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Title IV: The Maginot Line of Clergy Discipline?

Title IV: The Maginot Line of Clergy Discipline?


by Eric Bonetti


Remember the Maginot Line? History buffs may recall that it was a massive series of fortifications along the French border, put in place after WWI, intended to repel potential future German attacks.


Unfortunately, the Maginot line had several fatal flaws. First, it did not extend to the Low Countries, allowing German troops to bypass French defenses. Second, the Maginot Line’s weaponry only pointed towards Germany, meaning that military forces that attacked from the rear could easily overwhelm these massive but now defenseless fortifications.


And so it is with Title IV. At first glance, Title IV appears to be a tightly crafted piece of canon law that provides an effective framework to address clergy misconduct. In reality, however, there are several fatal flaws that can, in certain circumstances, render Title IV’s protections largely illusory.


To be sure, the 2011 changes to Title IV were largely positive. By providing for multiple levels of conversation and discernment, the current version of Title IV affords greater opportunity for healing, justice, restitution and reconciliation. This, I believe, is consistent with our call as Christians.


Moreover, the Standing Commission on Constitution and Canons (SCCC) appears well informed and responsive to the issues with the current Title IV. Prefacing its recent report with the accurate observation that a poorly handled Title IV case often cases irreparable harm to the reputation of all parties involved, the SCCC went on to note that there is a church-wide lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities in the Title IV process. This in turn causes delay, uncertainty, and unnecessary expense.


In response, the most recent General Convention funded the development of Title IV training materials, eventually to be translated into multiple languages. The status of this project is unclear to me, but with the next General Convention now roughly a year away, one hopes that these materials will soon be in widespread circulation.


Meanwhile, there are a number of serious challenges that remain unaddressed. These include:


  • Lack of clarity over what constitutes “conduct unbecoming.” Of course, that’s hardly surprising when dealing with a “catch-all” phrase such as this. But some dioceses basically treat “conduct unbecoming” as comprising only major illicit activities, such as rape, murder, and mayhem, while ignoring issues like workplace harassment, bullying, misuse of funds, abuse of office, and other serious matters. In dioceses where the “no blood, no foul” rule seemingly pertains, clergy misconduct is ignored that, were it to occur in most other employment settings, would result in immediate disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Thus, in these cases, clergy are held to an embarrassingly low standard of behavior—one that hasn’t been acceptable in much of the corporate world for decades.


Meanwhile, an adjudicatory who simply doesn’t wish to be bothered leaves complainants with little recourse other than filing a complaint against the bishop diocesan—hardly an appetizing option for most complainants.


Of particular note is that Title IV never defines or references bullying. While one would assume that clergy who bully fall within the purview of the “conduct unbecoming,” clause, my experience is that intake officers either don’t recognize bullying when they see it, or are unwilling to address it. This ignores the excellent work done by the Diocese of Newark, and specifically addressing these gaps in the upcoming revisions to Title IV would be useful.


  • Lack of clarity about what constitutes conduct that is “weighty and material” to the ministry of the church. Often, intake officers who don’t wish to deal with a complaint will cite the “weighty and material” clause of Title IV. But how do you define “weighty and material?” In my experience, intake officers typically don’t recognize spiritual, financial or emotional abuse as meeting this threshold. Yet any mental health professional will tell you that these forms of abuse can be every bit as damaging as physical abuse. Or, as one complainant told me, “My intake officer was stuck in a 1950’s definition of misconduct. If it didn’t involve rape or physical violence, it just didn’t count.”


  • Lack of a mechanism to address substantive or procedural errors during a Title IV proceeding. For example, if an intake officer interviews respondent clergy without the latter having access to an advisor, this is a violation of Title IV. Yet there is no meaningful mechanism to address issues such as this. Granted, the most recent revisions provide for a Title IV procedural officer, but with a poorly defined role and no real enforcement powers, this does not go nearly far enough. Similarly, if the reference or hearing panels violate the canons in their handling of a case, there often is no way to address the matter other than an appeal to the good graces of the bishop diocesan.


  • Lack of recourse in cases of improper dismissal. In cases in which an intake officer improperly dismisses a complaint, the president of the diocesan disciplinary board may overturn the dismissal. But since the reference panel comprises the intake officer, the bishop diocesan, and the president of the disciplinary board, a bishop diocesan may be all too easily swayed by an intake officer with whom she or he already has a close professional relationship. Since there is no right of appeal from a dismissal that is upheld at this level, an intake officer has an almost unchecked ability to impede a complaint if they so choose. True, a dismissal has no preemptive effect against a future complaint, but as long as the complainant must deal with the same intake officer and same adjudicatory, chances of a successful outcome are slim.


