By G. Jeffrey MacDonald
Graphic accounts of sexual harassment in the Episcopal Church were center stage on the eve of General Convention July 4 as bishops presided at a liturgy focused on lamentation, confession, and healing.
Raw material came from 42 letters received in response to the bishops’ call for stories in the wake of the #MeToo movement that has exposed sexual harassment and abuse in industries from film to news media.
On Wednesday, more than 300 people heard stories of suffering at the hands of people in power — a rapist priest, an abusive rector, a cleric’s wife with a fondness for young boys — who were never held accountable.
In a dramatic twist, 12 victims’ stories were rendered anonymously through the mouths of bishops who took turns reading them. First up was Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde of the Diocese of Washington.
“I am a victim of clergy sexual abuse,” she read on behalf of a woman who said her abuser had become a bishop when she reported the abuse. Twenty-five years later, she’s still waiting for resolution.
“The Office of the Presiding Bishop has sought a legal model that called for the silence,” she said, “the silencing of the victor-survivor and avoiding any accountability or responsibility.” The church’s process of handling complaints internally is rife with conflicts of interest, the victim alleged, and needs to be handled by a third party rather than the Bishop for the Office of Pastoral Development.
The liturgy came as General Convention prepares to confront what has been a largely hidden history of sexual harassment and abuse in the church. More than 20 resolutions on the topic, drafted by the House of Deputies’ Special Committee on Sexual Harassment and Exploitation, are expected to begin reaching the House of Bishops this afternoon.
Wednesday’s event, called a Listening Session for Pastoral Response to #MeToo, was aimed at laying a groundwork for healing.
“People will commonly say, Bishops just don’t understand. Even though the bishops know these stories, they just don’t understand the impact,” said Bishop Dede Duncan-Probe of the Diocese of Central New York. “So a lot of what we heard is [victims] reflecting on how it has impacted them.”
Each bishop who spoke did so in front of a giant black, unadorned sacrificial altar. Two prominent white candles remained unlit during the entire service. At the time of each reading, two colleagues (bishops in most cases) flanked the reader, silently bearing witness. Silence punctuated each reading, followed by congregational responses of kyrie eleison (Lord, have mercy).
Many of the readings were unnerving. One came from a priest who recalled being treated as “less than human” by men who used words like those of Psalm 81:10: “Open your mouth wide, and I will fill it.” Another came from a man who had sung in an Anglican boy choir as a youth. He recalled spending weeks on the road, sometimes sleeping together on buses and being forbidden to call parents for weeks.
“Of the 100 or some boys I met in the choir, I do not know a single adult today who was not abused in some way — emotionally, physically, sexually,” one bishop read on the victim’s behalf. “I have stopped counting the suicides, the substance abuse, the broken marriages, poverty, failed careers, prison sentences.”
No perpetrators were named in the event. Protocol called for the identities of those submitting stories to be known only to the Rt. Rev. Todd Ousley, Bishop for the Office of Pastoral Development. Those deemed to warrant disciplinary investigation are being marked as such, according to an Episcopal Church news release.
Wednesday’s liturgy marked the first time bishops had ever taken part in a liturgy centered on honoring and bearing witness to experiences of victims’ of sexual harassment and abuse.
“That wasn’t my story, so I had to channel and go to a different place to read that,” said Suffragan Bishop Anne Hodges-Copple of the Diocese of North Carolina, after she read a victim’s account. “But what we were doing was stirring up all of our own stories.”
Staged in a cavernous Austin Convention Center auditorium, the atmosphere included spare touches of church, such as illuminated stained-glass panels. Music came from the Taizé community in France, which emphasizes simple verses, repeated again and again.
In a time of confession, bishops stood while all others remained seated.
“We lament,” the bishops said in unison, “and confess to you our arrogance in insisting that our claims to being right outweigh our willingness to build honest relationships in which we name how we contribute to the injustices within our dioceses and the larger church.”
Some in the audience said afterward that they could not tell whether the bishops were communicating their personal stories or reading others’ stories. The bulletin was accessible only to people who had brought tablets or smart phones, and it did not say explain the source of the readings.
“It took me halfway through to realize these weren’t your personal stories; you were reading other people’s stories,” said Sandy Skirving of the Diocese of East Carolina to her bishops as they left the Convention Center. “I had no idea.” Others said they were confused by the layout.
Bishops said future responses on sexual harassment will be considered carefully, but what is needed is not yet clear.
“It’s a process to get there,” said Bishop Sam Rodman of North Carolina. “I need to stay with what I feel in my gut. I need to pay attention to that gut-wrenching heartbreak and live with that for a while in prayer before I know what action will look like. But I do know that it means carrying the power that the church has given me in a different way.”