says he was later accused of orchestrating. This use of theatrical behavior, which may in fact be the classic narcissistic rage, is endemic in the church and indicates unhealthy patterns of social interaction. It also should be a profound warning sign of dysfunctional leadership.

A careful reading of Maher’s resignation letter and the responses from the school also sets forth some larger concerns—concerns that suggest the school is, in fact, playing games and trying to avoid culpability. In fact, it sounds like the school is stopping just short of witness tampering.

If we start with the premise that sexual abuse has occurred at St. Paul’s, been verified by independent officials and happened for years, it would hardly seem to be in the school’s best interests to do anything but cooperate fully with Maher, while being painfully open and transparent. Yet the school appears to be conducting its own damage control operations, versus embracing Maher and his efforts.

For example, consider complaints of misconduct against current school leadership. In response to these allegations, school rector Kathy GIles says, “To the extent that allegations of misconduct made against current school leadership are known to us, we have commissioned independent investigators to thoroughly review all allegations, based on the findings of these investigations, none of these allegations has been substantiated.”

That begs several questions:

  • Why is the school conducting its own investigations?
  • Why is the school announcing the results of these purported investigations?
  • Why is the school not simply handing off complaints to Maher, working closely with him, then jointly announcing the results?

And to further illustrate just how ugly things are at St. Paul’s, note the carefully crafted legal disclaimer at the start of Giles’ statement. “To the extent that allegations of misconduct made against current school leadership are made available to us….” That smacks tactics to minimize exposure, and suggests the school is using its own legal counsel to review its statements prior to release, versus leaning into the problem and working hard to obtain healing and reconciliation.

In other words, Giles’ statement reinforces the comments made by the Crisis Center of New Hampshire, which has worked with Maher for several years to provide support and crisis counseling to rape victims at the school, “We are unable to trust that St. Paul’s School has the students’ best interests in mind,” Executive Director Jennifer Pierson says. The Crisis Center’s role in the matter is not one of coincidence, but rather is specified by the underlying consent decree.

That, of course, is recurring pattern when it comes to abuse and misconduct in The Episcopal Church: We are unable to trust that the church has its members’ best interests in mind.

The same holds true for New Hampshire diocesan officials and others with power to call the school to accountability. While this author has no first-hand knowledge of their roles in this situation, their silence is deafening, and it’s a safe bet that a few well-placed calls by PB Curry would shake things up in a hurry. But like any good politician, Curry and those of similar ilk seemingly are washing their hands of the matter, while hypocritically prattling on about how it’s not about love it’s not about Jesus.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that the pablum coming out the school does not in any way remind readers of Jesus, faith, or love. Instead, it sounds like a corporate entity represented by powerful law firms.

On a related note, those interested in exploring male power and the propensity of the hierarchy for coverup may find Notes on a Silencing:  A Memoir worthy reading. Available here and written by school rape victim Lacy Crawford, the book recounts the perjury of school officials who lied and slandered Lacy in order to protect the school and its reputation. There an excellent review of Crawford’s book, The Unbearable Deafness of Power, available here.

Lastly, the title of the review mentioned above is a wonderful description of the Episcopal hierarchy and abuse.

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