Bishop Mathes opened last Tuesday’s meeting in prayer. “It might feel like I’m praying too much,” he said, “if such a thing is possible.” He wasn’t the only one praying. I could see others praying; I was praying myself. A lot of healing hung on what the bishop was about to say — and he took his time saying it. He spent half an hour explaining how Episcopal church discipline works. He was wise to slow things down; it gave all of us time to prepare for what we were about to hear. I won’t share everything from those thirty minutes, only what readers will need to understand how Scott lost his credentials as a priest.
First, expectations. The church expects its clergy to be loyal to church doctrine, discipline, and worship; to obey their bishop; and to pattern their lives after the teachings of Christ. These vows are formalized in the service of ordination. To help clergy keep their vows, the church adds safeguards like boundary training; limits on frequency of pastoral counseling; and regular notices to congregants about how to recognize and report sexual misconduct. When clergy fail to keep their vows, the church’s Title IV process (the fourth of the five Canons, or governing laws, of the Episcopal Church) kicks in.
When any person believes they have been harmed by a member of the clergy, they contact an intake officer, who receives their information and helps them file a formal report. In most cases, the church investigates the complaint. When the bishop receives the result of the investigation, he or she has three options.
1. The bishop may dismiss any complaint that can’t be substantiated or that the bishop feels is not serious enough to warrant a formal response.
2. The bishop and the respondent (the clergy member who is the subject of the complaint) may come to accord, or agreement, on the appropriate ecclesiastical sentence.
3. Failing agreement, the bishop may order the appropriate sentence.
Title IV provides for these three sentences for misconduct of any type:
1. Admonition, or public reprimand;
2. Suspension, a temporary ban that prevents the offending priest from exercising some or all of the gifts of ordained ministry; and
3. Deposition, or permanent prohibition against exercising any of the gifts of ordained ministry. A priest deposed is no longer a priest.
To prevent the bishop from single-handedly controlling the process, Title IV requires collaboration. The bishop must consult his or her Standing Committee on any matter of consequence. In addition, a Hearing Panel (similar to a jury) may be convened if the bishop and respondent can’t reach an accord. But just as most court matters are resolved by settlement or plea bargain, most Episcopal disciplinary matters are settled by accord between bishop and respondent.
Title IV requires the bishop to offer appropriate care for all affected parties, and (notwithstanding any provision for privacy) allows the bishop to share information about the offense and any accord or order when the bishop deems it pastorally appropriate. The bishop told us, “The bishop is one who holds in tension the sometimes competing goods of transparency and confidentiality, of healing and justice.” (I’ll have more to say about these words in another post.)
At this point he paused and took a breath, and said, “Now let me talk about the matter at hand. And this is where it gets the most painful, because we are talking about real people.” This next piece – the bishop’s account of what Scott did and how the church responded – has huge emotional impact for me. If I paraphrased, I might introduce my own bias against Scott. To keep this post fair and objective, I’m going to use the bishop’s own words. I have omitted a few redundant phrases; otherwise the words in the next four paragraphs (italicized) are the exact words of the bishop.
In November of last year, the Diocese of California received multiple complaints against Scott Richardson. In a brief investigation and follow-up, Richardson agreed to accept a sentence of deposition, no longer being a priest. An alternate sentence of suspension was posited by the Bishop of California. Richardson chose the sentence of deposition. The sentence was imposed pertaining to three complaints against Richardson for multiple charges under… and I’ll read the canons and tell you what they mean. The first was Canon IV.4.1.h.1 which is any act of sexual misconduct. The canons define sexual misconduct [with adults] as sexual behavior at the request of, acquiesced to, or by a member of the clergy with an employee, volunteer, student, or counselee of that member of the clergy, or in the same congregation as the member of the clergy, or a person with whom the member of the clergy has a pastoral relationship. The second canon referenced in the deposition was Canon IV.4.1.h.6, conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation. I think that one speaks for itself. Canon IV.4.1.h.8 is the last one referenced: ‘conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy.’ [To] anybody who’s a veteran, that language probably feels familiar to you. It comes out of the military code of justice. It’s sort of a catch all [for] anything that’s not a stipulated part of the code of conduct. These behaviors violate the vows undertaken by clergy at the time of ordination.
