Speaking OUT to end clergy sexual misconduct.

Posts tagged ‘Episcopal Church’

Episcopal Church Called to Repent

For my Episcopalian readers: Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, are calling on the church to repent for the way it has handled (or mishandled) cases of sexual harassment, exploitation, and abuse. In a letter to the church last week, the two leaders write, “we must create contexts in which women can speak of their unspoken trauma, whether suffered within the church or elsewhere. And we must do more.” They lay out several goals, beginning with an Ash Wednesday Day of Prayer, “devoted to meditating on the ways in which we in the church have failed to stand with women and other victims of abuse and harassment and to consider… how we can redouble our work to be communities of safety.”

I am delighted to read these words of commitment, but I’ll be watching for the church to walk the talk. I’ll be looking at my hometown diocese in particular. The diocese of San Diego has taken a few steps forward on this issue recently; I’ll share those in a future post. I’m encouraged, but again — I’ll be watching to see if they walk the talk. I’ve barely set foot in the Episcopal church in eight years, but what I’m seeing now intrigues me. If I muster the courage to attend an Ash Wednesday service, will I hear this new tone of sorrow for harm done to people like me? Stay tuned.

Spotlight: Uncovering the Truth

When Spotlight came out, I didn’t want to see it. Already steeped in the stress of divorce, I wanted to let my sleeping trauma lie. I let the blog go silent for more than two months; I had too much on my plate already. Then one of my friends — a survivor whom I trust — said, “You need to see this movie.” But whom to see it with? By that time, my friends had already seen it. During a meeting with our divorce team, I finally asked my husband. (Paradoxically, the divorce process was easing tensions between us). He happily agreed, but we never found a date that worked. 

Then the news broke about “Kevin.” It re-opened old wounds. The bishop’s truth-telling brought both healing and anger, which itself brought more healing. As my church-inflicted wounds healed, so did some of the wounds in my marriage — not by osmosis, but because of my husband’s strong support and affirmation. As the church took steps toward justice, Michael and I began to take steps toward reconciliation. I realized I was strong enough to take my own self to see Spotlight. 

To any survivors who haven’t seen this movie: if it’s still showing in your town, don’t miss it. The story is not so much about clergy abuse as it is about smart, tenacious reporting by brave men and women who had been raised by the very institution they were investigating. For me, there were three takeaways. First, how important our voices are as survivors. The Boston Globe could not have broken the story in 2002 without Phil Saviano, the survivor who opened the New England chapter of SNAP. Second, how hard it is for us to be heard. Saviano had given a list of abusive priests and victims to the Globe in the 1990s, but as (then Assistant Managing Editor) Ben Bradlee Jr says in the film, “Saviano was a f***ing train wreck five years ago.” The more impaired we are, the easier to discredit. I know I’m not the only survivor to experience this hard truth.

The third takeaway: the real story isn’t about individual ministers who exploit their power. It isn’t even about a pattern of abusive ministers. The real story is about the institutions that protect and enable them. In the movie, the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron, urges the four journalists to track the story not down to the priests, but up to the top of the system. If the Globe ran a story about “fifty pedophile priests,” Baron tells his team,
“we’ll get into the same cat fight you got into on [an earlier story about an abusive Catholic priest], which made a lot of noise but changed things not one bit. We need to focus on the institution, not the individual priests. Practice and policy. Show me the Church manipulated the system so that these guys wouldn’t have to face charges. Show me they put those same priests back into parishes, time and time again. Show me this was systemic, that it came from the top down.” 

I’m now reading Stacy Schiff’s The Witches: Salem, 1692. The Salem witch trials fascinate me. Not only have I lived the horror of ostracism by a fearful community, I’m also descended from one of the witches (Ann Foster, who died in a Salem prison in 1692). As the frenzy in Salem grew, Boston’s Thomas Brattle spoke rare words of clarity and prophecy. Quoting Brattle, Schiff asks, “How might anyone involved in the trials not later ‘look back upon these things without the greatest of sorrow and grief imaginable?’ [Brattle] trembled at the thought, the first to anticipate an indelible stain on New England, one that ages would not remove.”

Three hundred years from now, will the Catholic Church bear this same indelible stain? 

Religious corruption is not the sole property of the Catholic Church, of course, nor its sole defining attribute. Noble things can grow side by side with foul ones. New England gave birth not only to the witch trials but to American democracy; the Catholic Church produced the abusive Father Geoghan and the collusive Cardinal Law, but also heroes of compassion and courage like Mother Teresa, Dorothy Day, and Oscar Romero. 