  • Lack of clarity over what constitutes a “pastoral response.” Title IV mandates a pastoral response whenever a complaint is made to an intake officer; that is the case even if the complaint is dismissed. But I have learned of numerous cases in which adjudicatories have used a pastoral response as an excuse to avoid dealing with serious clergy misconduct, including sexual relations with parishioners. Yes, there should always be pastoral care and concern for those affected by clergy misconduct, but when this provision is used to allow clergy to avoid accountability, a serious injustice is done. Additionally, I have heard anecdotes that suggest some adjudicatories define a pastoral response so loosely as to render it meaningless. For example, one bishop allegedly wrote to a sexual abuse survivor to say that he deeply regretted the situation and would pray for her and her family. Yes, I believe in the power of prayer, but not as a be-all-and-end-all solution for serious issues like sexual misconduct.


   In short, the pastoral response provision is too often the exception that swallows the rule.


  • Lack of recourse against respondents who engage in misconduct during the early phases of a Title IV proceeding. To its credit, the most recent General Convention amended Title IV to include the possibility of sanctions against parties who engage in misconduct. But this really only applies at the hearing panel stage of proceedings. Thus, clergy who, for example, lie during the intake process or during conciliation may well face no penalty for their actions. Yes, the church attorney can, if she or he chooses to do so, amend the complaint, but this appears to happen rarely. Thus, Title IV cases that don’t reach the hearing panel stage of proceedings may have few disincentives for respondent clergy to engage in misconduct that undercuts the Title IV process.


  • Lack of protection for complainants. As things stand, there is no specific protection against clergy respondents retaliating against complainants. For instance, in one case with which I am familiar, the respondent clergyperson retaliated for the filing of a Title IV complaint by organizing a multi-year campaign of shunning and harassment against the complainants, and did so using church resources. The diocese and intake officer received multiple complaints about this behavior, but ignored it. While the matter was eventually resolved, the relational, reputational, and other damage caused by the clergyperson’s retaliation is largely irreparable.


In fairness, the SCCC appears poised to recommend the addition of whistleblower protection to Title IV at the 2018 General Convention. In the meantime, though, Title IV complainants and witnesses participate in the process at their own risk—hardly conducive to the healing and reconciliation envisioned in the 2011 changes to Title IV. Yes, one would assume that retaliation, which is illegal in publicly traded companies would constitute conduct unbecoming under Title IV, but the uncertainty individual roles and responsibilities in this context makes this an uncertain proposition, at best.


Speaking of whistleblower protection, we have learned in cases of sexual misconduct of the importance of having one person who is ultimately responsible for follow-through. This prevents cases from falling through the cracks, or being dismissed out of hand. In most cases, the bishop diocesan is the person responsible for ensuring an appropriate response and follow-through. Yet the national church’s whistleblower hotline only covers church headquarters employees, and we have no single point of contact as a denomination to deal with misconduct. We therefore should give consideration to a churchwide ethics hotline that can be used at all levels to bring potential misconduct to light, as minors, third-party advocates and others otherwise may have difficulty knowing whom to contact in case of a problem. At the same time, there must be assurances that complaints will be listened to, treated with respect, addressed appropriately, and that retaliation will not be tolerated.


  • Lack of implementing regulations. In the case of most civil statutes, the details are implemented via administrative regulation. There is some precedent in church canon law for this, including the “Manual of Business Methods in Church Affairs,” and the sexual misconduct prevention manuals developed by most dioceses. Yet the lack of definitive policies on the day-to-day handling of Title IV matters leads to lack of clarity and some very poor outcomes. Even guidance such as recommending that intake officers meet face to face with a complainant whenever possible would be most helpful, yet there is too little effort in this space. Similarly, a formal certification process for Title IV officials, such as that often required for diocesan sexual misconduct prevention trainers, might be useful.


We also should do a better job of defining what is within the purview of Title IV. All too often, Title IV is postured as a means of addressing sexual misconduct, since references to Title IV are incorporated into diocesan sexual misconduct prevention materials. This creates the impression – often even among diocesan staff – that Title IV’s main purpose is to address sexual misconduct. As a result, adjudicatories often will jump all over claims that a clergyperson had an affair, all the while ignoring the clergyperson who engages in other, equally troubling behavior, including workplace harassment, bullying, emotional abuse or relational abuse. It is also worth noting that at least one diocese has no reference to Title IV at all on its website—hardly helpful for someone struggling to deal with clergy misconduct.


In conclusion, my belief is that the analogy to the Maginot Line is valuable. At first glance, Title IV appears to be a formidable defense against clergy misconduct, but the reality is that clergy and adjudicatories alike can, with great ease, sidestep Title IV when it so suits them. Thus, like the Maginot Line, Title IV all too often is illusory in the protections it offers.



Eric Bonetti is a former nonprofit professional with extensive change management experience. He now works as a realtor

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Paul Woodrum

Mr. Bonetti, thank you for your response..From it, I have an inkling you know more about “my case” than I ever did. I seek no retribution nor restitution, just the satisfaction of a Title IV that protects the rights of the accused as it seeks justice for the alleged victim. If the process begins with an assumption of guilt, that assumption will color the case from beginning to end and after. Any one accused should be informed of the name of the accuser and the specific allegation and nobody should be under a gag order as the process unfolds any more than one should be punished before guilt is established.

