Confronting sexual abuse in the Episcopal Church

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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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Catherine T.
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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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Ann Fontaine
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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

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tgflux
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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

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John B. Chilton
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John B. Chilton

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

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Andrew Gerns
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Andrew Gerns

John,

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.

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