Confronting sexual abuse in the Episcopal Church

By Ann Fontaine

Andrew Sullivan, writing on The Atlantic’s Web site, has been praising the Episcopal Church for its actions on priests who commit sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment. In the comments on his column stories of quick action following the reporting of abuse have appeared. It is good to hear that our system is working for some people who have suffered at the hands of priests and bishops. I wish it had always been the case, but we have our own history of the abuse of power, secrecy, and denial. It was not until the ’70s and ’80s that these abuses were finally addressed by the Church and the General Convention began work on revising the canons and to encourage dioceses to provide procedures and training.

Women clergy began to hear the stories of child and youth sexual abuse by clergy in the late ’70s and early ’80s. Women had only been ordained since 1974. A few women across the denomination met to compare notes. In the meantime, lawsuits were beginning to emerge when the church would not respond to the suffering. The insurance companies were getting worried about providing liability insurance when churches knew about abuse and passed a priest on to another place. While I was serving on the Executive Council from 1985-91, Ellen Cooke, Treasurer of the denomination, reported to the Presiding Bishop and the Council that something needed to be done both for pastoral and fiduciary reasons.

General Convention began to act. In 1985, a resolution passed to request dioceses to conduct workshops on recognizing child sexual abuse. In 1991, a Committee on Sexual Exploitation was established. During this period several women clergy and some attorneys who had been providing legal counsel for abuse victims/survivors developed training for bishops and other leaders to teach the church about the issue and how to deal with perpetrators and victims/survivors. It was clear that TEC did not have canons or procedures to guide this work, so several of us proposed a resolution for the next General Convention.

The bishops did not think the time was right for this action but we pressed ahead. The women of the Episcopal Church – Episcopal Women’s Caucus, Episcopal Church Women, Daughters of the King, and others – mobilized to lobby both Houses and to talk to their bishops about the importance of immediate action by the church. Abuse victims/survivors came to testify, often the first time they had told their stories in public. 1997 saw a number of resolutions including the revision of Title IV (disciplinary canons) passed. (The history of resolutions is here.) The Bishop’s Pastoral Office led by the Rt. Rev. Harold (Hoppy) Hopkins was a key supporter of funding, education, developing training and facing the issues of abuses and exploitation.

In 2009 another revision of the Title IV canons was passed to set up a procedure that is more like the professional standards of conduct in other professions. The original revisions were based on the Military Code of Justice that while providing a way to deal with abuse and exploitation had proved very difficult to use.

Since the days of these early cases the work to stop abuse in the Episcopal Church has had a mixed record. In my work as a member of committees proposing and acting on guidelines for action and as a advocate for those who have suffered abuse and exploitation, I see the Episcopal Church is currently doing much better work but with areas that are still lacking.

Stopping child sexual abuse has the greatest success. Safeguarding God’s Children training is required of all clergy and all lay leaders especially anyone in the church working with children and youth. Congregations and parents are more aware of how to spot abuse and who to contact if it occurs. Church schools are vigilant about contact with children, requiring 2 adults present, windows in all offices, locking spaces where abuse might occur, and doing background checks on all employees and volunteers. Many dioceses are using online self-guided training and awareness programs which have increased participation 10 to 100 fold over the face to face training. We know that perpetrators will not stop abuse from taking training but the community can become vigilant and prevent incidents. Compliance is left to the dioceses to enforce but most have strict guidelines.

Exploitation of vulnerable adults and harassment has a more mixed success rate. Much depends on the local diocese and requirements for response and discipline. Although the canons are in place, it is often a hard road to get the canons enforced. Rather than viewing events as abuse of power, they are confused with “affairs” or the victim is blamed for the occurrence. Egregious, multiple offenses are usually dealt with eventually but justice is slow to be found for these abuses. Most professions realize that the person in power has the responsibility in any relationship – regardless of actions. The church is beginning to understand this. The discipline of bishops is the least successful area in the church.

