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?”
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.