Now, I want at this point to share with you another piece of information that’s particularly relevant to this congregation. In January of 2010, I received a formal complaint against Scott Richardson while he was dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The complaint resulted in a thorough investigation conducted by someone independent of my office. Richardson and the complainant fully cooperated with this process. After assessing the facts, which were not in dispute, I made the determination that the matter did not rise to the level of a Title IV complaint, but was a serious error. I placed Richardson under a pastoral direction. I’ll define what pastoral direction means for you. You may remember in the ordination vows it talks about “pastoral direction of the bishop.” The canons provide for the bishop to be able to give specific direction to clergy in extraordinary situations, that if that pastoral direction were not followed, it would be grounds for discipline as well. So it is a very serious thing. It is so serious that when we do our background check process, one of the questions on that is, “Have you ever been placed under pastoral direction by your bishop?” And so in this instance I put Jones on pastoral direction requiring that he not do certain ministerial functions, and requiring him to do certain other things to address the behavior. I subsequently gave a full briefing on this case as well as my response, to [the vestry of this church]. That was in June of that year, following the completion of this case.
When Richardson was a candidate in the Diocese of California, our church [did] what our church does in these situations. We do background checks. We use a group called Oxford Documents. I received a request from Oxford Documents for Scott Richardson and truthfully filled it out, answering the questions, marking that a complaint had been made, that he had been under pastoral direction, that he had been accused of ethical violations. I further [gave a brief narrative description] and invited the Bishop of California to be in touch with me for further details, which he was. And we had an oral briefing as well.
It’s tempting to see these events, and our response, as an error in light of subsequent events. I assure you that I continue to ponder that, what we knew in 2010, and to turn that over and over in my mind. However, what we now know does not make what happened a different thing. We take these things in real time and process them in real time. Permit me to address another aspect of this. I made a measured decision then to disclose to the [congregational] leadership, and not the whole community. At the time that decision was made, it seemed commensurate with the matter at hand. It still does, looking it [in] real time at that moment. However, what I’ve come to realize is how broadly both Jones and the complainant had talked about the matter. And in hindsight, it would have been helpful for me to make a statement to the community at that time, stating from my position how the matter was adjudicated. I offer this information to you for two reasons at this time. One is that the complainant in the matter has given me consent to do so. In addition, the complainant has stated that it would be helpful to that individual’s healing. And that is a very, very important consideration.
The bishop continued: ““Our challenge tonight and in the days ahead is to process this difficult information.” Response to clergy misconduct is an obligation not only of bishops, but of the whole community. The bishop acknowledged that Scott had done “some wonderful things at this church and over his three decades of service. But he also did some things that were so grievous that he can no longer be an Episcopal priest. There are injured persons. He has hurt people. And let me be as clear as I can on this point: the injured people are not to blame. It would be a violation of my ordination vows to tolerate blame of those upon whom there has been trespass. It is not consistent with my vows, and beloved, it is not consistent with yours.”
He stepped away from the podium. The moderator stepped forward and invited questions. Some congregants asked about Scott: “Why did he choose deposition if suspension were an option?” (The bishop refused to speculate on Scott’s motives.) “How do we pray for Scott?” The bishop responded, “there are people in this room who have been harmed. The notion of praying for someone who has been disciplined for misconduct may be hard to think about right now.”
The bishop talked about the role of the congregation. “There’s only so much my position can do,” he said. “We need the collaborative support of all of you. I’m going to be brutally honest with you now. We’ve had two complaints in the past six years, and it has not been easy for those who have been the complainants. I think this community can do a better job, and that is my call to you.”
I have much to say in response to the bishop’s words. But for now, I just need to share them. I’ve waited six years for this acknowledgement. Sometimes it still feels like a dream. By sharing the bishop’s words here, I make it one degree more real.