And clergy sexual abuse happens in every faith tradition. The Episcopal Church — or at least one leader in that church — seems intent on preventing the indelible stain. I’ve learned that a bishop, presumably Jon Bruno of Los Angeles, has notified all of Kevin’s former congregations of Kevin’s offenses and removal as a priest, just as Bishop Jim Mathes did with my former congregation in San Diego. If this is true, Bishops Bruno and Mathes are leading the way toward transparency, safer churches, and healing for those whom the church has injured.

It is time for me to follow their brave example and remove the protective veil of alias. For the sake of readers who may have been hurt by Kevin at any of the churches he has served, it is time for me to be open. This is the man I’ve been calling Kevin, and these are the Episcopal congregations where he served before his most recent assignment.
1989-1992: curate at St Wilfrid’s, Huntington Beach
1992-1998: rector at St Mary’s, Lompoc
1998-2003: youth minister and associate rector at All Saints, Pasadena
2003-2012: dean, St Paul’s Cathedral, San Diego

The bishops of Los Angeles and San Diego have invited anyone with concerns to come forward confidentially. If you have concerns about inappropriate behavior by this priest in Huntington Beach, Lompoc, or Pasadena (or in Ventura where he served as a youth leader in the early 1980s), please contact the Diocese of Los Angeles. If you have concerns about events in San Diego, please contact the Diocese of San Diego.

Reporting an abusive minister is always scary. We are almost always hurt by the process. There’s no guarantee this won’t happen this time. But there is this safety: the church already knows this priest has a pattern of harm. They won’t be trying to protect him; they’ve already dismissed him. If he has harmed other women, the church is more likely to hear and believe them now.

God bless all who have the courage to shine the light of truth.

Anger Rises to the Surface

It’s been two and a half weeks since I learned of Kevin’s defrocking and eleven days since the congregational meeting. I’m relieved that the church is free of a dangerous priest, I’m grateful that the bishop called me directly to share the news, and I’m feeling validated since he finally dropped the veil of secrecy around my complaint.

Relieved, grateful, and validated: I wish that’s all I were feeling. I’ve been trying to write a relieved, grateful, validated response to the bishop’s words. But every attempt came out brittle, formal, and fake. Last night, I finally realized why.

Because I’m ANGRY. Once I got over the miracle that the bishop shared the truth at all, I start looking at what he said about my story. And what did he say? That what happened to me wasn’t that big of a deal, and that he still believes he was right to keep it from the congregation. 

WHO IS HE to say that Kevin’s offenses against me “didn’t rise to the level of a Title IV complaint”? What kind of yardstick did he use? Does the church keep a manual that says if it’s only words, or if there’s only one complaint, then it’s okay to brush it under the carpet? (In 2010, the bishop actually told me that’s why he chose a “pastoral” response instead of invoking the canons). What if a priest deliberately misconstrues a directive from the bishop in order to continue meeting with his favorite congregants? What if he spends years working to gain a congregant’s trust, then misjudges and springs the trap too soon? What if he openly tells her that she’s part of a years-long pattern of inappropriate behavior toward “beautiful women”? Is a predator less guilty because a particular prey escaped without physical injury? 

The bishop ignored Kevin’s pattern of grooming, instead focusing on a few words that he spoke to me on a specific day in 2008. Even worse, he ignored the impact of Kevin’s behavior. Author Marilyn Peterson, in her book At Personal Risk: Boundary Violations in Professional-Client Relationships (Norton, 1992), says that the only reliable measure is the harm an offense causes to the victim. “Determining severity by content alone does not allow a violation to be identified as legitimate or valid unless and until it has progressed to the most severe and overt extreme. … To get a truer, more comprehensive picture, it is essential that degree of pain felt by clients be measured.” My injuries at the time — a serious eating disorder and a diagnosis of PTSD — were severe. Six years after the church closed the case, I’m still trying to process what Kevin and the church did to me. Does this not signal an offense worthy of a Title IV response, and of a stronger warning to Kevin’s next congregation?

And why did the bishop think the congregation didn’t need to know? At last Tuesday’s meeting he told us, “I made a measured decision [not to disclose].” He was vague as to how he measured it, but he has spoken clearly on this question before. When I brought my complaint, he refused to inform the congregation, protesting that Kevin was “the [highest ranking priest] of my [most prominent congregation]!” Church scandals drive people and dollars away, and there was a lot at stake with this congregation. The bishop may have thought he could prevent this damage with secrecy. (I wonder how that has worked out.) Two years later, I was in the room when he told a group of clergy that this kind of news would be a “body blow” to a congregation — as if a group of full-grown Christian adults would be too weak to deal with hard truth. 

