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Pastoral letter from Bishop Hirschfeld concerning Owen Labrie and St. Paul’s School

Pastoral letter from Bishop Hirschfeld concerning Owen Labrie and St. Paul’s School

The Rt. Rev. A. Robert Hirschfeld has posted a pastoral letter about the divisions and grief brought to light following the guilty verdict of Owen Labrie, a student who sexually assaulted another student at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.

He raises the issues of male privilege and misogyny, and clarifies that there is no legal relationship between St. Paul’s and The Episcopal Church, and finishes with a prayer to heal the divisions within us all.

The entire letter is available at his blog, Tending the Vine.


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Paul Woodrum

Being an educator and cleric are not mutually exclusive. Most of St. Paul’s Rectors have been clergy and Mr. Hirshfeld’s immediate predecessor was a bishop and sometime Dean of the GeneralTheological Seminary.

Jay Croft

Is Michael Hirschfeld ordained as a deacon or priest?

David Allen

Michael is an educator, not clergy.

From the St Paul’s School announcement he had been made the rector;
“Hirschfeld received an A.B. in history in 1990 from Princeton University…He later earned an M.A. in liberal studies in 1999 from Dartmouth College. He is a candidate, currently on leave, for an Ed.D. in educational leadership from the University of Pennsylvania.”

That was in 2010, so I would guess that he has received the doctoral degree by now.

Paul Woodrum

New Hampshire bishop Hirschfeld has answered the question probably most asked of him, “What are you going to do about the situation at St. Paul’s?” He makes it clear that, while the school is an Episcopal School and in the Diocese of New Hampshire, it is not of the diocese, and he has no authority or power over it, is not even a member of the Board of Directors either ex-officio or elected. Added to this, he may be reticent to meddle in his brother’s business as Rector of the school.

As Bishop, of course, he could use what has happened as a pretext to issue a Paul-like-letter-to-the-Corinthians, critiquing, questioning, and challenging from a Christian perspective the moral and social culture of St. Paul’s and other such institutions for the social elite. While many call for or expect such a statement, he may not feel equipped to pontificate on even prep school ethics when American sexual mores and purity codes are in their present state of flux enabled by social media.

Perhaps the Bishop is waiting for the sentencing of the St. Paul senior who has been acquitted of felony rape, but found guilty on four minor charges, in order to comment on the appropriateness of the punishment.

Whatever the Bishop’s reasoning, he should be commended, rather than condemned, for his present restraint unless it turns out to be collusion in a larger cover up.

Elizabeth Kaeton

I agree with you, Paul. He’s in an impossible situation. He is expected to say something in a situation over which he has no direct institutional authority. He does have spiritual authority and uses it skillfully. Well, at least in my view. He’s not the Pope. No, his letter won’t satisfy everyone. It can’t possibly. I’m just grateful he raised the issues he did. Many bishops would have side stepped that and presented us with a plate of spiritual pablum. This is not that.

Chuck Messer

I am appreciative of Bishop Hirschfeld’s pastoral letter. I give him kudos for envoking the name of God, using words such as “Christ,” “grace,” and very surpirisingly, “holiness.” He also gets points for citing the Epistle of James. I am glad to have further information that the connection to our denomination and SPS is “fluid.” So, does SPS and its Episcopal affiliation need to continue? Does it reflect the values we hold to and the mode of being our Lord confoms us to? Agreed that this letter does not say what I wish it would say, it is easy to play backseat bishop; however, I miss hearing Jesus when a bishop speaks. I wish I had heard about the pastoral care offered to both families. I wanted to hear from a bishop to say that in our Lord’s Kingdom the worth and dignity of human life is sacred.

Helen Kromm

Bishop Hirschfeld’s letter is wanting and inadequate on so many levels that it’s difficult to know where to begin in terms of a response.

I’m struck by the tone of the letter, which is one of denial, and seeks to create distance between this school and our church. In essence, he seems to be saying don’t blame me, don’t blame us, because we have nothing at all to do with this.

If anything at all, Bishop Hirschfeld comes to us as something of a detached observer. One who has no role at all in speaking to the relationship between TEC and this institution, and one who is powerless to have an effect on that relationship.

This is an amazing reversal. In the space of just one year, the Bishop has gone from enthusiastic and vocal support of this institution, to an observer and detached outsider.

In May of 2014, Bishop Hirschfeld attended and spoke at the spring convocation at Saint Paul’s. The entire address can be viewed here: Ironically, this address took place three days before Owen Labrie was charged with his crimes, and three days before a St Paul’s alumnus was convicted of assault on his girlfriend by inflicting second degree burns on her legs with a light bulb.

What stands out to me is the conclusion of this address:

“And that’s why, I suspect, God has chosen to plant such schools as this one, as ecclesiastically peculiar as it is, throughout the land, and why I believe they are sorely needed to be supported and their identity unabashedly upheld.”

Never mind the hearty and unqualified endorsement the Bishop renders here. I have one simple question, and that question is why? Why is this institution sorely deserving of our support, and what is it about their identity that needs to be unabashedly upheld?

Is there some greater good here that escapes me? Did Christ champion a culture of exclusion and elitism, and somehow I missed that in the scriptures? What, precisely is it in the identity of this school that needs to be upheld?

The Bishop, in his pastoral letter, states the following in response to this latest round of crimes and improprieties.

“I have been in contact with the heads of each of these schools about the Labrie case because I feel we need to redouble our efforts to ensure, as best we can, the health and safety of all in our care and to teach holiness in our relationships.”

Redouble our efforts? With respect, I have to ask, didn’t we redouble our efforts ten years ago? Ten years ago this school went through a tumultuous period. Ten years ago a student died in the school swimming pool due to inadequate security. Now a student is raped due to inadequate security and key control. Ten years ago the school was fraught with mismanagement, sexual hazing and improprieties. Were efforts not redoubled back then?

Let me be perfectly clear. It is my belief that this school maintains a culture of elitism that is cancerous. And that is the fundamental, underlying problem. This horrible culture of entitlement and elitism.

You can come forth with any number of vague, banal, inoffensive statements about “redoubling our efforts”, and nothing changes. The Labrie crime is one of many in a long list of symptoms.

Saint Paul’s school was founded in 1856, and from what I can tell, was founded as an Episcopal School. From day one, it was regarded as elite and exclusive. At the time of it’s founding, the Episcopal Church stood in lock step with slaveholders, and stood in lockstep with the practices of elitism and exclusion. Although the church was decidedly late arriving at the table of racial justice, it did finally arrive at that table, and works to achieve racial justice. But in the century and a half after the founding of this Episcopal School, clearly we haven’t arrived at the place where we are able to discuss and define what our role is in addressing elitism and exclusion.

Now would be a good time to start. Bishop Hirschfeld would be absolutely the right person, at the right time, to commence that discussion. Instead, we are offered soothing words, generalities, and a statement of detachment and distance that is as disappointing as it is empty.

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