The Impairment Commission’s Intervention

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A recently released report suggests that if you are a hard-drinking alcoholic or prolific drug user with an aversion to accountability, the Episcopal Church might welcome you.

That depiction of a church lacking essential safeguards was a key theme from the Commission on Impairment and Leadership, which prepared the scathing, 29-page report. It deems the church riddled with “points of weakness and failure that hinder our ability to recognize and respond to impairment in church leaders.”

“We are recommending actions that promote a significant cultural shift in the Episcopal Church,” the report said. “These recommendations address the problem of impaired leaders, but they also diagnose and suggest treatment for an impaired system that maintains denial and helplessness toward addiction, mental illness, and physical disease.”

Structural flaws in church governance allow substance abuse to go unnoticed or unaddressed at every stage in an ordained person’s career, the report said. Impaired leaders are not held accountable, helped, or shown a restorative pathway back to healthy leadership.

“Denial is part of the syndrome of addiction itself, but it’s also part of the system,” the Very Rev. Martha Horne, the commission’s chairwoman, told TLC. “I think that’s part of what the church really needs to be thinking about.”

Decades of talking about the problem has not led to the types of culture and structure that support sober leadership. Resolutions passed at General Convention since 1979 reflect “ambivalence and indeed conflict inherent in the church’s general attitude toward this subject,” the report said.

“These resolutions do not reflect the urgency and necessity of a clear, informed, consistent, and church-wide response to impairment,” the report said. “Without built-in accountability, authority, strongly expressed values, and consequences for inaction, these kinds of resolutions have proven to be ineffective.”

The commission makes a series of recommendations, including:

  • Establish churchwide standards for screening ordination candidates and for election of bishops.
  • Create a searchable database that includes a candidate’s impairment-related records.
  • Provide access to experts who can help search committees and individuals respond to troubling signs and maintain confidentiality.
  • Adopt training requirements for clergy, including bishops, on issues of substance abuse.
  • Establish Title III canons for a non-disciplinary process that would encourage impaired leaders to seek help and provide a clear pathway to their reinstatement after treatment.

General Convention called for the commission in response to a 2014 accident in which Heather Cook, Bishop Suffragan of Maryland at the time, killed a 41-year-old bicyclist while driving drunk. In 2015, she pleaded guilty to vehicular manslaughter, drunken driving, driving while texting, and leaving the scene of an accident. She was denied parole last May, and is now serving the third year of a seven-year prison term with no chance for future parole. She was deposed from ministry in 2015.

Cook’s case raised questions about why she was consecrated bishop despite a number of warning signs, including a prior drunken-driving citation and concerns about her being inebriated at a dinner with church leaders before her consecration.

The Commission reviewed several case studies. Many unhealthy dynamics, including fear and confused understandings of what forgiveness and loyalty require, make interventions less likely.

“In all but one case we found a systemic disempowering of the individual and community to take responsibility and act,” the report said. “In almost every case we examined, the ecclesial structure and polity of our church proved to contribute negatively to the situation.”

The commission studied reforms by other institutions, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the professions of aviation, health care, and law. Commissioners saw a common thread: alternatives to professional disciplinary processes provide clear pathways for the impaired to be held accountable, find help, and return to leadership.

“Following an initial investigation for impairment issues, many professions now include an opportunity for probation and a pathway to return to full practice through the regulatory process for those who opt for and commit to a treatment program,” the report said. “The commission recommends that a similar process be considered for impaired clergy.”

Another theme: inadequate safeguards are creating high-risk situations. In psychological screening, dioceses rely on self-reporting that cannot be verified. In elections of bishops, dioceses frequently have no one qualified to assess impairment risks in a candidate’s background.

Some recommendations might be debated as soon as July at General Convention. The commission urges the church to “review current Title III and Title IV canons alongside governing or regulatory practices of other denominations and professions to identify canonical impediments to effective pastoral response to addiction and substance abuse.”

Yet for all the stated need for structural and policy responses, the commission underscored the importance of what cannot be legislated: “the greater cultural shift required in our church.” Such monumental shifts occur within the Episcopal Church, Dean Horne said. She cited the widespread adoption of Safe Church practices, which have mitigated sexual abuse risks at every level for more than 10 years.

“That’s a really, really good example of the sort of grassroots approach that has been very effective,” she said. “Congregations, dioceses, and organizations throughout the church have all had their awareness and understanding of the issues greatly deepened and expanded. At the same time, policies and procedures for response and accountability have been put into place. So we think that’s a good model for the way in which our church might well want to look at the issues around impairment.”

G. Jeffrey MacDonald


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