The new revisions of the canons hold out the possibility that the procedures will be more available and easier to use with offending priests and deacons in dioceses. The canons have more options before taking the case to court. Child abuse, of course, must be reported to the police or county authorities by civil law. Training in adult exploitation and harassment is now available for congregations and dioceses. The Episcopal Church has learned that a church that faces abuse and exploitation promptly and with justice, restoration, and reconciliation can be a healthier safer place for all.

The Rev. Ann Fontaine, Diocese of Wyoming, keeps what the tide brings in. She is the author of Streams of Mercy: a meditative commentary on the Bible.

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  1. Doug

    While I am afraid we will never be able to totally stamp out this type of behavior, we have at least met it head on and are (mostly) doing our best. And it is telling that it was led by laity and clergy, and just about forced upon the bishops. This is telling for how hard it is going to be in the Roman church, where, at least officially, the laity have much less power. Thanks for this primer of our history on this issue.

    Doug Spurlin

  2. Derek Olsen

    Thanks for this, Ann! This is a critical topic for discussion. More still needs to be done and the guidelines still need to be uniformly enforced. I say this as both the father of two little girls and as a middle-aged male.

    At one church I was connected with, I offered to teach Sunday School to children and asked to whom I needed to submit my paperwork for the background check; they informed me it wasn’t necessary… That scared me.

    I further had to have words with the SS superintendent concerning having another teacher with me at all times. This rules are for my protection as well as the childrens’! Even a frivolous accusation can ruin a reputation and more. The more that teachers understand that these rules are intended to protect *everyone*, the better they’ll be implemented and followed.

  3. Thank you for this history…amazing, isn´t it, it´s always been about exposing lies and embracing truth (no matter the perceived result)…it´s about Honesty and TRUST in God to do as God Commands us to do…it´s sickly codependent and unloving (to all concerned) to do anything else…denial and pretend are deadly to the spirit of the abuser and the abused.

  4. The Rev. Richard E. Helmer

    Thanks for this Ann.

    It’s striking to me from your history how critical women’s voices and empowerment were to moving this forward in our Church. The Vatican, as a number of secular commentators have pointed out in recent weeks, clearly and tragically lacks both.

  5. Thank you, Ann. I learned much from your timely essay. I was struck by the significant role played by the women’s organizations in TEC in moving along the process of getting workable resolutions passed at GC.

    June Butler

  6. Richard, I did not copy the ideas in your comment. While I was signing in, your comment went up, and I did not see it before I hit “post”. I was going to add, “Are you listening, Rome?” but I decided not to. 🙂

    June Butler

  7. Excellent background info. I’m young enough that I didn’t realize women’s ordination had been such a catalyst.

    I’m curious what effect you think Bp. Bennison’s ecclesial trial and deposition have had on the prospects of holding bishops accountable?

  8. Ann – thank you for this. I take no joy in learning about all of this. It is heartbreaking to me, as a survivor of (family) abuse, to think of all kids that are put through this.

    What I also appreciate is how women can make a difference.

    Thank you and God bless you.

  9. Kevin – I would hope so but doubt it.

  10. Ann Fontaine

    Posted for Susan Russell

    For some reason I can’t sign in on Episcopal Cafe and I’ve run out of time trying to figure out why. Here’s my comment:

    Thanks so much for this important history, Ann. It’s unleashed a bunch of memories for me from “back in the day” before we had such protections in place.

    I’m remembering here in the Diocese of Los Angeles when clergy misconduct awareness training was mandated (1992?) sitting in a parish hall watching some of the senior clergymen stand to protest that this was all a “witch hunt” driven by “women who are after our jobs.”

    Cross my heart and hope to die.

    And I remember watching the rector who’d baptized my younger son, presented me for confirmation and put me the vestry get arrested, tried and convicted of child molestation. He served 3 years in prison — and the congregation is still recovering 30 years later.

    And I remember a parish meeting when I was part of the “misconduct resposne team” where the rector was inhibited for sexual miscondut and an irate member of the parish stood up and said to the Canon to the Ordinary, “What were a few women if the rest of us were happy?”

