by Eric Bonetti
As Christians, we are to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being. Many times, that will involve bringing secrets into the light. These secrets may be shameful parts of our past, like supporting slavery. They may be misconduct that is part of the here and now. Or they may be the personal demons that, to a greater or lesser extent, haunt all of us.
With this month’s focus on storytelling, I asked myself, “But what about these stories? The uncomfortable and inconvenient ones that bring that which is dark into the light? The unpopular stories? Do we welcome those stories, and those who tell them? Do we prefer silence over justice? And as an institution, does The Episcopal Church welcome those who speak with a prophetic voice?”
Sadly, as I look at our response to various recent issues, including the Heather Cook case, I increasingly believe that, as a church, we do not welcome those who speak truth to power. Instead, we provide powerful disincentives to those who would speak up, and who would bring light to the darkness. And those who persist in sharing their concerns often are punished for doing so. When this happens, we discard our Christian witness in favor of a gospel, not of Jesus, but of convenience and comfort. Gone is the Jesus who overturned tables in the temple, replaced with a divine Caspar Milquetoast who offends no one.
Before we go further, let me recognize up front: It is never easy to bring up that which is unpopular, or unpleasant, and that is the case in all of human life. It is human nature to prefer the status quo and to avoid conflict.
This preference for the devil that we know plays out in the subtle, and not-so-subtle, social pressures that come into play when vexing issues come up in church. How often have we been at a vestry or other meeting in someone brings up an inconvenient truth, only to elicit strained expressions and sighs, or pointedly passive-aggressive silence?
Similarly, every parish and diocese has a number of people who will never be elected to vestry or the standing committee, as they live with the label of “troublemaker,” even though they may have acquired that label for whistle-blowing, or other behaviors we would otherwise regard as morally correct. Ironically, as most non-profit executives know, it is these organizational curmudgeons who often are among the most valuable board members at a nonprofit, for they don’t fear to tread on sometimes treacherous terrain, and they engender accountability at all levels of the organization. But all too often, we regard these individuals in The Episcopal Church as virtual lepers, whose very existence might engender, well, accountability.
Accountability also comes into play when a parishioner locks horns with his or her rector. Rather than recognizing that conflict often is the Holy Spirit’s way of knocking on our doors, clergy often will retaliate in these situations. Penalties may range from ostracism to being asked to find a new parish. In such cases, there may be little recourse, with diocesan officials reluctant to address such abuses of power, preferring instead to treat the parishioner as a troublemaker, or labeling the parishioner as a “chronic malcontent.”
Even in cases where there is no head-on collision between clergy and parishioner, many clergy will quietly work to undercut or sideline those lay leaders who are perceived as unwilling to rubber stamp decisions made by clergy.
Another powerful disincentive against bringing forward inconvenient truths is the parish/family system itself, which can exert tremendous social pressure to maintain the status quo. Parishioners typically respond badly to those who dare rock the boat. This is the case even when, for example, substantiated instances of sexual misconduct have occurred. In these cases, the judicatory often discovers that large portions of the parish blame the victim for what transpired. “Father _____ would never do that,” people respond, even when confronted with irrefutable evidence of misconduct.
Our ability to receive and process negative information appropriately is further hindered by the fact that the parish system has, built into its very structure, triangulation. Have a complaint about the rector? Many will respond by saying that the matter should be discussed with the parish wardens, versus the better response, which is to ask, “Have you discussed your concerns directly with the rector?”
Even in the case of formal mechanisms to address misconduct, misplaced concerns about pastoral care may prevent an appropriate response. I personally saw this play out in a parish in Pennsylvania, where parishioners were shocked to discover that they were the victims of an embezzler, who had been stealing from the church for years. Even more disconcerting was the discovery that the rector had known of the issue the entire time, but had ignored the matter, ostensibly because he did not wish to harm the culprit.
But the most telling recent case study of our ability as an organization to welcome those would tell an unpleasant story is that of Heather Cook.
While we will never know all the details, there have been social media posts that suggest that some in the diocese knew of Cook’s issues with substance abuse many years prior to her consecration. For example, one member of the diocese recounts being given a ride home from a church event by Cook, who at the time was a parish priest; Cook allegedly was highly intoxicated at the time.