The bishop decided to avoid the harsh official sentences, placing Kevin under pastoral direction instead.  “I [required] that he not do certain ministerial functions, and [required] him to do certain other things to address the behavior.” First of all, isn’t that what suspension is — a temporary ban from exercising some or all of the gifts of ordained ministry? Second, why use vague language like “certain ministerial functions”? Why not name those functions, as he did with me in January of 2010? The day I filed my complaint, the bishop told me that Kevin was forbidden to offer pastoral counseling during the investigation. Two months later, he extended that ban for another 12 to 18 months. When a church’s senior minister is not allowed to do pastoral counseling, the congregation has a right and a need to know.  

Toward the end of last Tuesday’s meeting, the bishop had harsh words for the people of St _____’s. “I’m going to be brutally honest with you,” he said. “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.” What?!? How can the bishop blame the congregation for responding badly to something that officially “never happened”? Instead of disclosing the truth, the bishop left my reputation in the hands of the priest who was then writhing under the humiliating restraints of pastoral direction. What did he think Kevin was going to say about me? Now, six years later, he blames the congregation for not being nicer to me? I’m going to be brutally honest with you, bishop: you set those good people up for failure. You don’t owe them a scolding; you owe them an apology.

Finally, the bishop admitted that his official silence was no match for the real voices of hurting, angry people. “What I’ve come to realize is how broadly both Jones and the complainant had talked about the matter.” He shouldn’t have been surprised; this is exactly what I told him I would do. When he wrapped up my case, I warned him that I was going to tell my friends why I was leaving the church. “I can’t carry the burden of this toxic secret any longer,” I said. He told me that if I did, I would “lose control” of the information. He was right; my words to a few trusted friends triggered an ugly wave of ostracism. I stopped talking for a while; I now speak through this blog. Although I’m not writing for my old churchmates, it seems that a few of them read it. If my strong voice helped the bishop find his, then I’ve done something right and I’m proud.

The waters are starting to settle. In my next post, I’ll be sharing the power and beauty of a very different kind of voice in response to clergy misconduct. Stay tuned.

 

What The Bishop Said

The bishop 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 “Kevin” 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 Kevin did and how the church responded – has huge emotional impact for me. If I paraphrased, I might introduce my own bias against Kevin. To keep this post fair and objective, I’m going to use the bishop’s own words. I have omitted a few redundant phrases, and I’ve changed names to protect identities; otherwise the words in the next four paragraphs (italicized) are the exact words of the bishop.

In November of last year, the Diocese of _____ received multiple complaints against “Kevin Jones.” In a brief investigation and follow-up, Jones agreed to accept a sentence of deposition, no longer being a priest. An alternate sentence of suspension was posited by the Bishop of _____. Jones chose the sentence of deposition. The sentence was imposed pertaining to three complaints against Jones 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 Kevin Jones while he was [priest-in-charge] of St. _____’s. The complaint resulted in a thorough investigation conducted by someone independent of my office. Jones 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 Jones 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 Jones was a candidate in the Diocese of _____, 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 Kevin Jones 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 _____ 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 Kevin 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 Kevin: “Why did he choose deposition if suspension were an option?” (The bishop refused to speculate on Kevin’s motives.) “How do we pray for Kevin?” 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.

Addendum, February 10: I have revised this post to remove a personal story shared by the bishop. He rightly pointed out that the story was his, and not mine to share. I apologize and accept responsibility for this error.

 

 

Shepherds Protecting Shepherds

The Sunday before last, I was so focused on listening to the bishop, speaking my truth where I’d been shunned, and not harming or betraying the complainant, that I barely paid attention to what my former church’s new pastor was saying.

When the bishop called “Pastor Nancy” forward to speak about the complaint against a pastor at her church, what did she say? Did she talk about how hard the experience was for the complainant? Or for Pastor X’s wife and family? Or for the congregation?

No. She talked about how hard it was for CLERGY to see the church holding their colleague accountable.

When Nancy mentioned the Episcopal Church’s new Title IV canon, which spells out the process for responding to misconduct, did she praise the church for adding new protection for victims of clergy misconduct? Did she thank the bishop for being faithful to the canons in the way he sought justice in this case?