    God isn’t finished with the Episcopal Church yet but She’s done some amazing and powerful work over the last few decades.

    Susan Russell

  11. J. I.

    Rev. Ann, thank you for this valuable account of the development of programs preventing clergy sexual abuse in TEC.

    Could you post the links to the online prevention resources you mention in your article?

    I’ve been through the diocesan face-to-face training and found it thorough, and the participants clearly took the materials and principles to heart.

    This issue is the primary, though not the only reason, my wife and I came back to the Church, and quite specifically The Episcopal Church, after experiencing this tragedy in our own family. TEC does clergy sexual abuse prevention imperfectly, but far and away better than our previous churches.

    Some day I hope to be able to point out to my SNAP friends and colleagues that TEC does an outstanding and transparent job when dealing with allegations against abusers & their enablers, and consistently treats victims with the respect and compassion they deserve.

    I hope to hear more soon on this very timely topic.

    John Iliff

    SNAP parent member

  12. John B. Chilton

    Peggy Noonan: “The old Vatican needs new blood. They need to let younger generations of priests and nuns rise to positions of authority within a new church. Most especially and most immediately, they need to elevate women. As a nun said to me this week, if a woman had been sitting beside a bishop transferring a priest with a history of abuse, she would have said: “Hey, wait a minute!””

  13. John — in addition to using the Church Pension Group materials many dioceses have gone to this as told by a staff member in the Diocese of California: Pretty much everything related to our professional conduct and abuse prevention– policy and diocesan implementation strategy– can be found at Diocese of California The policy document can be downloaded in part or whole there, and also there is a page which explains how to access our online training program.

    This program tailors the training to National Canons, Diocesan Canons and state law. Although Face to Face training is good – having the training available to take online has increased participation as I said. The point of training is having a community that knows and is aware so all are protected.

  14. John B. Chilton

    Is it the policy of the church to report to law enforcement persons alleged to have committed of child abuse? Is it policy to make this known to parents that this is the policy? I ask this because victims may have privacy or freedom concerns. The following triggered this question:

    The Vatican has emphasized recently that it now tells bishops to follow civil law when it comes to reporting accusations of sexual abuse to civil authorities. When that policy was posted online as part of a “layman’s guide” to the Vatican’s sex abuse procedures, it prompted such erroneous headlines as “Vatican: Bishops Must Report Alleged Abuse To Police.” Erroneous, because where civil law does not require mandatory reporting — in Italy, for example — the Vatican still advises bishops not to do so. The reasoning is twofold, Vatican sources said: first, the role of a bishop in these situations is to effectively implement church law, not to act as a reporting agent for the state. Second, while bishops should advise and sometimes encourage victims to go to police, they should not exercise that right for them; some victims, for a variety of reasons, may not want to report an allegation to police. The Vatican’s policy, then, still has the potential to create problematic situations — especially because non-reporting, in the eyes of many people today, is the equivalent of cover-up.

  15. Most of us live in states that have mandatory reporting of suspicion of child abuse to law enforcement – they take if from there.

  16. Andrew Gerns


    The short answer to your question is “yes, the proper authorities are always called first.”

    In general, the training offered in “Safeguarding God’s Children” emphasizes reporting to child protection and/or police (depending on your state) as an essential component to creating a safe environment.

    Outside of the fact that many state designate clergy and religious professionals as mandatory reporters, the principle is that the job of the church is not to investigate. This is the fundamental flaw in the Vatican policy that you quote. It puts the Church in the position of investigating possible abuse, advocating for the victim and dealing with the abuser. The church is neither trained to investigate nor able to negotiate the inherent conflict that comes from both being pastoral and investigative.

    Since it is not uncommon for victims of abuse to feel shame and partly responsible for the abuse they have experienced, it is problematic to refrain from reporting to preserve the victim’s privacy.

    The Church’s stand needs to be to tell the victim “we believe you” and to assure her/him that we will walk through the investigative process with you. We will do whatever we can to help you feel safe.

