By Matthew Townsend
The Rt. Rev. Stacy Sauls, the Episcopal Church’s former chief operating officer who was placed on administrative leave in December 2015 and lost his job, has filed a lawsuit alleging a conspiracy by senior leadership of the Episcopal Church.
Sauls was COO beginning in 2011. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, only weeks into his tenure, ordered an investigation into multiple complaints about the work environment at the church center.
Bishop Curry placed Sauls and his two chief assistants — Sam McDonald, deputy chief operating officer and director of mission, and Alex Baumgarten, director of public engagement and mission communications — on administrative leave.
When the investigation concluded, Bishop Curry dismissed Baumgarten and McDonald. He said the investigation found that Sauls “did not violate workplace policy, was unaware of the policy violations of the two staff members reporting to him, and operated within the scope of his office,” but that Sauls would not return to his duties.
In a 25-page complaint filed in the circuit court of Mobile County, Alabama, Sauls’s attorneys outline allegations that a “wrongful conspiracy via a calculated, determined, and prolonged series of attacks” against Sauls by people inside and outside of church employment resulted in his termination and has made it impossible for him to find work in the Episcopal Church. Specifically, the complaint asserts that:
- Starting in 2014, Sauls was the subject of repeated attempts to oust him from the role of chief operating officer through several investigations, all of which exonerated him.
- Sauls was accused by the Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, of dismissing a subordinate improperly and violating whistleblowing policy. He was exonerated through an independent investigation.
- Jennings “and her allies soon launched another putative whistleblowing investigation” against Sauls regarding management of church funds in the Diocese of Haiti with the support of the Rev. Canon Michael Barlowe, “an ally of President Jennings.” Barlowe is secretary of the House of Deputies and executive officer of General Convention. Investigations “found that there was no evidence whatsoever of any misconduct on the part of Bishop Sauls.”
- In another investigation regarding funds in Haiti, the Rt. Rev. F. Clayton Matthews, bishop in the Office for Pastoral Development, found Sauls free of wrongdoing. The complaint says Matthews found “an egregious misapplication of the Church’s Whistleblowing Policy to Bishop Sauls.”
- Defendants conspired to elevate the role of the President of the House of Deputies “as co-equal with the office of Presiding Bishop,” and Sauls was attacked by these conspirators.
- At the 78th General Convention, defendants attempted to use legislation to enable Executive Council to fire the chief operating officer, the chief financial officer, and chief legal officer by two-thirds vote. The measure failed to pass the House of Deputies.
- After the departure of Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori, Jennings attacked Sauls’s policy requiring Episcopal Church Center staff to notify him of any communication with members of Executive Council or the President of the House of Deputies.
- On Dec. 9, 2015, Sauls was placed on leave with Baumgarten and McDonald pending an investigation of “grim and serious” charges including “racism, sexism, retaliation, sexual harassment, and creation of a hostile workplace.” The complaint indicates that Sauls was never informed of the charges’ details.
- Statements widely published about the leave and subsequent investigation were highly damaging to the bishop’s reputation and his ability to find work, despite assurances from David Beers, chancellor to the presiding bishop, that the statements would be neutral and distributed to a limited group of people. The complaint claims damaging mismanagement of public announcements about the case.
- Despite being exonerated in this investigation, Sauls was dismissed by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. The complaint says Curry told Sauls “things are too broken” and “there were people who wanted your head.”
The complaint outlines several jobs that Sauls has been unable to secure since leaving the Church Center, ranging from rector of a prominent church to school chaplain to interim rector of a parish of 30.
Google searches of the bishop’s name yield results about misconduct and have thus associated him with accusations, rumors, and innuendo, the document says. It adds that an article by Episcopal News Service about a human resources audit by the independent firm Human Synergistics suggested that Sauls was fired because of his management practices and omitted reference to his being exonerated.
Ultimately, the complaint says, the handling of the investigation has left Sauls unemployable and slandered, causing him physical, emotional, and financial stress.
Defendants are not currently named, but certificates of service have been sent to the Episcopal Church at 815 Second Avenue, New York, and to the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast.
The complaint, filed by Mississippi-based attorney T. Roe Frazer II of Frazer Law LLC, demands a trial by jury, damages, attorneys’ fees, all expenses related to the 2015-16 investigation, back wages, and other relief deemed just by the court or jury.
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President Jennings disclosed the suit in a Feb. 8 letter to Episcopal Church Center staff. They informed members of Executive Council about the lawsuit and released their letter through the Office of Public Affairs.
Curry, “in consultation with legal counsel, tried his best to negotiate a severance with Bishop Sauls,” the letter to staff members said. “We believe he made a good faith and compassionate offer, but that offer was not accepted.”
The letter added: “As officers of the church, we are not going to comment directly on pending litigation that involves the church. We have complete confidence in one another and in the staff, officers, and leaders of the Episcopal Church. We are united in our desire to resolve this suit as quickly and compassionately as possible, and we are committed to working together to create a church culture that follows the loving, liberating, and life-giving way of Jesus.”
Neva Rae Fox, the church’s public affairs officer, declined to comment on pending litigation.