No. She talked about how hard the new Title IV is on CLERGY.

Pastor Nancy isn’t alone in her worries. In a 2012 article published by Episcopal Digital Network, a lawyer for the church said, “In terms of what it’s done to clergy rights it’s more than a disaster,” and that the new law gives “incredible power to bishops to get rid of priests.” Most of the commenters seem to agree.

What that article doesn’t say: some priests need to be shown the door. Richard Blackmon’s 1983 doctoral thesis, “The Hazards of the Ministry,” found that 12% of Protestant clergy surveyed admitted to sexual intercourse with a parishioner. And what about the ones who don’t admit it? And what about the ones who sexualize their pastoral relationships without physical contact? That happened to me, and nearly seven years later I’m still trying to heal. I claim the title “survivor” because many of us literally don’t survive after sexual misconduct by a minister.

And Pastor Nancy thinks this is hard on CLERGY?

“There are no secrets in a healthy church.”

In April, I learned of a complaint of sexual misconduct against another minister at my former church. Earlier this month the bishop resolved the matter: the offender will retire and leave the church. He’ll no longer have license to serve as an ordained minister in my former denomination. Letters from the bishop and the offender were sent to the congregation. The bishop’s letter said this: “To be available to any who wish to be in conversation with me about this, I will be present after the 10:30 a.m. worship service on Sunday, August 31.”

I very much wish to be in conversation with the bishop about this! So this morning, for the first time since December 2009, I attended the Sunday service at my former church. It hurt to be there — it literally hurt. Halfway through the service I realized I ached all over, as if I had just run a marathon. I chose not to receive communion, but I did sing, and the music was glorious.

And then I strode into the middle of the social hour crowd to get a cup of coffee.

And then I walked into the Great Hall for the forum. I sat at a table in the back of the room with an older couple. The woman told me, “I think the bishop should have kept it quiet. I don’t know any of the facts, but I think he should have handled it privately.” The man said, “I don’t know the facts either, but I’ll find out — I’m having lunch with ‘Pastor X’ on Friday.” The woman said, “I don’t know the complainant. I wonder how old she is?” (“Why does that matter?” I asked.) The man said, “Some people are just so quick to take offense and complain.”

These were Pastor X’s people. As it turned out, the whole room was filled with Pastor X’s people. They were angry, and some of them got ugly. But the bishop showed courage and leadership from beginning to end. I haven’t always felt kindly toward him — we’ve definitely had our conflicts — but today I feel nothing but gratitude.

The bishop started by acknowledging the anger in the room — toward the offender, and toward himself, and toward the complainant. Next he promised to stay as long as we needed him. “No matter how long this takes,” he said. “I’ll be the last person to leave.” He spent the next fifteen minutes explaining the church’s complicated process for handling complaints. He said he could not discuss the complaint itself, nor the evidence, nor anything about the complainant. “I really try to do the right thing,” he said. “The great fear is not that we won’t get it perfectly right, but that we’ll get it perfectly wrong. So I strive to get it approximately right.” He said we were having this meeting because “there are no secrets in a healthy church.”

Let me repeat the bishop’s extraordinary words: “There are no secrets in a healthy church.”

The bishop had already seen me in the audience. He must have wondered what I intended. He may have wondered if I would expose the secret of my complaint and the admission of guilt from my offender. But I was only here to listen. Before I said a word, I wanted to hear the bishop, and hear the congregation’s response.

The bishop opened it up for questions. The “People’s Warden” was the first to speak. “Why didn’t you figure out a way for Pastor X to stay?” she pleaded. “I’ve heard from so many people about this. Everyone loves him. Why couldn’t he stay?”

The bishop was firm. “I wish this had never occurred, but it did. Something happened that was wrong, and someone was hurt, and there needed to be a response,” he said. “When we know the respondent it’s much harder because of all the good things we know. If we just had the facts in front of us, and we remove the knowledge of the respondent’s identity, it becomes a lot easier.”

The next question, from a man I’ll call Mr. Arrogant, began, “Since the Lutheran Church exonerated him…”  … and then the beginning of a long, grandstanding diatribe. (I cannot be objective about this man; he was one of the people who harmed me directly after my ordeal).

The bishop stopped the question right there. “The Lutheran church didn’t exonerate him. They simply found that the incident didn’t rise to the level that would trigger their disciplinary process.”