One of the things I learned from high school debate is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to prove a negative, yet under the present procedures, that is what is too often expected of the accused. I understand there has been some movement in this direction. I hope it will continue. I’m not seeking perfection, but am with you in hoping we can do better..

Paul Woodrum

There never was a case and certainly no evidence on either side of an alleged incident over 50 years earlier. There was no trial. I was never told who made the allegations, though I figured that out, nor even what they were. Yet, on the basis of what the intake officer said, I was suspended by bishops of three dioceses and lost a supply position in one of them. Further I was placed under a gag order. It was the only time my own bishop ever spoke to me and that was only to order me to come to a meeting with the Bishop of NWP and his chancellor — good cop, bad cop — and to say he would provide me with a chaplain if I wanted one. I was presumed guilty with no way to prove innocence and, I suspect, there are similar cases throughout the church.

After six months, with no explanation of anything,. the whole thing was dropped and I was restored to good standing. One bishop, not my own nor NWP’s, sent a gracious and apologetic letter. However, to this day I still sometimes wake up in the small hours wondering what the allegations were and why they were ever made.

My experience with Canon IV was the exact opposite of what I expected from our church. The presumption of guilt is at its very core. It can all to easily be used to victimize those why are not guilty rather than discerning those who are.

Eric Bonetti

Paul, I deeply apologize for what you have been through.

I encourage you to see if the relevant dioceses can do anything to make things right with you. My hope is that persons of good will shall do exactly that. While nothing will ever make things fully right, I have to believe that we can do better.

Paul Woodrum

Both Title IV and Mr. Bonnetti seem to proceed from a presumption of guilt on the part of the accused rather than the presumption of innocence. The central tenant of our justice system is that no one be falsely accused or punished until guilt is proven. Under the present system, allegations alone frequently lead to suspensions, dismissals, loss of income and sometimes housing where clergy are concerned as well as of reputation and Episcopal pastoral care.

That we tolerate such an approach certainly speaks volumes as to our attitudes toward clergy, sexuality, and alleged victims, all of which need serious review before Title IV is amended to do more damage than it does now.

Eric Bonetti

Hi Paul. I am somewhat familiar with your case, and met you many years ago in DioNWPA.

Since the church is, at the end of the day, nothing more than the sum of the people who comprise it, I want to deeply apologize for everything you have gone through.

A few further points:

– Bishops have always had wide latitude, including the right to issue a pastoral directive, even absent a complaint. My feeling is that when adjudicatories lose sight of the fact that they are dealing with real human beings, suffering occurs, regardless of Title IV. Or, if Title IV went away tomorrow, a situation such as yours could recur.

– Title IV assumes guilt only during the intake phase, and only for purposes of answering the question, “Would the matters complained of, if true, constitute a violation of the canons?”. At all other phases, innocence is presumed.

– On a practical note, have you ever requested compensation from the diocese? It is common in corporate settings to compensate employees for their defense costs when they successfully defend a legal action that potentially implicates the employer. While the church has considerably greater latitude, I would be prepared to bet that CPG would work out a settlement. Certainly, my understanding of your case indicates that this would be the fair and decent thing to do.

Ann Fontaine

Having been in on the formation of the first resolution for Title IV — it was the women of the church who came together to make anything happen at all. Daughters of the King, National Altar Guild, Women’s Caucus, and Episcopal Church Women dod a full court press on the bishops and at least we got the process started. Before Title IV – abuse was covered up – and perpetrators moved on to other churches to continue. We knew from the beginning it has issues — but many of those have to do with the unwillingness of bishops to just do their job and get trained help. The revisions have mainly been helpful but from experience being a victim’s advocate – the path is full roadblocks and pitfalls. It is “de-evangelization.” Once a bishop threatened to take my license or depose me if I did not stop advocating in one case. In the end we lost and the priest continues his inappropriate touching of women. The person who brought the case left Christianity. All she wanted was for him to get therapy and stop.

John Rabb

In general the comments are of great help. When the revisions leading to the current canonical changes that make up what is in Title IV there was too much attention towards “overhaul,” and less attention towards specific matters that having been addressed may well have kept in place most of the previous discipline called “Title IV.” I hope that the canonical revisions look more at matters such as those addressed and not a a major reworking.

As a retired bishop I am in involved in the work as I once was, but do have to say that with the previous canons that made the body of Title IV they did work. Doing disciplinary work is never easy and it is painfully long and hard if it is done right; however none of this should keep us from doing all we can to assure the safety of the people whose care is entrusted to us.

No amount of revision will ever replace the faithful, hard and demanding work asked of all leaders in the church.

John Rabb

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