    The Church also needs to say clearly that we are mindful of the power dynamic between church worker and victim, and that in order to promote safety we will err on the side of the victim.

    I don’t know about other parishes and dioceses but we here in Bethlehem are very clear that the diocese has a policy that every parish is expected to adhere to, that training is expected for people who work with youth and children, and there is a process that will be adhered to if there is a report.

    The usual fears about either privacy (which can be real) or false reporting (which can happen) evaporate when the process and it’s implications are clearly articulated. A good process deals with these rare instances very quickly.

  17. John B. Chilton

    Thank you, Andrew. This is the kind of sorting out of the issues I was looking for.

  18. tgflux

    The complications of sexual abuse in the church may not just arise from the clergy/official church workers.

    20 years ago, I joined a parish, and was told the following: the exceptionally friendly man who’d just welcomed me to the parish, had been convicted of molesting his daughters (who were young adults by the time I joined the parish: I don’t think I ever met them).

    At the time of his conviction, the vestry had voted to kick him out of the parish . . . but the daughters threatened to leave the parish if he did.

    So, this was the working procedure: he stayed, and a whisper-whisper campaign followed him (the whispers directed esp. to any young women—as I was, then!—to stay away from him).

    I can’t believe that this was a Godly arrangement. EITHER forgiveness (w/ conditions, if necessary) *OR* um, disfellowship (wasn’t going to say “dismemberment”: what’s the official term for “kicked out”, beyond excommunication?), but NOT whisper-whisper? Anyone know a better solution?

    JC Fisher

  19. From the Rt. Rev. Harold (Hoppy) Hopkins who is noted in my essay:

    One can’t say everything in one article I know, and you did really well in covering the processes we went through. I’d like to add just a few more, comments:

    Bishop Browning did much more than most people realize to ennable the church’s response. Much of it was personal and pastoral behind the scenes, with the accused, accusers and their families…..some of it very complicated. He also took a lot of grief from a number of bishops, publically as well as privately; he never wavered from the course. He truly “got it”and gave it his full attention.

    There were also a fair number of bishops who “got it”, were very supportive of women’s issues in general and led the way in their dioceses. The Office of Pastoral Development held a fair number of 4 day sessions for bishops only, directed at helping them understand the issues and the church’s response. We used all sorts of professionals – psychologists, lawyers and ecumenical folks. We heard stories from complainants, presentations from advocates (as they were called then) and even from recovering offenders. We worked extensively with other denominations, sharing and learning from each other. A number of attendees said they had “conversion experiences” (their term) from the sessions. They went home and developed processes and procedures in their own dioceses.

    David Beers the then (and now) Chancellor to the Presiding Bishop helped enourmously behind the scenes, (as well as up front) especially on legal matters but also in dealing directly with the chancellors of accused bishops. He gave as much of his time to these issues (saying nothing about a host of others) as anyone.

    Finally there were a host of women, lay ordained (and bishops) who supported and helped guide these processes – you included. I am grateful personally to many of them who in the beginning at least, helped me understand the issues, including Nancy (my wife) who with others went on to develop her own processes and courses for congregations undergoing stress from clergy malfeasance of once kind or another.

    Well that’s probably more than enough “additions”. Thanks again for your work.

    If you want to post this note to the site, feel free.

    The Rt. Rev. Harold (Hoppy) Hopkins

  20. Catherine T.

    Ann, my apologies — I am three years late to this conversation. Coincidentally, you posted your essay at almost the exact time the investigation of my complaint against an Episcopal priest was concluded — and at the time my brutal shunning began. Sadly, the new Title IV made no difference in my case, because my former bishop chose to respond “pastorally” (rather than “canonically.”)

    I chose to leave TEC because of how broadly I was shunned, but the good news is that I didn’t leave church altogether. I’m now in the UCC, working on justice issues like this one.

    I appreciate your work, and the work of great men and women like Harold and Nancy Myer Hopkins.

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