Mr. Arrogant tried to keep grandstanding, but the bishop held his ground. Then the man sitting next to Mr. Arrogant (I’ll call him Mr. Bully; he’s the one who posted an accusation on my Facebook wall) spoke up. “This is just like McCarthyism!” he said. “This is just a smear campaign against Pastor X!” A third man (I’ll call him Mr. Knee-Jerk) spoke of the “accusations” that “destroyed” Pastor X’s reputation.

The bishop stood firm against all of it. Any time he heard inflammatory language (e.g. “McCarthyism”), he nipped it in the bud. “Look at the first letter I sent,” he demanded. “Do you see the word ‘accuse’ anywhere in it? I simply stated the facts: that there had been a complaint, and that I was putting the respondent on administrative leave, without prejudice. I am not going to share the facts of the case with you, because then you all would do your own jury work. And for better or worse, that’s what you hired me to do.”

A man in the back of the room (I’ll call him Perry Mason) gave a little speech about burden of proof and types of evidence. “The highest type of evidence is material evidence,” he said. “Was any material evidence presented in this case?”

Material evidence? Of a verbal violation?? Generally the only evidence in these cases is the damage in the victim’s life. I sat silently, steam coming out of my ears. Thankfully, the bishop kept a cooler head. “I’m not going to speak to the evidence,” he said. “In this instance, it was a different denomination that looked at the evidence.” But he pointed out that in cases of church discipline, “Clergy don’t have the same civil rights as you and I do in the courts.”

A woman to my right asked, “Why couldn’t this have been handled in your office as a conversation between the two parties?”

The bishop said that it is almost never helpful to make the complainant come face to face with her offender. He said if he had done that in this case, “I would be committing a Title IV violation.”

A man walked forward from the far corner of the room. “I’m a new congregant,” he said. “I don’t know any of the people or the facts, but I do know that the church doesn’t just throw out people who cause harm. There are people in this church who fought against civil rights, and there are people who fought against gay rights, and they’re still part of the church. We forgive them and we keep them in the family. Why can’t we do that here?”

The bishop responded. “The complainant is part of this process,” he insisted, “and the complainant deserves justice. Clergy take vows to be obedient to the canons of the church. When we do something contrary to those vows, there has to be a response.”

A woman (I’ll call her Mary) raised her hand. “I’m not officially a member of this congregation,” she said. “I’m not even Episcopalian. I’m a Catholic theologian. But my husband attends this church, and I consider it my home too. So I hope you’ll hear what I’m about to say. You all are telling the bishop you wish he would have kept it a secret. You all are wounded because a priest you love is now gone. But look what happened within my church. Because bishops didn’t have the courage to disclose, but instead sent predator priests quietly away to other churches, look how many children’s lives were destroyed. We need transparency! Your bishop may not have gotten this perfectly right, but the bishops in the Catholic church got it perfectly wrong.”

Many years ago, as I sat at my first meeting of the bishop’s Diocesan Council, he said, “I want to hear your voices. I don’t want you to silence yourself even if you’re going to say or ask something controversial. Follow the urging of the Holy Spirit here. If you have something to say and your heart is pounding and your hands are sweating at the idea of saying it, that’s the Holy Spirit — and you need to say it.”

As I sat listening to Pastor X’s defenders, and to the bishop’s insistence on justice, and to Mary’s call for transparency and truth, my heart started pounding a mile a minute. I knew it was time to speak.

And the bishop did the most courageous thing of all: he saw my raised hand, and he called on me. My voice was shaking, and I was awkward and inarticulate, but I managed to convey a few words of truth. I thanked the bishop for the courage to disclose and to stand in front of a hurting congregation, absorbing their pain and anger. I acknowledged the pain in the room. “Pastor X was beloved,” I said. I thanked Mary for reminding us how important transparency is — and I used the bishop’s own words, “There are no secrets in a healthy church.” I told the gathered crowd, “I hope this won’t be the end of the conversation. I’m not a member of this congregation any more, but I hope the conversation continues.” And I turned to the bishop and said once more, “Thank you.”

The bishop began to move toward closure. “What this was not,” he said, “was an effort to convince you that I’m right. What this is is about being in church. The church, like our Savior, has been wounded.” We heal, he said, by coming together.

The bishop invited the church’s new priest-in-charge to speak. She told us, “This is an especially difficult issue for clergy. The new Title IV is much more strict. Anyone who has been ordained for a decade or more has probably done something that could raise a complaint.  We see this process and we think, ‘That could have been me.’  It sometimes feels unfair to clergy — but to be fair, that’s what we signed up for when we took our vows.”