While we cannot know if a complaint was filed about this incident, or if so, how it may have been handled or not handled, we can surmise that the passenger did not complain to the diocese. Doing so would have involved an awkward disciplinary process that likely would have resulted in Cook denying that the event ever occurred, then working to retaliate against the complainant. And the deference given to clergy likely would have resulted in many clergy, and diocesan officials as well, rallying to Cook’s defense, regardless of the truth of the underlying claims.
Similarly, with the “consecration train” having left the station, the mechanisms of the church pushed the event forward, despite the fact that the bishop diocesan apparently had alerted the presiding bishop to Cook’s problems. Even with members of the diocesan staff allegedly having seen Cook drunk at an event shortly before the consecration, it appears that no effort was made to put the consecration on hold. Regrettable indeed, but certainly understandable, for who would have wanted to be the person to initiate a Title IV complaint, just days before the event? And would the bishop have been willing to place Cook on administrative leave, or otherwise derail the event, particularly when it already was within his power as bishop diocesan to do so, even without a formal complaint? And even if a Title IV case had been initiated, the intake officer might well have decided that Cook’s alleged drunkenness at the pre-consecration dinner was a single instance of bad behavior, not actionable under Title IV. In short, there exists no mechanism in the church to have a difficult conversation of this sort, unless one wishes to jump in front of the proverbial train. And, with the wheels turning full-speed towards consecration, anyone who had the courage to speak up probably would have been turned into the train equivalent of a hood ornament. In short, speaking up would have been political suicide, and the “culprit” likely would have found life in the diocese unbearable.
Our follow-on response to the Cook tragedy is equally troubling. While the recent general convention resolutions about alcohol were appropriate and useful, there has been scant attention paid to the real issue, which is about whistleblowers in the church. Do we have a culture in which one can share one’s concerns openly, and without fear of retaliation? I think not. And even if one has the courage of one’s convictions, what mechanism exists for responding to a complaint of this sort? Unsuitability for ordination is likely not actionable under Title IV, so where does one go from there?
In theory, of course, the bishop diocesan has authority to address these issues. My experience, however, is that most are reluctant to wade too far into matters of this sort, even in cases of impairment or clear mental illness. In such cases, our hierarchy often regards the various options as equally unpalatable, and so it goes with the easiest approach, which is inertia. And in Cook’s case, a meeting with the bishop in the hours prior to the consecration was neither likely, nor would have resulted in any changes. Having tossed the hot potato to 815, it would have indeed been surprising had the bishop suddenly taken action on his own.
As those who have followed the Cook case know all too well, these situations often are exacerbated by the confidentiality of issues involving pastoral care. We are told, for example, that the Cook search committee knew that one of the candidates had a DUI in their past, but it appears that they did not know more than that. Had they known that this information pertained to Cook, committee members might well have asked to explore the issue more thoroughly. Thus, the inevitable tension between privacy and transparency resulted in a failure to disclose a vitally important piece of information.
Even had this information been shared, however, it is not clear that it would have been processed appropriately. Regrettably, our seminaries typically teach nothing about the basics of laws affecting the workplace, including fair labor standards, employee privacy, and anti-discrimination statutes. As a result, parish and diocesan staff often are at complete loss when it comes to these issues, and I have personally observed behaviors that would get one fired in record time were they to occur in the context of employment with a for-profit organization.
Compounding these challenges is the fact that many dioceses have no written framework to address governance issues. Other than their constitutions and canons, the Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs, and policies on sexual misconduct, dioceses often lack even rudimentary governance documents, including anti-discrimination, fair employment, and other basic HR policies. Thus, there is no starting point or framework for a discussion of the sort that would have been needed to head off the Heather Cook issue. And with no publicly available “rules of the road,” it would have taken a brave soul indeed to bring these issues to the light of day.
In conclusion, The Episcopal Church, taken as a whole, lacks the willingness to have meaningful discussions about misconduct or other inconvenient realities of modern life. Our governance structures, including the parish system, provide a powerful disincentive to avoid conflict, and tend toward a punitive response when someone rocks the boat by bringing up uncomfortable or unpopular concerns. Yet if we are to be a healthy church, we must learn to welcome, embrace, and respond appropriately to both unpopular stories, and to the people who tell them. It is only by doing so that we can truly learn from our past mistakes and bring light into the darkness.
Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor.