By Kirk Petersen
Not many people like talking about Title IV. With 21 separate resolutions on the subject scheduled for discussion at General Convention 2018, Austin-bound deputies will find themselves immersed in the challenging topic — but they will have some innovative guidance.
Title IV of the Canons of the Episcopal Church addresses Ecclesiastical Discipline. It is possible for a lay person to be born, baptized, married, and buried in the church without knowing anything about Title IV, which applies only to ordained bishops, priests, and deacons.
The rules and procedures for identifying and providing consequences for clergy misconduct are expressed in more than 40 densely worded pages of the canons. Title II, Worship, is slightly more than four pages.
Title IV is confusing, poorly organized, internally inconsistent, and riddled with clauses such as “acts which are alleged to violate Canon IV.3.1(a) or to constitute a breach of Canon IV.4.1(b), (c), (e) or (h)(2).”
Unsurprisingly, various dioceses interpret the canons differently.
“Many of the leaders of our church have interesting gaps in knowledge about what is or isn’t in Title IV,” said Polly Getz, longtime vice chancellor of the Diocese of San Diego, who led a task force that has spent three years addressing the problem.
“People across the church do not necessarily apply the processes and procedures and guidelines uniformly,” she said. “And that’s understandable, because as written, it’s very complicated.”
The centerpiece of the task force’s efforts is a website that will be launched at General Convention. “Understanding Title IV” (now in beta testing) is a flexible, sophisticated, interactive site designed to provide information about every step of the often lengthy process.
The website provides information from the perspective of each of the many people who may be involved, including the complainant, respondent (the accused person), intake officers, attorneys, chancellors, standing committees, advisers, investigators, members of three increasingly serious disciplinary panels, and the courts of review that consider appeals. Each explanation provides a link to the text of the relevant canons.
Under the canons, all of these parties are supposed to be provided with pastoral care throughout the Title IV process, which can last for months or years. The pastoral care often becomes lost in the emotional process. In publicized cases, the trauma can affect an entire diocese.
The highest-profile Title IV case in recent memory involved Bishop J. Jon Bruno, who in July 2017 was suspended from ordained ministry for three years for his actions beginning in mid-2015, after he tried to sell a Newport Beach church complex that had an active congregation. The sentence came after nearly two years of confidential negotiations that ultimately escalated into a public ecclesiastical trial in March 2017.
The case is not over yet, as Bruno has appealed the sentence. He retired as Bishop of Los Angeles at the end of November 2017.
Penalties Under Title IV
Title IV is designed to protect the confidentiality of the accused and accuser as long as possible. Public trials are highly unusual. The vast majority of Title IV cases are settled either by dismissal of the charges or by a cleric’s acceptance of a specific form of discipline. Acceptance can mean either a negotiated agreement or a decision not to appeal a confidential punishment.
The ultimate penalty under Title IV is called deposition — which adds to the confusion, because most people understand that word to mean simply testimony under oath. But in the Title IV context, deposition is the modern term for what used to be called defrocking, or permanent removal from ordained ministry. Title IV uses the word in both senses.
Heather Cook, former Suffragan Bishop of Maryland, agreed to a sentence of deposition in May 2015 in the face of a scheduled civil trial for a fatal car accident in which she was driving while intoxicated. A few months later, she pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
The hearing panel in the Bruno case explicitly declined to depose him for misrepresentation and conduct unbecoming a member of the clergy, specifying a suspension instead.
Title IV also provides for “release and removal” of a bishop, priest, or deacon “for causes which do not affect the person’s moral character.” The effect of release and removal is the same as deposition, except release and removal is much easier to reverse.
Hundreds of priests and several bishops were either deposed or removed and released in the wake of departures from the Episcopal Church that began a decade ago. In the late 1970s, a number of priests were deposed for their opposition to the ordination of women.
The confidentiality of the Title IV process is designed to protect both the accuser and accused, but it can also inhibit the church’s ability to provide pastoral care for others who may experience emotional trauma.
Getz and two other senior church leaders told TLC that when Presiding Bishop Michael Curry traveled to Los Angeles to install the Rt. Rev. John Taylor as Bruno’s successor, other clergy in the diocese were hungry for information and guidance about how to discuss years of conflict with their congregations.
The new website is intended to address this issue by providing information about not just the requirements of the canons but also about best practices related to Title IV procedures. The site includes more than 250 videos, mostly shorter than two minutes, of senior church leaders discussing specific aspects of the process.
Getz told Executive Council in April that the website will be finished under budget, which refers to the $300,000 allocated by the 2015 General Convention. At the same time, $200,000 was allocated for translating the training materials into Spanish and French Creole. Some Spanish-language videos have been recorded, but the translation work will begin in earnest after the English-language site is launched.
The task force also proposed 21 separate resolutions for consideration at General Convention, mostly to clarify ambiguities that have been introduced in multiple earlier rounds of revisions. The most recent major revision was in 2009, when an opening canon was added saying that all disciplinary matters should be conducted with an eye toward “promoting healing, repentance, forgiveness, restitution, justice, amendment of life, and reconciliation among all involved or affected.”
“The 2009 revisions to canons were specifically geared to move away from a criminal justice model, with Miranda rights, etc.,” said Diane Sammons, an attorney in the Diocese of Newark who led the Standing Commission on Constitution & Canons when the changes were made.
“It’s not supposed to just be punitive in nature. It’s supposed to be looking at these seven factors and weighing them.” She added that the revisions were modeled on the disciplinary codes of other professions such as lawyers, social workers, and doctors.
In 2018, Getz said “there will be people who take issue with some of the best practices we propose” in the new website.
Another potential friction point is the emphasis the website places of the duty of all clergy to report possible violations by other clergy. “Some of the clergy are very uncomfortable about that,” Getz said. But “if done correctly, if done within the spirit of Title IV, we absolutely believe there can be restoration, there can be reconciliation, there can be all of those things.”
Getz had high praise for Craig Wirth, director of communications for the Diocese of Utah, calling him the creative director of the site. Wirth led the reorientation of the project from a simple timeline to the context-based, interactive model. He also shot all of the photos and video clips, and provided voiceover for some videos.
In the absence of a bishop, the Standing Committee is the ecclesiastical authority of the diocese.