She then turned to the bishop. “Some people have asked me if we can celebrate Pastor X’s legacy by having a farewell party for him.”

GOOD LORD. A PARTY?? For a man who has caused so much harm to a vulnerable congregant???

The bishop spoke sense. “The church should not be doing that. We have a complainant who has been hurt. The minister has admitted fault, and this is part of the consequences.”

A woman to my right spoke up. “I appreciate this forum,” she said. “I’m glad you gave us a chance to speak. Now we do need to move on.”

“Yes,” said the bishop. “In the fullness of time.”

He said sadly, this will not be the last complaint he’ll adjudicate as a bishop. And then he promised that he will always disclose the truth, and he’ll always invite the congregation to work through their pain together with him.

The bishop was true to his word. He stayed as long as we needed him — nearly two hours. I don’t know if he was the last to leave, because I was one of the first. Even four years later, it still takes courage just to be in the room with some of those people.

So, did the bishop get this meeting “approximately right?”

No.

He got it perfectly right.

When the bishop handled my complaint four years ago, he erred by insisting on secrecy. He can never undo that decision, and he can’t undo the harm he caused me as a result. But because of his courage today, he has restored a piece of my faith in the institutional church. He heard my voice. Even though he didn’t always like what I was saying, he listened. He couldn’t offer healing to me, but his courage makes healing possible for the next victim at my church. Because I suffered and the bishop heard my voice, another injured woman received better justice.

Today, I took another mile forward in my journey toward peace.

How to Screen Out Potential Offenders

Rule #1 in preventing clergy sexual abuse: don’t hire offenders. But how can we tell who they are? Many potential offenders don’t even know themselves, and those who do are hardly going to share their dark truth with a hiring committee.

Last month I highlighted a resource of The Episcopal Church, a model policy aimed at preventing sexual exploitation of adults. The policy includes a sample interview that could identify potential offenders. It’s an excellent tool that could help all faith communities, so I’m sharing it on this blog. The interview starts soft but eventually gets to hard questions about the candidate’s professional, civil, and criminal record. To encourage truthful responses, interviewers may want to begin the interview by saying, “We’ll be doing a standard background check, of course, but these questions will help us understand better how you might handle challenging situations as our pastor.”

According to the Church Pension Group of the Episcopal Church, here are the questions that could help protect congregants and staff against clergy sexual exploitation.

1. Please tell me about the last time a member of your (congregation, youth group, office staff, etc.) demanded too much of your time. How did you handle that?

2. Please give an example of a time in your work or volunteer history when you thought the policies were too rigid. How did you handle that?

3. Please describe a time when you felt a special bond or friendship between yourself and a member of your (congregation, youth group, office staff, etc.).

4. Please give an example of a “boundary violation.” Has that ever happened to you, or has anyone ever said that you violated a boundary of some sort?

5. Has disciplinary action of any sort ever been taken against you by a licensing board, professional association, ecclesiastical body or educational or training institution? Have there been complaints against you that did not result in discipline? Are there complaints pending against you before any of the above-named bodies? If yes, please explain.

6. Have you ever been asked to resign or been terminated by a training program or employer? If yes, please explain. 

7. Have you ever had a civil suit brought against you about your professional work or is any such action pending? Have you ever had professional malpractice insurance suspended or revoked for any reason? If yes, please explain.

8. Have you ever been charged (formally or informally) with any ethics violations, sexual exploitation, sexual abuse or sexual harassment? Are any such actions or complaints pending against you? If yes, please explain.

9. Are you now or have you ever had sexual contact or attempted sexual contact (sexual intercourse of any kind, intentional touching, or conversation for the purpose of sexual arousal) with any person you were/are seeing in any professional context or in a pastoral relationship (i.e. parishioner, client, patient, employee, student)? If yes, please explain.

10. Are you now or have you ever been involved in the production, sale, or distribution of pornographic materials? If yes, please explain.

11. Have you ever had a restraining order, injunction, order for protection or the like issued against you? Have you ever had your parental rights restricted, suspended or terminated or have any of your children ever been in foster care? Have you ever been accused of domestic violence? If so, please explain.

These questions, and the entire model policy, were developed by the Church Pension Group and the Nathan Network for The Episcopal Church. Please note that commercial use of this sample interview, or of the Model Policy, is prohibited by the church’s copyright. To order copies or for more information, please visit the CPG website.

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